Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Blessed Memory taught the following syllogism:
Therefore the purpose of man is imitatio dei, l’hidamot lo k’mah she’efshar – to imitate G-d’s ways.
· The Torah introduces G-d to humanity as the borei, the Creator.
Therefore the purpose of humanity is to be creative.
· But Jews were specifically instructed to center their lives around Torah!
Therefore the ultimate Jewish purpose is creativity within Torah, chiddushei Torah.
Ironically, this argument of the Rav is often used, exactly so, as someone else’s speech. I think myself more in accord with its spirit in offering a perhaps creative extension of the Rav’s thought.
For those who spend much of their time laboring in the intellectual fields of Torah and who are privileged to experience the joy of chiddush, of Torah creativity, the Rav’s focus is obviously attractive. But it seems by implication to cut the majority of the Jewish population off from the central Jewish religious act – not that many of us are capable, whether for reasons of economy, temperament, or ability, of making genuinely original contributions to the study of Torah. And I submit, pace Maimonides, that Jewish philosophy ought not to so privilege the intellectual elite.
Let me therefore offer the following extension of the argument.
· Most values are universal. People generally agree, for instance, that courage and generosity are good, cowardice and miserliness bad.
Therefore the uniqueness of Torah – and any other moral system – lies largely in the relative weight it assigns universal values, in the way it instructs us to choose when those values compete or conflict.
Therefore the content of a chiddush Torah is its rebalancing of values.
· R. Chananyah ben Akashya famously teaches that G-d gave us many commandments in order to increase our merit. Maimonides explains that this means that each of us can focus on the commandment or commandments that most resonate with our souls. In other words, every soul among us legitimately balances the values of Torah differently.
Therefore each of us, if we live a life genuinely devoted to Torah, simultaneously offers a creative interpretation of Torah, albeit not one consciously bound to a specific textual rereading.
To sum up: The Torah can be interpreted both through study and through practice. There is a Torah of thought, and a Torah of life.
But creativity must be treated with caution as well as celebrated. If we create within Torah, that means that we change Torah, and some of our changes may be for the worse. Creativity carries with it the probability of error. I remember R. Zevulun Charlop. Dean of RIETS, telling me that m’chadshim, creative scholars, should be evaluated like baseball batters – getting it right once in three tries is excellent for the less adventurous, and once in four sufficient for those with real power. How does our system control the impact of these errors?
I submit that one method is by coordinating the Torah of Thought with the Torah of Life. Academic study with no real-world accountability leads to an impractical and/or unfeeling Torah; life with no textual accountability leads to an incoherent and/or self-indulgent Torah. Only when they go hand in hand – when the creative energy of one is checked and balanced by the inertia of the other, and vice versa – does Torah develop properly.
In other words – the Torah of Thought and the Torah of Life meet in the realm of p’sak halakhah, where intellectual Torah must be translated into practical rulings. A community’s healthy relationship with p’sak – and its production of robust p’sak – are signs that it is effectively coordinating its Torahs. Anemic and mistrusted p’sak, of course, are danger signs.
I submit that Modern Orthodoxy has neither robust p’sak nor a healthy relationship with p’sak, and that the cause of this is that the Torah of Life and the Torah of Thought – both in the admirable process of creativity – have grown apart from one another.
More concretely – the academy and the community do not trust one another’s religious and moral intuitions, and therefore each feels itself unaccountable to the other. This must change, and it can, and here’s how.
We need to produce talmidei chakhamim - poskim – leaders - who share the positive moral vision of the Modern Orthodox community, including
· commitment to the full religious development of women,
· to the ultimate significance of every human being as a tzelem Elokim,
· to the religious significance of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisroel,
· to unintimidated intellectual openness, and
· to profound cultural responsibility.
These poskim will test their halakhic rulings against that vision - but they must also be unafraid to subject the practices of the Modern Orthodox community to strict Torah scrutiny. My belief is that the community will respond positively to that scrutiny if it feels a kinship of values with its leaders, but not before.
The Summer Beit Midrash was founded to produce those leaders.
How do we produce such leaders? How can we create leaders simultaneously and authentically rooted both in the texts of our tradition and in the values of our community? The Summer Beit Midrash makes every effort to ensure that academic study is never divorced from its real-life and ethical implications. Every idea offered during our study of traditional texts is tested and retested against our moral intuitions and our philosophic premises as well as our intellectual capacities.
One practical reflection of this approach is our commitment to the nearly lost art of writing teshuvot, or halakhic responsa. For example, when we studied the laws of conversion this past summer, each fellow wrote a responsum about a technically difficult case involving a “patrilineal Jew” born and raised with a strong non-Orthodox Jewish identity. Each responsum addressed not only the technical halakhic issues involved but also the question of the Orthodox community’s moral obligation to such individuals, as well as the impact that moral obligation has and/or should have on the determination of halakhah. The group discussion following the presentation of the responsa also addressed the impact that issuing certain rulings might have on a halakhic decisor’s standing in the community, because leaders must be aware of – and be willing to bear – the personal consequences of their decisions.
Another example – three years ago we studied the law of the katlanit, the woman who has been married twice and may be halakhically forbidden to marry again. The Talmud debates whether this rule is based on medical fears or on astrology; the halakhah clearly follows the position which says it is based on astrology. We questioned whether it was legitimate for us to cause even one human being to suffer because of a law based on astrology, a system that, following Maimonides, we rejected.
But the issue grew more complicated. R. Ezekiel Landau, late eighteenth century rabbi of Prague, offers an astrological rationale that exempts virtually all contemporary women from this rule. We asked: is it legitimate for those who do not believe in astrology to base a legal leniency on an astrological rationale?
Maimonides himself, it turned out, adopted in the matter of katlanit a posture that is to my knowledge unique in the annals of halakhah. He writes that his practice – and, he claims, the practice of his teachers for several generations – is “maamidin lahem p’nei mit’alem b’galui”, to “openly look away” from those who marry anyway, to tell them in advance that we would happily write ketubot for them were they to marry. We asked: Is Maimonides’ practice in this case an unrepeatable exception, or a strategy from which we should learn?
Future leaders who have taken these questions with great seriousness, who bring the beliefs and values of our community to their study of Torah, will likely answer them differently than leaders for whom these issues are uninteresting. And their answers will be respected and trusted by our community.
I hope this talk has contributed to our effort to bring the Torah of Study and the Torah of Life together. I hope you will be inspired to join our effort in any way you can.