Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Reflections on Who is a Maskil

This past Sunday, while most of the country was watching some obscure sporting event, I visited the SOY Seforim Sale (again) and picked up an exciting new book -- R. Hershel Schachter's latest sefer, Ginas Egoz. This is his fifth book, following two collections of R. Soloveitchik's material (Nefesh Ha-Rav and Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav), a collection of his theoretical essays (Eretz Ha-Tzvi) and a collection of his halakhic essays (Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon). Of course, none of the books can be neatly categorized, but I did my best. And I am excluding the volumes of his unedited notes from R. Soloveitchik's lectures.

The latest book, Ginas Egoz, is a collection of many of R. Schachter's earlier articles. What is so delightful about the book is that I was previously unaware of almost every article! It's like discovering a goldmine of material. With the other books, I had seen and/or heard most of the material. Additionally, I've discovered in this book something that I sort of already knew but had just not registered it in my thick head.

The term "maskil" has different meaning to different people, particularly from those with varying backgrounds. In some circles, it is considered an insult, essentially calling someone a heretic. When I use the term, I do not automatically mean someone who is a heretic. To me, a maskil can be perfectly Orthodox or entirely not. A maskil is someone who has sustained interest in issues of what is generally (and often improperly) considered non-traditional aspects of Torah scholarship. For example, Hebrew grammar or Jewish history. Additionally, the development and categorization of different aspects of the Oral Torah. Among the early maskilim, there were both Orthodox and not-so-Orthodox scholars who investigated the history and development of the Oral Torah, classifying different aspects and phenomena.

There are certainly Orthodox scholars who have a passing interest in such matters. You can find a few comments by R. Yizchak Ze'ev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, on this subject and even from his father, R. Chaim Soloveitchik. But there wasn't a sustained interest, so I wouldn't call either of them a maskil. The Netziv, however, spent a good deal of time on such issues throughout his writings and particularly in the introduction to his commentary on the She'eiltos. I would call him a maskil (again, with the term's connotations as I use it, and not as some others do). The Maharatz Chajes was a maskil. As ludicrous as this may sound, R. Elchanan Wasserman might possibly be called a maskil because of his Kuntres Divrei Sofrim. The Chida was a maskil.

I believe that R. Hershel Schachter has joined their ranks on this issue. His latest book contains many essays and discussions about the history and development of the Oral Torah -- when can a biblical law be abrogated (pp. 159-160), innovation of laws through exegesis (pp. 6-7), what types of commandments can have ab initio and post facto categories (pp. 9-13), the effectiveness of a rabbi's halakhic ruling (pp. 129-132) and more. This is not to say that the vast majority of the book isn't regular Torah scholarship, with R. Schachter's unique approach of Brisker analysis combined with a vast bibliographical knowledge. However, the hints of what I call maskilish interests, shared with the Netziv and others, that can be seen in past books are much more evident in this book.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More