Saturday, January 4, 2014

Interview with Professor Haym Soloveitchik by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Five Towns Jewish Times     This week the 5TJT is printing Rabbi Yair Hoffman’s interview with Dr. Haym Soloveitchik a professor at Yeshiva University and the leading contemporary historian of Halachah.  Dr. Soloveitchik has just published the first volume of his collected writings.  Dr. Soloveitchik’s father, Rav Yosha Ber Soloveitchik zt”l (1903-1993) was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University for 52 years from 1941 until his death.  Rav Soloveitchik zt”l was the grandson of the legendary Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l who revolutionized the Yeshiva world over a century ago with his innovative Brisker methodology.   Dr. Soloveitchik yblc”t was a professor at Hebrew University, where he received his M.A. and PhD, and has taught at Yeshiva University for the last quarter of a century. He was the dean of Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School.  Rabbi Yair Hoffman sat down with Dr. Soloveitchik in his Bronx home to discuss his latest work in an exclusive interview. 
YH: Thank you for agreeing to meet regarding your new book, “Collected Essays , Volume I.  To begin, your great-grandfather revolutionized the Yeshiva system of learning, much in the same way that you write the Baalei HaTosfos revolutionized Gemorah study in the middle ages of Europe.  Did your great-grandfather’s Brisker legacy inspire or inform at all your analysis of the impact of the Baalei Tosfos on Gemorah study?

DS:  No.  My interest in the Ba’lei HaTosafos stems from their centrality in the understanding of the Gemara.

YH: In your book you attribute the emergence of the dialectical system of Talmud study that the Baalei Tosfos are known for – to Rabbeinu Tam.  Could you perhaps give some insight as to how it emerged within him?  Was it merely the next step, the organic – next step after Rashi’s linear approach to Talmudic study was completed – or were there other influences? 

DS: There is nothing inevitable with the emergence of any method, though, one could reasonably argue that you can only begin a systematic comparison of parallel sugyot noting the discrepancies between them if you are confident that you have understood each sugya fully –and Rashi’s commentary gave people that confidence. However, such a confidence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of the Baalei HaTosafos. Rashi’s commentary arrived in Yemen in the mid-12th century, yet no Tosafos movement emerged there.

YH: How would you characterize the approach of the Baalei ha-Tosafos in contrast to, say, the Geonim?

HS. They worked on different assumptions. They were aware of contradictions between sugyas and occasionally attempted to resolve them. However, in instances of conflict, the Geonim generally privileged, what was called ‘the sugya de-shemattsa.’ There was a major, controlling sugya where the issue is discussed in the fullest manner, and the halakhah is in accord with the upshot of this sugya. Other minor sugyas, if they contradicted the major one, were not to be heeded

The assumption of Rabbeinu Tam, on the other hand, was that there were no minor sugyot; all parallel sugyos were of equal standing and form together a harmonious whole. The correct interpretation of any sugya was the one which best fits in, best harmonizes with all the parallel ones. [...]


  1. So if Rabeinu Tam departed from the Geonim who believed in following the main sugya and developed a new derech of learning giving equal attention to less important sugyos, this meant a new approach to learning not passed down from tradition. How could the Torah's truth suddenly change direction?

  2. Given this, is it not quite obvious that the Geonim used the correct approach given that the systematic study of talmud originated under their instruction and they received understanding of the "texts" from those before them (ie earlier sources and individuals cited from the later periods of the gemara). How could anyone think that a whole generation of Torah scholars just neglected to understand the text? It seems very clear to me that Rabenu Tam's approach was an innovation. I'm not saying there is something terrible about innovation, but let's acknowledge it for what it is. Right?


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