Adam S. Ferziger

At Israel Prize, tradition meets science

Awards for two Talmud scholars with approaches that once seemed irreconcilable and today co-exist comfortably

Awarding the Israel Prize this year to Aharon Lichtenstein and Shamma Friedman presents a tantalizing opportunity to draw in conversation two approaches to Talmudic study often seen as irreconcilable. Both American immigrants are rabbis who have dedicated their intellectual lives to deciphering the centerpiece of Jewish learning — Lichtenstein the Orthodox yeshiva traditionalist and Friedman, a pioneer of the scientific method from the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Their appearance on the same Jerusalem Theater stage could point to the coming of age of a less contentious, more collaborative approach enabled by the softer boundaries of 21st century Israeli society.

Lichtenstein is the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the scion of Lithuanian rabbinical royalty who was the principal religious figure in New York’s Yeshiva University (YU) for over forty years, and the central authority of American Modern Orthodoxy. Like his mentor who earned a Ph. D. in Philosophy in Berlin, Lichtenstein complemented his own vast Torah erudition with a Harvard Ph. D. in English Literature. No doubt their secular learning informed their ideological outlooks, but neither integrated scientific, critical tools into their teaching of the Talmud. Rather, like their Haredi counterparts, they focused their energies on deciphering the standard printed edition — completed in Vilna during the 1880s — and medieval commentaries, especially modeling and expanding upon the conceptual frameworks set forth by Soloveitchik’s incisive grandfather, “Reb Hayyim Brisker” of Brest-Litovsk.

As co-head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut since arriving with his family in 1971, Lichtenstein, 80, has imparted his own version of Lithuanian-style analytical study to thousands of students, some of whom are today among the most visible rabbinical figures in the Religious-Zionist camp. More recently, eight volumes of his novellae have also appeared, stretching the reach of his intellectual force and further securing his legacy in the pantheon of traditional Talmudists. Throughout, he has made clear that introduction of historical and philological tools that enable the reader to contextualize or distinguish multiple layers of sources – thus explaining many seeming textual inconsistencies — is foreign to the yeshiva and counter to its goals of cultivating God-fearing and tradition-bound graduates. All the same, and consistent with its “open-minded” reputation, numerous alumni of Har Etzion, popularly known as the “Gush,” have subsequently gone on to make their marks in the academic fields of Talmud and Jewish law.

In contrast to Lichtenstein, Friedman, 76, is a pure product of the critical scientific school. The Philadelphia native grew up in the Conservative movement and attended its camps where he was first exposed to JTS faculty. Upon completion of his B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania, Friedman moved to the New York institution, where he received both rabbinical ordination and a Ph.D. Eventually, he became a protégé of the late Professor Saul Lieberman, himself a graduate of Lithuanian yeshivas, who subsequently adopted the critical method and was widely regarded as the greatest scientific Talmud scholar of the 20th century.

After teaching on the New York faculty, Friedman arrived in Israel with his family in 1973 where he headed the Jerusalem branch of JTS, which later evolved into the independent Schechter Institute. On a personal level, he educated his children within State religious-Zionist oriented institutions and conducted his home according to Orthodox requirements. In due course, he set up institutes dedicated to publishing the most scientifically accurate versions of the Babylonian Talmud as well as to producing a running commentary that integrates traditional exegesis with modern scholarship. He also created a computer archive that makes digitized versions of all written manuscripts of the Talmud available on-line. Through these initiatives, along with teaching in JTS and in Bar-Ilan University, Friedman is at the vanguard of Talmudic scholarship and research in Israel, and has made the Talmud accessible to wider audiences. He hopes his manuscript-based version of the Talmud will gain universal legitimacy as the most accurate rendition of the central work of the rabbinic canon.

As far back as the mid-19th Century, individuals associated with yeshivas — both more modernist and Haredi — have utilized scientific methodology to varying degrees. Some allow the more important volumes and databases produced by researchers like Friedman to be included in their library collections or even to be accessible in the study hall. That said, on an institutional level — especially among those frameworks fashioned after Eastern European establishments — a sharp line has long been drawn between the respective approaches of Lichtenstein and Friedman. The majority of students who attend YU, for example, devote their mornings and early afternoons to intensive Lithuanian-style Talmudic learning, before attending secular university classes in the late afternoons and evenings. The few who are formally exposed to critical technique — and that to the chagrin of most of the rabbis — do so in graduate school classes that are completely separate from the “yeshiva.”

In Bar-Ilan, as well, those who enroll in the “Institute for Advanced Torah Studies” devote their mornings to the Lithuanian-approach in study halls that are physically separated from the Faculty of Jewish Studies. At the Gush yeshiva, the official full-day study program is focused exclusively on the approach promoted by Lichtenstein and his fellow rabbis. On the other hand, the school also sponsors the Herzog Teacher’s College, where the “Oral Torah” department includes scientifically trained scholars. Gush students may attend these classes in the evenings, but the treatment of rabbinical sources by their lecturers are defined as essentially secular efforts that are devoid of the spiritual encounter and connection to the chain of “mesorah” – handed-down tradition – that characterizes “yeshiva” learning.

The growing role of Herzog College within the Gush orbit may ultimately facilitate a less bifurcated plane regarding Talmud study. In the meantime, other frameworks – some of them led by prominent Gush alumni – are seeking to create more integrated styles and learning environments that cultivate both religious passion and personal identification with traditional sources, together with full utilization of tools developed in the academy. In varying manners, this is the case in two of the most popular institutions among religious-Zionist youth, the Otniel Yeshivah and the Ma’ale Gilboa Yeshivah. To be sure, this is by no means the dominant trend, but it is a burgeoning one which has attracted some of the best minds of this sector.

We may one day look back at the joint public appearance of Lichtenstein and Friedman at the Israel Prize ceremony as a symbolic milestone in the interface of the traditional rabbinic approach to Talmud with the most current academic methodologies. The fact that this is taking place on Independence Day shows the fresh possibilities engendered by today’s holistic Israeli culture. We live in a complex and dynamic society in which the interchange between ancient and the contemporary is both constant and unencumbered by set rules, where city streets are named after kabbalists, secular female parliamentarians teach Talmud from the Knesset floor, and Haredi kollel veterans are trained to operate sensitive military intelligence electronics systems. In this context, the prospect of reinvigorating Talmud study without detaching it from its holy origins is dazzling.

About the Author
Adam S. Ferziger is professor in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, where he holds the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair, and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, University of Oxford. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies.
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