The Brisker Derekh and the Complexity of Torah

I have benefitted greatly in life from R. Shalom Carmy’s teaching, writing, and friendship.  Recently, I returned to an old article of his, was struck by its outstanding quality, and would like to highlight several important points. R. Carmy’s obscure titles sometimes scare off potential readers and it would be a shame if that occurred with this excellent essay. Polyphonic Diversity and Military Music addresses the relationship between Brisker conceptual analysis and the learning of Tanakh, the study of Jewish Thought and literary concerns.  My summary of the salient ideas follows.

We should not confuse the phenomena of a word meaning two things with the Brisker concept of ”two dinim”. The mere fact that “ear” refers to both a body part and a vegetable says nothing about the complexity of existence whereas the multiple meanings and layers of kavanah (intent) do. Thus, the Brisker approach points to the intricacies of reality.

This conceptual complexity plays out in other realms of Torah as well. R. Mordechai Breuer’s famous “two behinot” approach to Tanakh, where the Torah relates to the same event or halakha twice from varying perspectives reflects this mode of thinking.  R. Soloveitchik and Robert Alter (Alter is my addition to R. Carmy’s example of the Rav) explain the two creation stories as manifesting two different modes of interaction between God and humanity.

The same applies to Jewish Thought, particularly regarding those ideas relating to religious inwardness.  R. Hutner develops the idea that there is a generic prayer of each day and a separate category for the prayer of repentance.  To add my own example, R. Hutner explains two aspects of prophetic books: their original mode of oral discourse and their subsequent enshrining in written form.  From the latter perspective, nevi’im and ketuvim are identical but in reference to the former, the prophets bear a special sanctity lacking in ketuvim.

Multiple aspects apply to ritual experiences as well. For the observant Jew, Yeshayahu 57/58 is both a prophecy within a larger series of prophecies of consolation as well as the haftara we read on Yom Kippur morning. The latter provides fresh contours to the prophetic content and we can indeed speak of “two dinim” of this biblical chapter, one experienced in the study hall all year and the other in the synagogue on the tenth of Tishrei.

What happens when scholars attempt more direct application of halakhic concepts to other areas of the mansion of Torah?  We can identify negative examples in which Esau and Jacob engage in a debate between the Minhat Hinukh and the Sha’agat Aryeh. Such interpretation misses the moral and psychological depth of biblical narrative and makes every class a gemara shiur. However, superior models exist as well. The Griz notes that clothing requirements for the amidah are more demanding than for Shema since only the former involves standing before God. This explains why Adam and Eve feel the need to clothe themselves before confronting the Divine. The idea is not that Adam and Eve studied massekhet Berakhot but that the concept in question reflects a timeless aspect of religious experience.

We now move to the final three sections of the essay and return to the title as well. Polyphonic diversity clearly refers to the multifaceted nature of existence while military music conveys a much more practical orientation that often prefers simplicity to complexity. R. Carmy suggests that we not only have a theoretical/practical divide but a distinction between quantitative and qualitative approaches to religious life. The latter is interested in forging a vibrant relationship with Torah and will not view changing one’s interpretation of a given passage as a weakness but as a robust strength. Along similar lines, not every ethical dilemma has a definitive answer.

The final section raises important educational considerations. The laypeople of Riverdale and Teaneck require intellectual depth to be attracted to Torah. However, we should not think that only the best and the brightest make an authentic contribution. Even more mediocre students have their moments in which they make a comment of great significance. My almost three decades in the teaching profession confirm the latter assertion. R. Carmy also warns about how a desperate search for novelty can lead to indifference about what the words actually say or to a cult of personality around the clever teacher which displaces the subject matter.

I have saved for last a beautifully expressed and profound paragraph.

One obstacle to realizing the role of creativity in learning is the confusion between creativity and originality. Being original entails saying something that nobody has said before. Originality is essential when patenting an invention; it must be exhibited, or feigned, for academic advancement; and it is, of course, useful in attracting attention to oneself. Creativity, by contrast, reflects the inner experience of the individual overcoming a challenge. Creativity is not diminished when one achieves, “by strength and submission,” what has already been discovered, “by men whom one cannot hope to emulate.” To contend with a sugya or a passage of Ta n a k h and forge in the smithy of one’s consciousness the same understanding that animated Ramban or Seforno or R. Shimon Shkop, is a triumph of human creativity.

First, we should note the allusions to Joyce and Eliot.  In the well – known closing passage of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephan Dedalus vows to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”  The words R. Carmy places in quotation marks come from Eliot’s “East Coker” in Four Quartets:

And what there is to conquer/ By strength and submission, has already been discovered/ Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope/ To emulate, but there is no competition/ There is only the fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again: and now under conditions/ That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss/ For us there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.

More important than the literary references is the deep distinction between creativity and originality. Some students express frustration in their almost futile desire to make a suggestion never said before. Given the amount of intelligent minds that have applied themselves to these texts and ideas over centuries, the odds of doing so are quite slim. On the other hand, the creative gesture remains a daily possibility. Someone who works hard and arrives at the same conclusion as Seforno or even just comes to appreciate the insight of a Ramban and make it his or her own engages in profound creativity.

The summary above does not do full justice to the original and I strongly recommend giving it a read. One closing thought. R. Carmy’s writing is not always the easiest and I probably could not have efficiently summarized it without multiple readings. At the same time, the results more than paid off. In a world of the cheap and quick thrills of TikTok and Instagram, we should not forget the deeper benefits and pleasures of the sustained effort and attention demanded by more scholarly writing and reading. I believe people will still be reading this essay long after no one recalls what Tik Tik or Facebook were.

For the Alter example, see The Art of Biblical Narrative, chapter 7. The piece from Rav Hutner I added is from Pahad Yizhak Shavuot, ma’amar 2.

I would like to add one postscript and demurral of my own. The complexity of Brisker analysis does not always spill over into other areas of Torah and life. Some highly accomplished lamdanim maintain a very simplistic Jewish worldview. R. Carmy describes a more integrated and idealistic portrait which we, thankfully, do find among the best of the Briskers.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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