An Interview with Rabbi Yehuda Brandes of Beit Morasha

Last month, I reviewed and summarized the new book by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, head of the beit midrash at Beit Morasha, called Human Rights: The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation. יהודה ברנדס, יהדות וזכויות אדם

This month we feature an interview. Rabbi Brandes is noted for his treating aggadah as normative and as part of the holistic study of the Talmud. Now, he turns to the problem of integrating human rights and halakhah. Brandes claims the decision making process behind the pesak is always values based, aggadah and mahshavah based. Judaism is about values, and deciding between values. Hence both poles in the tension are part of the law – universal and particular, feminist and non-feminist, democratic and anti-democratic. Yes, humanism, human rights, feminism are in the halakhic texts as well as their opposites. This is the principle of Elu veElu. Halakhah itself is a value (and aggadah) driven enterprise.

1) What was your innovation of your books Aggadah leMaasah and Mada Toratekhah?
The book illustrates that aggadah has a substantive role in the shaping of halakhah. Agadah is not merely a lull in halakhic discourse, nor is it merely a supplement of ideological and moral aspects. Rather, beyond all that the ancillary roles, aggadah? in two primary capacities. First, it helps our understanding of the ideas underlying the halakha, thus framing the course of the halakhic discussion. Second, it creates the tiny details of Talmudic thinking and halakhah , which the language of halakha is not refined enough to address. In English, you call this fine-tuning.

In my work on tractate Ketuvot, “Mada Toratekhah” I worked with typical halakhic sugyot with the goal of revealing, through close study, their ideological and philosophical underpinnings. There’s no fundamental difference between Aggadah le-Maaseh and Mada Toratekhah in terms of the goal of connecting halakha and aggadah. However, in Aggadah le-Maaseh I chose specific sugyot that incorporate classic aggadic texts within the larger halakhic discourse. In my study on Ketuvot, I showed my method on halakhic sugyot. (I have written on other tractates that have not yet published, though some are available on the Beit Morashah website and that of R. Adin Steinsaltz).

2) What is the role of academic works in Torah ? What is the role of non-orthodox thinkers like Buber in our Torah study? How should we be using academic Talmud ?
Maimonides established the principle: “Hear (i.e. accept) truth from whoever speaks it.” (Introduction, Commentary on Avot). In recent generations, many new tools have been developed for understanding and interpreting the Torah. Some have external, foreign, and even anti-Semitic sources. Nevertheless, the contribution of disciplines such as philology, history, literature, and philosophy to Torah study cannot be underestimated, and we must never relinquish these tools that have been made available to us. We can understand the opposition of our coreligionists to any sort of external scholarship; they are afraid of its negative aspects. Yet we must accept the responsibility of separating the wheat from the chaff, so that all Torah scholars can have access to these innovative methodologies and the possibilities they offer us.

The academic study of Talmud is not different than other academic fields in its important contributions to the study of Torah. The utilization of academic Talmud is widespread and becoming more accepted in Torah circles. Its contribution starts with the use of manuscripts and modern critical editions of texts, as well as turning our attention to the historical context of the formation of halakhah and its commentary. A philological analysis is faithful to the approach of classical sources. In addition, one should distinguish between substantive research and theoretically based research that may reflect other worldviews, rendering it less valuable.

3) How does pesak reflect belief and is not just objective? Why is deciding a halakha (hachra’ah) not just deciding between written statements?
Anyone who is closely familiar with halakhic literature and personalities, especially with our greatest poskim, knows that they are not technicians who just tally up the sources available to them. Even when there are rules for “paskening”, one must choose which of these rules to employ. This is why when two poskim are presented with similar questions under similar circumstances, we shouldn’t be surprised when they arrive at different rulings. Dispute stems from the fact that each posek assigns a different weight to the various elements of psak. These differences can originate in several factors – often differences of ideology.

Beliefs and opinions (emunot ve-deot) are the major motivations in the considerations of a posek. For example, the ideological divide on the meaning of Zionism and the Zionist State influences on the positions of the legal deciders in every realm of halakhah- shimitah, prayer, conversion, kashrut, army, and the economics of the individual and the entire state. The relationship to general culture or even technology creates divisions in pesak. In the world of Torah, there is a difference between the pesak of Hasidim to that of “Mitnagdim,” between a pesak that relies on kabbalah and one that does not, and many other similar distinctions. One of the central topics that I explain in my course on “Considerations in Pesak” is the place of haskafic positions that motivate the poskim in their teshuvot.

4) How does your approach relate to that of Rabbis Eliezer Berkovits and Daniel Sperber?

I’m honored that you’d put me alongside those two giants. I’m only familiar with R. Berkowitz through his writings; his works on halakha are very close to my heart. It is a shame that his halakhic teachings are not more widely known. People prefer to quote from R. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, which is not the figure of a classic posek, over the works of R. Berkowitz, who describes the methods of our great poskim. I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know R. Sperber personally here in Jerusalem, and I am also well acquainted with his rabbinic and scholarly writings. It seems that our most significant differences are not substantive, but rather relate to external forms: R. Berkowitz wrote philosophy, R. Sperber writes more on Rabbinic material culture, halakha and Jewish custom, whereas I try, both in my teachings and my writings, to focus on interpreting the Talmud.

5) How do we determine what are the values of Hazal since there is no list in Hazal?

The absence of a list doesn’t imply a free-for-all. As we know, the idea of dogmatic Jewish beliefs is a late arrival, attributed to medieval sages. Yet, it is clear that at the time of Haz”al, they too had their own catalog of faiths and beliefs. Some were explicated and formalized in the siddur. The vast majority were taught throughout the corpus of rabbinic literature. I think that our living tradition has preserved these quite well, including ideas that were later subject to mahlokot and different approaches. The fact that there is disagreement over them in no way negates the fact that Haz”al held an organized system of faiths and beliefs, just as mahlokot in halakha do not undermine the halakhic system or our commitment towards it.

There are ideas appearing in Haz”al that were later excluded from the mainstream of our philosophical tradition, as is the case in halakha. To some extent this leaves us with more choice, because we can rely on those ideas within Haz”al that did not find a central place in Jewish thought, even though they are legitimate and worthy beliefs.
Halakhic figures in every generation found ways to revive ideas and halakhot that were excluded from the mainstream and not in practical use for many generations. It is understood that this is a careful and measured process- not to be done as a revolution- that relies on the living tradition that continues the way of the Aharonim until today.

6) What do you see as the role of feminism in today’s Torah?

Deliberation about questions of feminism take place on three major planes:
A. Women are human beings, created in God’s image, with capabilities that are no less than those of men, and sometimes even greater. Yet they are not “equal” in the simple sense of the concept. Men are men and women are women. It has not yet been determined which differences are essential and which differences are social/cultural, which differences are desirable and welcome, and which should be jettisoned. These are some of the most fascinating challenges of our age. As usual, there are a range of answers between the radical and conservative extremes.

B. There has been a significant change in the status of women in modern society. This change stems from various factors, for example: health, economics, education, technology, etc. This change inevitably leads to changes in lifestyle, law, and of course halakha. Like the debate taking place on the first plane, this is no simple task and challenge: identifying what must be changed and amended and what must be preserved and reinforced. The conflict between various types of feminism and various types of conservatism will ultimately lead to a new cultural construction, of which halakha will be a part. Some of these changes have already taken place before our very eyes, even in some of the most conservative circles – women entering the world of Torah study, for example. Some are still a long way off, hard to integrate, and perhaps even undesirable.

C. The question of feminism is often simply a subsection or particular application of much broader questions: conservatism vs. innovation; the degree to which theology is subject to sociology and historical context; modes of creative interpretation of Scripture and rabbinic literature from Hazal until today; the essence and purpose of man; theological conceptions; etc. The urgency of addressing these questions is the third challenge posed to us by feminist thought.
All of these issues already appear in Hazal, in varying degrees of clarity and salience. The status of woman as a human being, created in the image of God, and endowed with virtues, are quite explicit in Hazal. Social and cultural changes demand that we develop the less obvious layers, as has been done in the realm of halakha. The laws of electricity on Shabbat are not explicit in the Talmud, but nobody thinks that using electricity on Shabbat goes against Hazal. This is the art of traditional exegesis and the vitality of the Oral Law.

If the Gaon Rav Soloveitchik zt”l had assumed that we have to only follow the mesorah of the last generation in matters of beliefs and opinions, then he would have not joined Mizrachi and we would not be privileged to have the drasha “Joseph and his Brothers” included in Five Derashot.

7) What do you say to someone who thinks the halakha is formal, objective, and not values driven?
I would tell him to start studying halakha seriously – not from digests and certainly not from the media. He should not be swayed by what is written about it – not by its enemies and not by its allies. He should study each sugya from the Mishna and Gemara through the Shulchan Arukh, and then from the Shulchan Arukh until today. He should pay special attention to what happens in the responsa literature. He need not become familiar with the entire corpus of halakha; it is sufficient to take 2-3 sample sugyot and master it from top to bottom. Of course, it is important that he learn? it thoroughly, not by means of someone who will limit his view to specific selected? points from within the whole complex. He should pay attention to the weight the poskim give to changes that stem from differences in time, place, and culture. In truth, there is not a single responsum in which one does not see change and innovation. Had there been no innovation, there would be no responsum; the answerer would simply refer the questioner to a ruling in a halakhic code. Anyone who has ever seriously encountered the modus operandi of a posek can relate to halakha differently.

I find it truly hard to understand how a Talmid Hakham and man of halakhah can claim that halakhah is entirely formal if they were not engaging in religious polemic in which it is customary to go to an extreme position even if it is not exact. As a lamdan, halakhic formalism is not possible. One can easily prove this.

8) Why do you reject the approach that see Torah ve-Avodah or Torah u-Mada as combining opposites, one as Torah and one as outside liberalism? How do you see that they are both part of Torah?

Each of your questions demands at least one semester-long course. In general, adopting external ideas is not done unless a robust foundation can be found for it internally. Had there been no long Jewish history of engagement with Mada or labor, it would have been difficult for these movements to find a place within the world of traditional Judaism. Since we have an ancient tradition of scientific enrichment and an ancient tradition of going to work, the new can be contained within the old. Much has been written about the status of Mada in Tannaitic era and among the Spanish Rishonim, and about the importance and virtue of labor in our ancient and new (in every sense of the word!) sources. I do not think there is any need to elaborate.

9) Doesn’t the approach of the Hazon Ish as formal and not based on values, presented by Benny Brown, go against your approach?

I can answer this question in two ways. One way is to say that, indeed, the Hazon Ish represents a different approach, but thank God there are enough gedolim upon whom we can base our approach. This would be the polite thing to do, but it is incorrect. In my opinion, it is easy to demonstrate that halakha and ideology are combined even in the world of the Hazon Ish. I do not think my friend, Dr. Benny Brown, would disagree. Take, for example, his attitude toward the State of Israel, or toward secularists and secularism. Is it conceivable that he derived his attitudes toward hilonim (as those to whom the sanctions pertaining to heretics do not apply) or the state (as an entity with no religious significance) solely by analyzing talmudic/halakhic sources, devoid of all influence from an ideology-driven worldview?

10) Of all the challenges that you presented in your book, which one are the most crucial for our times? Why?
With regard to the Jewish future in Israel and the Diaspora, it seems that he most important thing is to make all parts of Torah accessible to all Jews. R. Saadia Gaon averred that “our nation is not a nation without its Torah.” This principle has not changed, in my opinion. The Torah is the basis of Jewish identity, whether intellectually, in terms of knowledge and study, or practically, in terms of action and existence. It is also crucial both for continued Jewish existence in the Diaspora and for the State of Israel’s progress toward becoming a Jewish state, not just the state of the Jews.

Translated by Elli Sacks and Elli Fischer

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3 responses to “An Interview with Rabbi Yehuda Brandes of Beit Morasha

  1. Very nice interview. I greatly enjoy Rav Dr. Brandes’ writing and the interview was useful for understanding his worldview. Regarding formalism, it is not just the Hazon Ish. In an article in Iyunim Hadashim Be’philosophia shel Hahalacha, Dr. Brown opines that in fact most of halacha is formalistic, and the picture is actually skewed in that those who write about philosophy of halacha tend to focus on the thinkers who tend to be less formal and on subject matter that (marriage, conversion, politics) that lend themselves more to a value-based emphasis.
    Also, having gone through parts of Brown’s book on the Hazon Ish, my understanding is that he suggests that the Hazon Ish’s formalism is actually itself value-based – the value being formalism and strictness, as opposed to lack of awareness of a different approach.

  2. How would he respond to the critiques of Berkovits and Berkovits’ theories of halakha? That is an important question as Brandes tends to speak in generalities.

  3. Brandes tends to pick halakhic categories like the State of Israel or non-observant Jews, to which most individuals, including poskim, brings their personal values.

    But what about questions such as using a crockpot on Shabbos or the kashrus of industrial whey? Are those also value-laden questions?

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