Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Torah Horizons

I sometimes find myself reading a recent book on practical halakhah and am struck by the author's limitations in his sources. For example, he might quote only Israeli Charedi scholars and, on rare occasions, an American Charedi like R. Moshe Feinstein or R. Aharon Kotler. Other times, the book quotes extensively from American Charedim like R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Ya'akov Kamenetsky, and select Israeli Charedim like R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and the Chazon Ish. The reason for this is obvious. People tend to quote scholars from within their orbit. Chassidim tend to quote Chassidim; Americans tend to quote Americans; Charedim tend to quote Charedim. In the few Religious Zionist books that I read (due to my lack of exposure, not lack of books), I see the same trend; they quote their own and an occasional "breakthrough" rabbi. This is unfortunate on a sociological level but also on an halakhic level. Artificial barriers are preventing students from accessing quality Torah. How often does one see R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's, R. Hershel Schachter's, or R. Shlomo Aviner's halakhic rulings in a book on practical halakhah? (The example I am using is halakhah but it applies across the board in Torah topics.)

I was recently thinking about books that are exceptions to the above rule, and I could not come up with too many. However, the three that stuck out in my mind were all written by people with something in common: R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations; R. Chaim Jachter, Gray Matter volume 2; R. Baruch Simon, Imrei Barukh (yes, two of the three were published by Yashar Books). These three authors quote from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, well out of their own orbits. Part of their genius is their knowledge of relevant essays in a vast array of books and Torah journals.

The next thing I started to wonder is why they are different. Is it because "everyone to my right is kosher and to my left is treif"? Since they are all from Yeshiva University, they obviously feel comfortable quoting others from that orbit and those from anywhere to their right. There probably is some truth to this but I noticed that they do, on occasion, quote from scholars to their left (I won't bother naming names). Additionally, Religious Zionist rabbis are not necessarily to their right and the authors mentioned probably are not always comfortable with the theological positions of some of the scholars they quote.

I suspect that it is more the atmosphere in (some parts of) Yeshiva University, spurred in particular by R. Hershel Schachter but also by many others, to utilizing a wide spectrum of sources regardless of political/ideological issues (within the Orthodox world, at least). The spectacular Gottesman Library is a vast resource that is a frequent stop for the yeshiva's students (and its excellent librarians are so knowledgable that they are always helpful). I was recently speaking with a YU rosh yeshivah about a difficult halakhic issue and he directed me to a Bar Ilan dissertation!

This uniqueness makes these books important on two levels. Not only are they relevant in covering their chosen topics creatively and thoroughly, they additionally offer access to scholars and Torah venues that we would otherwise not tap into and might not even be aware of. They are, to some degree, unifying factors in the Orthodox world. They broaden one's horizon to different approaches to Torah and they open vistas of Jewish thought.

If you do not yet own these three books, I highly recommend acquiring them and broadening your horizon (note my financial interest in making that recommendation, though).

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