Professor Lawrence Kaplan and Yakir Englander on each other’s work

A month ago, I posted a recent article by Yakir Englander of Hebrew University on the Hazon Ish. It received a highly emotive response by Prof. Lawrence Kaplan of McGill University. Before allowing Englander to respond, I asked Kaplan for a more cognitive gesture. Below is Kaplan’s response to Englander and following that, if you scroll down, is Englander’s reply to Kaplan. If you wish to enter the fray, then please read both Lawrence Kaplan’s article (pdf) and Yakir Englander’s article(pdf), and an html version. (Both responses were longer and more personal than I expected. In all of this, I do wonder what someone who teaches Hazon Ish as their personal view would make of this discussion).

Prof. Lawrence Kaplan’s response.

This post deals not so much with scholarly issues relating to differing interpretations of the world view of the Hazon Ish (=HI), but primarily with an issue of academic responsibility.

I believe that a comparison of my article with Englander’s—something I hope readers will undertake– will clearly show that Englander 1) misrepresents my thesis; and, more important, 2) that his own thesis, far from being a scholarly innovation, essentially follows along the lines of and develops the thesis presented in my article.

With reference to my first point, the very title of my article, “The HI: Haredi Critic of Traditional Orthodoxy,” setting to the side the article’s contents for the moment, should alert the reader that Englander’s presentation of its thesis cannot stand. Since the title indicates that, in my view, the HI’s critique of Traditional Orthodoxy constitutes a major identifying feature of both his person and thought, how can it be maintained, as Englander does, that, to the contrary, I consider the HI’s criticisms to be “matters of differing emphases in the service of God, and not much more”?

And turning now from the article’s title to the article itself, in its main section (pp.149-163) I set forth the thesis, specifically with reference to the HI’s critique of the mussar movement and the “Yeshivishe” method of study, that the “HI developed a rather subtle, oftentimes more implicit than explicit, but nevertheless powerful and far reaching critique of [Lithuanian] Orthodoxy” (p.150). Again, in note 57 (p. 163), I refer to the HI’s “profound disagreement with the analytic method” and to his being in Emunah u-Bitahon “openly and forcefully critical about the mussar ideology.” “Differing emphases,” indeed!

With reference to my second and major point, I write with regard to the HI’s opposition to the mussar movement, “The HI was of the opinion that the fundamental mussar approach of working on oneself, of turning inward, in order to develop one’s spiritual personality … was fundamentally misguided. [He] was suspicious of the focus on, the concern for the self, even if that focusing, that concern, was for religious purposes” (p.159). In order to explain the grounds of this suspicion, I pointed to the HI’s own psychology as opposed that of the mussar approach.

With regard to the HI’s opposition to the “Yeshivishe” method of study, I write “for the HI, the analytic approach allows too much room for self-expression, for play of the individual’s own intellectual powers, unconstrained by the discipline of the text….What the HI feels is called for in the area of traditional Jewish learning is not intellectual self-assertion, but intellectual submission, submission to the authority of the text” (pp. 155-156). I conclude my article’s main section thus: “In sum we are arguing that the HI’s critiques of both the analytic method of Talmudic scholarship and the mussar ideology stem from the same source….The proponents of both … in their praiseworthy efforts to bolster tradition and combat the attractions of modernity tacitly conceded too much to modernity by allowing too great a role for human self-assertion and human autonomy, even within a strictly traditional framework, and by not sufficiently insisting on the absolute submission of the individual to the authority of the tradition in the realm of both study and practice” (p.162).

Developing this theme of submission even further, I devote the next section of my article to showing “how this ethos of submission is a fundamental and central element in the religious world–view of the HI” (p.164).

Alan Brill in his original post sums up Englander’s thesis thus: “Mussar and lomdut are about the cultivation of the self. The anthropology of the HI is to bypass the self entirely.” If we add to this Englander’s point about the HI’s emphasis on the need for submission, we have a perfect summary of my article as well.

Even regarding minor points, I anticipate Englander. Thus Englander concludes his article by noting “Precisely on account of the central position of the HI in the Lithuanian community, it very interesting that his thought…has not been absorbed (nikletah) in a sweeping manner in that community” (p. 214). Compare that to my observation in my article’s conclusion that “despite the HI’s immense role in forming and shaping the ethos of the Haredi community, in a certain respect he was a failure. Certainly the full dimensions and implications of the HI’s critique of the traditional world of Lithuanian Mitnaggedism were never really absorbed, much less acted upon, by the Haredi community” (p.172). (Also compare Englander, p. 195, n.46, with Kaplan, p. 162, n. 57.)

All this is not to deny that there is much that is new, interesting, and important in Englander’s essay. While I discuss the HI’s psychology only briefly, focusing on the HI’s view that man’s fundamental evil trait is “allowing one’s natural life to flow along its natural course” (Emunah u-Bitahon 4:5) and that that evil trait can be overcome only through “the constant adhesion to the precise requirements of the law (dikduk ha-din),” Englander presents a fuller discussion of the HI’s view of man. He argues that for the HI man is comprised of body, imagination/ will, and intellect, and he analyzes at length the HI’s (very suspicious) attitude to each of these component parts. He has very interesting things to say about the analogy the HI draws between bodily and spiritual impurity (p.191). Particularly insightful is his observation that for the HI the common error shared by both the “yeshivishe” method of study and mussar ideology is the unwarranted confidence they both place in man’s intellect. Also worthy of note is Englander’s discussion of the HI’s view regarding the relationship between halakhah and interpersonal ethics, and his discussion in that connection of the famous example offered by the HI of the competing schoolteachers (pp. 197-198).

Our articles also have somewhat different emphases. While I, perhaps somewhat speculatively, link, as indicated above, the contrast between the more positive attitude to the self taken by the “Yeshivishe” method of study and the mussar movement and the more negative attitude taken by the HI to their contrasting attitudes toward modernity, Englander limits himself to a more strictly internal analysis. Also, the HI’s attitude toward the self in my account, while quite pessimistic, is not quite as pessimistic as it is in Englander’s.

The path, then, that Englander should have taken is clear. He should have written something to the following effect. “My basic approach follows along the lines of the thesis presented in Lawrence Kaplan’s article, ‘The HI: Haredi Critic of Traditional Orthodoxy.’ I have, however, built and elaborated upon his approach, filled in lacuna, and in several places modified a number of his specific contentions.” This is the way scholarship progresses: acknowledging its debt to past scholarship, and then both building upon and modifying that past scholarship in the service of greater insight and understanding. This is not the path Englander chose.

Here is the reply by Yakir Englander.

I am grateful for the opportunity offered me by Alan Brill to clarify the differences between my approach to Hazon-Ish (=HI) and that of Professor Kaplan.

In order to make my position clear, let me first summarize Kaplan’s criticisms of my work as follows:

a. My article, according to Kaplan, is based on the thesis he himself set forth in his own article. Instead of acknowledging my debt to Kaplan, he says, I digress into a discussion of the work of Dr. Brown;
b. Kaplan complains that I fail to present his thesis adequately, and thus I betray one of the principles of good scholarship;
c. Since my article is founded on Kaplan’s own position, it follows that my article has no new thesis to offer.

Regarding the first claim, I will point out that my article does not repeat Kaplan’s arguments, since in his article he occupies himself with a basic exposition of the actual sayings of HI. This exposition does not shed light on the general positions of HI, but stays too close to the descriptive level. It is true that my work enters into dialogue with the fascinating work of Dr. Benny Brown, who has made the first effort to set forth the thought of HI in a comprehensive fashion. I am in agreement with all aspects of Brown’s work, with only the one exception, to which my article is devoted.

Kaplan’s second claim is that I failed to adequately represent his position. My response to this criticism is that in fact there is really nothing to represent. Kaplan is not presenting a new critical thesis, but rather simply repeating the words of HI himself. What Kaplan has done is provide an important service to English readers who may not have access to the actual Hebrew texts of HI; Kaplan thus offers a good preliminary introduction to the HI writings.

Now I address Kaplan’s third criticism. Anyone reading my article will in fact see that in this article an effort is made to present a comprehensive thesis concerning the thought of HI about the human person. As I argue, the central confrontation on the issue of Torah Study between HI and the Yeshivish Method of Study is not to be found in questions concerning the nature of study required, or what disposition the student should display, whether diligence and submission or some more traditional approach (cf. Kaplan 155- 156). There is nothing new here; all this has been stated already by HI himself.

The new element in my thesis is my assertion that the conflict between HI and the Yeshivish Method of Study is anchored in the concept of the human person, and of the human person’s essential task in this world. As I argue, HI asserts that the study methods required in the Yeshivish system do not come to terms with the desires and urges of the human individual. On the contrary, they perpetuate the submission of human being to the evil inclination. It is in contrast to this view that HI presents his own position. It follows, then, that even if HI, in his own system, demands of the student diligence and submission this does not show him to be more traditionalist than the Modern Yeshivish Method of Study. On the contrary, for HI diligence and submission will become means by which a human person may come to terms with the evil inclination.

Therefore, the view of HI is intimately interwoven with the drama of human existence; study of Torah is a central part of the human being’s process of becoming fully human. Clearly, on this point precisely, HI comes into conflict with the teachers of the Torat HaMusar Movement. For the goal of Torah Study is precisely not to reach a state of passivity and submission. On the contrary, any submission achieved is of the second order, not a goal in itself but the means to an end, which is the vanquishing of the evil inclination.

Kaplan fails to see the anthropological drama that HI highlights; instead, he chooses to analyze the sayings of HI using a static conceptual dichotomy of submission vs. creativity and tradition vs. modernity. Kaplan begins with a priori categories, into which he tries to fit whatever he finds in HI. I, on the other hand, like Brown, am endeavoring to listen to the words of HI himself, and to position those words in the appropriate conceptual network.
My article is a reworking of a chapter in my doctoral dissertation (to be completed during the coming year) – a dissertation that examines the image of the human body in the Lithuanian Orthodox Jewish culture from the Holocaust to the present. In my opinion, the issue of the human body represents an axis of conflict in the entire Lithuanian tradition; only when one understands this tradition’s approach to the body can one fully grasp how this tradition in its various aspects takes shape. The first part of my dissertation deals with Lithuanian thought in general (contrasting the diametrically opposing stands of HI on one hand and Rabbi Avigdor Miller on the other). The second part considers the ideal image of the human body through the genre of hagiographic works on the tsadikim. The third part is devoted to the image of the female body, and the cultural and halakhic repercussions of this image.

To conclude: Professor Kaplan, acquainted as he is with Jewish Tradition and general philosophy, should be aware that controversy, disagreement and mutual clarification are all parts of the internal essence that motivates all knowledge. There can be no doubt that Professor Kaplan can claim a pioneering status in the effort to understand HI in a wider framework than that offered by halakhic sermonizing. This pioneering status, however, cannot be construed as ownership, nor does it indicate a boundary beyond which research may not go. Rather, Kaplan might have rejoiced to see research on the thought of HI not only continuing but deepening. Not all researchers need to agree on everything; texts remain open to interpretation. But on one thing we do need agreement: it is, on one hand, the right of every scholar to conduct research; on the other hand, it is never appropriate to gloss over differences and present another scholar’s research disingenuously.

Perhaps Professor Kaplan should keep in mind, that when he misrepresents his fellow scholar, he stands at risk of being himself besmirched. It was Hegel who pointed out that “only by night are all cows black.” Only in the darkest of nights could anyone fail to see the clear distinctions between the “thesis” of Kaplan and the new thesis that I myself offer.

3 responses to “Professor Lawrence Kaplan and Yakir Englander on each other’s work

  1. I am disappointed that these accomplished scholars have descended, in written publication, to personal attack. How much better it would have appeared had the aggrieved parties held their thoughts, settled the matter privately, and issued a joint communication about anything the public really needed to hear.

    I’d suggest the editor would better serve his readers by suggesting the scholars share a pint of ale at the next academic conference.

  2. avraham rosenblum

    Is it not better to see the chazon ish as simply seeing the failure of musar to create moral people even to the degree of having a simple understanding of the difference between right and wrong and concluding that no one has so far not found a better solution that sitting and learning Gemara?
    I do agree that it might have been deeper also. Perhaps the chazon Ish had discovered the vast underworlds inside the “Self” that he thought was better not to open up like some Pandora’s box.
    (I also think that no one has found in the Jewish world anything better or more powerful than Gemara in terms of self improvement.)

  3. Lawrence Kaplan

    In light of feedback and further reflection, I wish to say that I regret the angry and “emotional” tone of my original comments to Alan’s August 31st post. That said, the substantive claims set forth in my considered “cognitive” reply remain, in ny view, entirely valid and unadressed by Englander.

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