Sunday, February 10, 2008

Anti-Philosophical Briskers

When one thinks of the Brisker tradition, one generally thinks of an intellectual tradition that is brilliant and incisive. But there are positions within the Brisker family that surprisingly lead to the closing off of certain areas of Jewish thought that other traditions take quite seriously. What follow are three statements that do this in a similar fashion.

Click here to read more1. R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the great-grandfather of Boston's and YU's R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik) explains that commandments were not given based on their corresponding historical events, e.g. eating matzah on the night of the 15th of Nissan based on the Exodus. Rather matzah is a "chok" (unexplained commandment) and God arranged history to play out so as to correspond to the commandment. While history can give us hints about the commandment's true meaning, it is never its true source. (Beis Ha-Levi Al Ha-Torah, Bo sv. de-kevar p. 9d/18) I can't find it now but I seem to recall the Beis Ha-Levi using this to explain why Lot was eating matzah on Pesach (Rashi, Gen. 19:3) even though there was no historical reason to do so. The commandment of matzah is the reason that history followed the course to necessitate it.

2. In a similar vein, there are some commandments whose reasons seem to be to maintain the world, such as the prohibitions of murder and theft and the obligation to give charity. However, R. Chaim Soloveitchik (the son of the Beis Ha-Levi) is quoted as having said that this is not the reason for these commandments. God theoretically could have created a world in which charity was destructive and murder productive. However, God looked to the Torah and created a world that corresponds to the commandments. The reasons offered by various sages for the commandments are not true reasons because human intellect cannot fathom those reasons. Rather they are personal meanings -- human benefits -- that we can subjectively find in the commandments. (Haggadah Shel Pesach Mi-Beis Levi, sv. she-anu och'lim pp. 182-183)

3. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quotes his grandfather, R. Chaim, as rejecting all attempts to explain why God created the world (e.g. because it is the nature of the good to do good) and asserting that it was simply God's will to do so. Those types of explanations imply that there is a lacking in God, which is impossible. Therefore, the only possible explanation is that it was His will and there is nothing further to investigate. (Halakhic Man, pp. 52-53)

These approaches greatly minimize the effort of the vast philosophical and ta'amei ha-mitzvos literature, that search for reasons for the world and the commandments. One can only find benefits of the commandments and not reasons for them (cf. R. Hershel Schachter, Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav, pp. 68-69). They also seem to argue against a concept of "natural law" that is proposed by many medieval authorities and championed by the Mussar proponents. However, an argument could be made that there is an artificial natural law that God intentionally implanted into the world.

One could argue that these approaches, while tending more to the mystical than the Maimonidean, are predicated on the very Maimonidean assumption of the limitations of the human intellect. Certainly the Rambam was a proponent of such a view (cf. Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, pp. 35-38), with some even arguing that he believed that people could not acquire any true knowledge of metaphysics (cf. Josef Stern, "Maimonides' Epistemology" in Kenneth Seeskin ed., The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides, pp. 115-127).

With the Briskers adopting this pseudo-Maimonidean stance, it is understandable why they generally do not seem to value philosophy* and why R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who certainly valued philosophy, adopted an existential approach that largely ignored metaphysics (it is certainly fortuitous that he studied philosophy in a time and place where that was acceptable and even encouraged). Ironically, these princes of the intellect are of the view that we can't understand God's actions so let us instead focus on matters that we can comprehend -- Talmud.

* It is said that R. Chaim Soloveitchik was an expert in the Rambam's Moreh Nevukhim. Perhaps one can say more accurately that Briskers eschew metaphysics rather than all philosophy. In fact, it seems to me that if Briskers were aware of the field, they would embrace analytical philosophy. See, for an excellent example, Jed Lewinsohn's recent article "Philosophy in Halakhah: The Case of Intentional Action" in The Torah U-Madda Journal vol. 14 2006-2007.

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