How Our Tradition Works: Outside World Ideas are Necessary for our Understanding of Halacha

About a week ago, Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik sent in a comment that crystalizes the debate over whether She’asani Yisrael – Who created me an Israelite! –  is the right blessing for men and women to say in the morning or the three negative blessings, Not a Goy, Not a Slave, Not a Woman/by God’s will.  Basically, the argument is that genuine halacha, Orthodoxy or Torah true Judaism should not be influenced by the outside world: by philosophic trends, cultural currents, ideas of the society around us. Thus, Soloveichik argues that first we need to come up with the halacha – which blessing to say, in this case – and then we work on how it interrelates with the world around us.

However, the great Netziv of the 19th century, the great great (not sure of how many greats) grandfather of Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik himself, and of the Rav zt”l, Rav Ahron, zt”l, and so many other talmidei chachamim, and talmidot chachamim, declares openly in many difference places that from the very start, the tradition of halacha had to use external wisdoms, “chochmot chitzoniyot”, in order to carve out new, innovative understandings of the law which God gave Moses at Sinai.  In fact, in  Haamek Davar on the portion of Tetzaveh (see also in Haamek Davar on Beha’alotcha, and also in the Emek HaNetziv on his introduction to this work on Midrash Sifrei) the Netziv says that Moshe Rabeinu was the first innovator, who was the teacher for all the innovators who would come after him.  The Torah of Aharon, the Torah of tradition, is not enough: For the Jewish people to truly get closer to understanding God’s Torah, and how to practice it, we need the Torah of innovation (koach hachidush), which is derived from the seven types of wisdom – from the outside world – which are represented by the Menorah, the candelabra in the Temple.  The Netziv understood that the only way for us to begin to fathom the infinitely complex Torah that God gave us was by be open to the trends, wisdom and ideas that are present in the world around us, and look at our tradition in their light – the light of the seven branched Menorah, where the six branches shine on the middle branch which is Torah itself.

The genius of our traditional system, which I would currently call Orthodox Judaism, is that it is able to take the light from the outside world, and follow a standard system of halachik analysis, which creates a dialectic between our tradition and all the new elements outside of our tradition, and is able to remain loyal to halacha and mesoret (tradition) which integrating the best and the true elements from the outside world.  We need to have confidence in our halachic system that when feminism, egalitarianism, freedom, democracy, liberalism, and any other philosophic trend is shined on it, it will respond in a proper way to reveal new, but true, insights into God’s Torah.  Sometimes halachic practice and customs will change because of the influence of these outside wisdoms, but this change is not a change in Torah, it is just our discovering exactly what God meant, and our rabbis meant, so long ago, at Sinai, and respectively, in the great academies of the Talmudic era.  The Netziv tells us that the only way we have to understand Torah is by using these branches of the Menorah, the ideas and wisdom that the world around us offers.

Of course the Netziv tells us that when innovation is introduced it brings about arguments and quarrels – pilpul – and anyone who comes up with an innovation – like saying She’asani Yisrael instead of the three negative b’rachot – has to allow his or her innovations to be subject to arguments against them.  That is the way the system is meant to work.  However, the Netziv says that if an innovation can withstand those arguments – and only if it can stand up to them – it eventually  will become Halacha l’Moshe Misinai.  Wow!  That’s how we discover what was said at Sinai:  by seeing what influence Carol Gilligan (Tova Hartman) or Ibn Rushd (Rambam) or neo-conservative (another famous Soloveichik) thinking has on our tradition – which gmarras and Rishonim does it push us to understanding in a different way that perhaps anyone else did up until now – and perhaps, if these new interpretations withstand the scrutiny of the Torah world over a period of time, then we will get a further glimpse of Torah Misinai.  Not new, but rediscovering a 3500 year old Torah revelation.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

5 Responses to How Our Tradition Works: Outside World Ideas are Necessary for our Understanding of Halacha

  1. […] Asher Lopatin posted two essays supporting R. Kanefsky (I, II). In the first, he adduced minority texts and theological concepts supporting changing the blessing […]

  2. Daniel says:

    Maybe not b’inyan, but I thought that of all ibn Rushd’s works, the Rambam saw only some of the commentaries on Aristotle late in his life and declared his approval — that’s influence?

  3. And we can go back even earlier to some of our most classic texts and commentaries regarding the value and need of external wisdom.

    My perspective on this topic, as a Modern Orthodox woman (now called Open Orthodox and brought up as Halachic Conservative with a YU rabbi in our shul– I know it is a bit comical — I stand in one place and they change what they call me!)was when in the 1960’s in USY we were taught how the Bracha “Sheasani Ben Horin/SHeLo Asani Eved” was taken out of the daily prayer in the Shaharit service due to the experience of many of the Rabbinic leaders at the time that there were too many people who were not in fact FREE PEOPLE in our own lives and we needed to acknowledge that! These Rabbis were very aware of and involved in the Civil Rights movement and the general tone of the time, marching on behalf of the notion that all who enslave and are enslaved ARE NOT FREE! Within the context of the present dialogue, it is also worthwhile to note that these Rabbis (many, if not mostly all who were brought up in good Orthodox Yeshivas, by the way)already were aware of the present discussion and had moved from She Lo Asani to SheAsani as presently indicated as instructed by the Netziv and others.

    Whether one agrees or not, the notion that Prayer/Tefillah is our conversation with G-d, our community and ourselves is a powerful one. I always remember and teach the notion that P.L.L., the root of LE’HITPALEL means to judge and hold accountable…. are we REALLY doing and observing what we are dovenning and does our dovenning and its text reflect and enable itself to be held accountable to the reality and context of our lives? We are not static, nor is the meaning of the words we use, and even the words themselves may need some elasticity. Our Hazal understood that, why can’t our community today?

  4. yitzchak says:

    Dear Rabbi Lopatin.
    Thank you for honoring me by responding in such a formal fashion. To write an article just based on a very short comment I posted shows me great and undeserved deference. Though I feel that you have mischaracterized what I have said. This, I am sure, is because of some lack of clarity in my writing (an unacceptable indiscretion for a Soloveichik).
    You make the following statement about my opinion:
    Basically, the argument is that genuine halacha, Orthodoxy or Torah true Judaism should not be influenced by the outside world: by philosophic trends, cultural currents, ideas of the society around us. Thus, Soloveichik argues that first we need to come up with the halacha – which blessing to say, in this case – and then we work on how it interrelates with the world around us.
    This is a poor clarification of my position for a number of reasons; allow me to address just a few of them:
    1. You desire to boil the totality of my views on halacha to a statement I did not make. what I did in fact say was “The most important lesson I think I have ever learned from my grandfather’s Halachik positions is that it was first and foremost what is the true Halacha and then how is it applied to the situation at hand.” There is no inference in this statement to suggest “genuine halacha, Orthodoxy or Torah true Judaism should not be influenced by the outside world: by philosophic trends, cultural currents, ideas of the society around us” Indeed any attempt to paskan Halacha must take into account the seeming infinite influences of the world, our personalities, the societies we live in, in short Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s Hascacha Pratis that synthasizes all this to create the reality that molds who we are, how we think, and thus how we approach halacha. Not just as laypeople, but Poskim as well. Indeed all this forms what is the true psak Halacha. Nevertheless, I believe, as do my forefathers, whom you quote to discredit a position you apply to me which I do not actually adopt, that psak must begin by first understanding the axiomatic principles of the Torah, gzearah shave, kal vichomer, tzad hashaveh shebahem and so on. This is what I am certain Rav Chiams’ often quoted “parallel world of Halacha” is referring to (Kudos by the way for not Channeling the GRa”Ch as a refutation for your misunderstanding of my position).
    It is only when those basic formulations of halachic principles are upheld and firmly established can we then begin to try to come to the appropriate solution. Those next steps require, really demand, that one look at the all the great external forces at work to ascertain what the unique psak of that unique moment is. Not to first decide what you desire the outcome to be simply because liberal (or conservative, but mostly liberal) social ideas and philosophy hold greater sway over you (not you personally of course) then great moral and ethical truths of the Torah, and as an afterthought try to find shaky halachik reasoning to support your world view. I would add that the former position requires a much greater understanding of the world and a superior sensitivity to human emotion psychology and vitality then the latter dogmatic narrow-minded approach the Morethodox (I assume it is not a pejorative) rabbis take.
    2. The central point of my comment was not a halachik critique, as I made clear in the opening sentences of my comment. (those certainly not my world view of Morethodoxy, which is far more complex than one sentence). Rather it was a critique on the apparent lack of Halachik sincerity you and your compatriots take in this and other matters. The willingness to change your view of whole lessons learned from the Torah, to besmirch the those great generations of Jews whose sacrifices are the sole reason for our peoples continued existence, is I believe the central theme of my criticism.
    3. My last point is about your initial assertion that “ Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik sent in a comment that crystalizes the debate over whether She’asani Yisrael – Who created me an Israelite! – is the right blessing for men and women to say in the morning or the three negative blessings, Not a Goy, Not a Slave, Not a Woman/by God’s will.” This is an attempt to cast the whole argument as based on a position which you falsely attribute to me and once you brush aside the straw man you built you imply that that is the totality of your opposition. Rabbi Lopatin you can be wrong for a whole host of reasons beyond what we debate. Beyond my critique is the critique of a great many scholars who find your position repugnant for a whole host of reasons, some better then others (scholars and reasons).
    P.S. Here’s a freebie for you. I believe I have heard from family members that the Rov said Shasani Yisrael.
    P.P.S. Bye the way I’m in Chicago now taking the boards so you might actually get to Israel before me.
    As Alway,
    Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik

  5. A Thinking Talmid who cares about the Jewish People says:

    Would Rabbi Lopitan be able to provide us with the citations for the Netziv?

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