Thursday, July 28, 2016

Torah Under Wraps: Charedi scholars who are unafraid to deal with subjects deemed taboo in the yeshiva world

“One needs to strengthen oneself with faith; one should not entertain philosophical questions nor even glance at the books of philosophers,” said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav already at the end of the eighteenth century. This motto is particularly popular today, in the post-modern era of “religious strengthening,” in which religiosity is perceived as synonymous with simplicity and unsophistication. Yet that very approach also runs counter to the Jewish mind, which is by its nature anything but naive. The legacy of Jewish erudition constitutes part of the DNA not only of the academy, but of even the most Haredi sectors of the yeshiva world, and it finds expression in the spirited Jewish Studies scholarship flourishing under the radar in circles that are presumed to recoil from it.

Israelis distant from the world of Jewish Studies were offered a glimpse of it in the amusing film “Footnote,” but it portrayed only the nerve center of the field’s academic milieu, when in reality a great deal more is out there. In the reading rooms of the National Library, and in many houses in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, many scholars sit and study the same topics as academics but without academic degree, without traveling to conferences, without aspirations toward an academic appointment. The history of medieval and modern rabbinic authorities, the stories of their compositions, the manuscripts and their provenances, variant customs, disputes both ancient and alive—all of these preoccupy a non-negligible group of yeshiva graduates, Haredi in dress and behavior, who publish articles in “non-academic” journals of Torah scholarship and produce corrected editions of sacred texts, some of which can even be considered quasi-critical editions.

They number Hasidim and Mitnaggedim, the truly God-fearing and those trapped in the Haredi lifestyle who cut corners, those lacking any academic title and others who have earned one—sharp and knowledgeable one and all, still faithful to, and actively participating in, the intra-Haredi discourse. Some of them evidence a dual non-conformism in their lives: on the one hand, they have opted to put distance between themselves and the safe space of the yeshiva, pasturing in the treacherous fields of scholarship; on the other hand, they are Haredim who hail from circles thoroughly suspicious of academia and would not dream of lending credence to its guiding assumptions. Nearly every remarkable personality in the field originates in the circles of Ashkenazi religious zealots, yet the scholarly discussion—which takes place not only on journal pages but in the lively Internet forums of Be-Hadrei Haredim and Otzar HaHochma—is not private, and sometimes a handful of others participate. Rabbi Yoel Catane of Yeshivat Sha‘alvim, editor of the journal HaMa’yan, is one of those others, as his home is in the Religious Zionist world, and his publication represents the enlightened German Zionist Orthodoxy of bygone years. The late Eitam Henkin also was one of them—a Torah scholar and brilliantly wide-ranging scholar who took prominent part in the back and forth of these torani scholars.[...]

“It’s ‘spontaneous academia,’” says Rabbi J., who would prefer to avoid equating it with academia. “It develops independently, without institutional bodies to dictate rules and regulations. It is anarchic, autodidactic, and exhilarating. It is a breathtaking demonstration of unfettered intellectual ability.”

Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Library at the National Library of Israel, has occasionally bumped into scholars from the very heart of the Haredi world. “They are not the typical kollel fellow because the scholarly approach is not that of yeshiva students,” he says. He continues:

“Look, when I began working here I met a senior rosh yeshiva from a respected hesder yeshiva, and I told him about those who come from the yeshiva world to do research here. He was at a loss. “What sort of thing do they research?” he asked me, and I responded in turn with the example of Hemdat Yamim.[2] “Why would they research Hemdat Yamim,” the Torah scholar asked me, “when they can buy it in any seforim store?” That is the mainstream approach. Those who embark on scholarship are atypical.”

They may be exceptional and individualist, but one unmistakable quality binds them all together: they are autodidacts. This is evident in how they handle material in a foreign language. Some of these scholars have never studied English or German systematically yet refer to non-Hebrew sources in their articles. Each apparently bridged the gap in his own way.[...]

Anyone interested in this phenomenon is invited to open, for example, a volume of Yerushaseinu, an annual tome published by the Institute for German Jewish Heritage (Machon Moreshet Ashkenaz). Some of the articles published therein would be perfectly suitable for any standard academic journal; among the numerous footnotes adorning the pages one finds references to scholarly literature in Hebrew and other languages. Other publications include Yeshurun, Moriah (published by Machon Yerushalayim, which for decades already has been involved in the professional editing of medieval and modern rabbinic literature), the Chabad journal Heikhal Ha-Besht, and others. Torani scholars fondly remember the journal Tzfunot, which met its demise over a decade ago, and in the meantime they publish in Torah supplements to Haredi newspapers, primarily in Kulmos of the newspaper Mishpacha. Likewise, the new scholarly journal Chitzei Gibborim - Pleitas Soferim, published in Lakewood, NJ, is at the moment taking its first steps.

Prominent names in the field include Mordechai Honig, a Hasid from Monsey who is extremely knowledgeable in medieval rabbinic literature; Yaakov Yisrael Stahl, a scholar of Franco-German Jewry forced to lower his profile in connection with academia; Moshe Dovid Chechik, a historian who until recently co-edited Yerushaseinu and currently co-edits Chitzei Gibborim; Yehudah Zeivald, a Boyaner Hasid who is quite busy with philosophy and Hasidism; Yitzchak Rosenblum, who had to move from Kiryat Sefer to Bet Shemesh on account of the library he opened, and currently teaches at the Haredi yeshiva high school Nehora; Yaakov Laufer, a scholar who focuses on linguistics and on the conceptual mode of Torah study; Betzalel Deblitsky, a prodigious zealot from Bnei Brak who runs the forum associated with Otzar HaHochma (the monumental digitization project of the Jewish library); Nachum Grunwald of Lakewood, NJ, a Chabadnik who grew up a Satmar-Pupa Hasid and serves as editor of Heikhal Ha-Besht; Aharon Gabbai, a rising star from Bnei Brak who graduated from a Lithuanian yeshiva, of course; Yechiel Goldhaber, slightly older than the rest, a historian and bibliographer whose scholarship is famous, and for whom the National Library is a second home; and Avraham Shmuel Taflinsky, who has toiled for the past few years in uncovering the sources of the aforementioned Hemdat Yamim.

Once we are mentioning the denizens of the National Library, mention must be made of the all-important tool in their scholarly work—the Internet. The global web of knowledge enables Haredi men from conservative yeshivas, whose library holdings are what you would expect, to come in contact with Jewish Studies scholarship and its historical-critical mindset. Most Haredi scholars have a home Internet connection, but not all. Zvi Leshem relates that some come to the library not to peruse ancient manuscripts or converse with the university’s scholars who use it as their place of study, but simply to work at a place that provides Internet access.

“In the digital age, Jewish Studies scholarship has successfully managed to wiggle its way, however constrainedly, into Haredi and yeshiva circles via databases such as Otzar HaHochma,” Mordechai Honig relates. “Until recently, it was the books. The birth of a Haredi scholar was generally triggered by incidental exposure to academic scholarship that invitingly charmed him. For me, it was Ephraim Urbach’s The Tosaphists, which I purchased at age fifteen.”[...]

Along with Internet databases and online journals, forums also have an important place in the discourse of these scholars. After many long years in which the forum Soferim u-Sefarim on the site Be-Hadrei Haredim served as the water cooler for torani scholars, the baton was passed to the forums of Otzar HaHochma. A lengthy, fascinating thread recently began there, for example, whose purpose is to generate a list of “dissenting opinions [made by lone rabbinic scholars],” that is, halakhic positions taken by well-known decisors over the generations when their colleagues were of a different mind. The thread reveals the foundational analytic-halakhic erudition of the discussants, expert not only in bibliography and history but also in a wide range of positions expressed by medieval and modern rabbinic authorities on scores of issues.[...]

The administrator of the Otzar HaHochma forums is, as was said above, Betzalel Deblitsky (under the username “Ish Sefer”). What had been permissible on Be-Hadrei Haredim the fearless zealot Deblitsky bans, censoring discussions and silencing voices he deems unworthy of being heard. But even those who miss the great openness that marked the forum of yore understand that the change is permanent—discussions of relevance within the scholarly community take place principally on the new forum.

Zeal, parenthetically, is a relative matter: the strict filter Netiv, which runs according to the guidance of a confidential rabbinic board, blocks the Otzar HaHochma forum on account of its content being deemed subversive and problematic. To take but one example, the forum has an intense, politically-charged discussion surrounding one of the veteran decisors of the Edah Haredit in Jerusalem—R. Yitzhak Isaac Kahana. A broadside that circulated in Jerusalem against R. Kahana’s book Orhot Tohorah and his lenient rulings on questions regarding menstruation inflamed not only the physical Haredi street but the virtual one as well, engendering scathing posts on the forum in support of each side. A symptom of one of the forum’s pathologies is partially manifest in this case: the deletion of threads by the moderator, who perceived them as deviating from the Haredi party line. Over three pages of posts inexplicably disappeared from the site, only to return the next day, redacted. [...]


  1. Rabbi Dr. Nosson Slifkin deserves to be mentioned here. The name of his blog says it all - Rationalist Judaism.

  2. No. He is not on that level of scholarship.
    Also, knowledge of history and a broad perspective is good and healthy.

    Doubting the very fundamentals of truth or wanting to put "rational" "academic" twists and spins is a different story. A differentiation has to be made between going beyond the narrowness of "yeshivish" dogmatism on the one hand, and going beyond the 'boundaries' of truth.

  3. Please cite where you think he unequivocally goes over the boundaries of truth

  4. The assertion that it is irrational to believe that H"kbh created the world 5776 years ago is not true. This is a very long topic obviously but that in a nut shell.


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