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Interview with Professor Haym Soloveitchik by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

haym soloveitchik picThis 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.

YH: What about Rashi?  Where did he stand in this divide between the Gaonim and Rabbeinu Tam?

DS: Rashi is first and foremost a mefaresh, an exegete. His task is to explain the Gemara sugya after sugya, masechta after masechta. He worked vertically as it were, while Rabbeinu Tam worked horizontally – searching out all sugyas in Shas on a topic and integrating them into a single whole. To be sure, Rashi forfended certain contradictions with a word or to, thus answering questions before they appeared.   But there is a difference between noticing contradictions in the course of explaining a masseschta  and setting out initially to compare all sugyas in Shas on a given topic testing whether or not they are in agreement.

YH: But you are squarely putting Rashi in the Gaonim’s camp? 

DS: I have not found dialectic in Rashi’s teshuvos.

YH:  So perhaps, Rabbeinu Tam got the idea from Rashi as well, because you don’t find Rashi saying,” This is a minority text.”

DS: Rashi equally did not use ‘im tomar, ve-yesh lomar’. The test is not what a person says or doesn’t say, but what he, in fact, does, and Rashi doesn’t ‘do’ dialectic in his teshuvos nor in his commentaries.  Admittedly, you cannot speak with certainty as to what he theoretically held.  However, you certainly can say that Rashi sees his task as that of an exegete, providing line by line explication of a sugya.

YH: Going back to the Gaonim.  The Gaonim viewed themselves as following in the footsteps of the Ammoraim.  We with the Yeshiva perspective hold to a hiskatnu hadoros concept.  Some people attribute Rabbeinu Tam as having changed that perspective.

DS: I am aware of the discussion  of niskatnu hadoros or nanas al gabei anak, however, I don’t believe it’s very relevant to the history of halakhah. As I said, it’s what you do that counts, and one would never infer from the Rabbenu Tam’s activity that he operated on an assumption of niskatnu hadorot, or more accurately, that such a perception actually shaped his thinking, restrained him from interpreting in a novel way hundreds upon hundreds of sugyas.

YH: You note in your book that many doctrines, methodologies, and works, began in the communities in Northern Europe and slowly made their way down to the Jewish communities in Southern Europe – but not the other way around. The southern communities did not influence the more northern ones.  What factors contributed to this “one-way street” so to speak? 

DS: This is something that I treat in the second volume which should appear shortly. In the volume that already appeared,  I address the ‘one way street’ that you mention.  For example, the Rosh moved from Germany to Spain in the beginning of the fourteenth century. His Pesakim and the Tur, the work of his son, made their way swiftly to Ashkenaz, but the Hiddushei HaRamban or those of the Rashba never did. The same caravans or boats which brought the Piskei HaRosh to Cologne could have brought the Hiddushei HaRashba, had people in Germany been interested in them. Apparently, they weren’t. With one exception, they also ignored the Rambam. I have some suggestions in the second volume why this was so, but they are linked with other ideas that I advance there that they cannot be summarized without them.

YH: Well, the Rosh does mention the Rambam

DS: The Piskei HaRosh were written in Spain. The Rosh was the rav of Toledo. By ‘one exception’, I meant the Maharam mi-Rothenburg.  In his Hilchot Aveilus, he cites frequently the Perush HaRavad on Moed Katan, and I assume, that the Haggahos Maimoniyos, written by his pupil, was inspired by him.

YH: It never picked up, like the Ramah did in terms of changing the Rambam to be the text for Ashkenazim as well as Sfardim.

DS. Absolutely. As I pointed out in my book, the Haggahos Maimuniyos never ‘Ashkenized ’  Mishneh Torah, as the Haggahos of the Rama  succeeded in ‘Ashkenizing’ the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo and enabled its reception in Ashkenaz. 

YH: You have been described as the historian par excellence of the history of halacha.  Historians generally study or teach history through the rubric of themes, such as geography, political systems, social hierarchy, economics, other religious movements and culture.  What themes do you use, or would you say would be most conducive to the study of the history of halacha?  Which themes fascinate you most? 

DS: The history of halachah is history of law; it means that its themes are legal ones.

YH: My impression is that they use these themes, political social economic to better compare, to make them less boring

 DS: I would say that they use these themes at times to relate the law (I mean here applied law, what we call halachah le-maaseh) to the circumstances of the time.  For example, if you are treating post Talmudic halachah, the first thing that you have to realize is that Jews do not control the social, economic or political framework in which they live.  The Jews constitute a tiny minority of the population and are a socially inferior, if not despised and minority at that. The morei horaah  have to grapple with an alien reality and at the same time preserve the purity of halachah.  That grappling with reality and yet preserving halachah intact is a theme that I find fascinating.

YH: So that would be the dominant theme?

DS ‘the dominant theme’, I don’t know; however, it certainly must be a major theme: the tightrope that morei horaah have to walk and the balancing that comes with it.  That is what I try to do in the Pawnbroking essay in my book, to study the interplay of accommodation and resistance.

YH: You studied under Jacob Katz [Dr. Katz was a world class historian at Hebrew University, an awardee of the Israel Prize, he pioneered the historical study of Orthodox Judaism]. Would you say he was the first to do history of halachah?  

DS: No, there were some maskilim, such as Issac Hersh Weiss, who had a good Talmudic background.  The problem was that he and his associates were ideologues and were intent on waging a war on the rabbanut of their time.  Ideological struggle undermines any scholarly work.  The first person who undertook the task and tried to be objective (no one can be fully objective—ein adam yotsei me-oro) was Jacob Katz.  He also tried to set down methodological ground rules. He really put up the discipline.

YH: Do you have any thoughts about how the field can be promoted in terms of undergraduate texts?

DS:  Not really.

 YH: Well, you did try your hand with teaching history through Shut Kemakor Histori.

DS: That is a methodological textbook 

YH: But you were trying to be pedagogical there.

DS: True. However, to put up an undergraduate curriculum, you would need several of these type of books, each addressing a different theme or problem, via a detailed case study. It’s an excellent idea; however, I never gave much thought to what such books would contain and how to structure them.

YH: What attracted you to the field? You had a father who was in both worlds.

DS: If you are given a lomdishe education and you are interested in history, it is only natural to turn to history of the corpus with which you are familiar, hence the history of halachah. When I was in my twenties, Jacob Katz was in Jerusalem, so I travelled to Jerusalem to study under him.

YH: Philosophy didn’t attract you as much as history did?

DS: That is correct.  Epistemology always interested me, but little beyond that.   [YH: Epistemology is a sub-branch of philosophy concerned with the scope and parameters of knowledge]

YH: What about Professor Harry Austryn Wolfson?  When you were at Harvard did you study under him?  Did you have any interactions of interest with him?

DS: No. When I entered Harvard College when he was toward the very end of his career and I did not have much interest in medieval philosophy at the time. 

YH: You write in one of your essays that it was mostly written for the eyes of your father, Jacob Katz and Professor Saul Lieberman.  What was your relationship with Lieberman?

DS: He was very nice to me.  He gave me of his time. 

YH: Where was your interaction?

DS: I met him in America.  When he worked, he could not tolerate any interruption whatsoever.  He worked 18 hours a day.  Nevertheless, over the course of the years, we spent many hours together. For some reason, he found me acceptable company;  certainly, not because of any merit of mine. I was very lucky in that regard. 

YH: Where does the future lie for you in terms of work?  

DS: I am currently working on the third volume of my collected essays. I say ‘working’ because each volume contains new essays. In the second volume, close to 50% of the book is new. Part one of the third volume deals with Provencal halachah, primarily Ravad and Baal HaMaor; part two with Hasidei Ashkenaz—Sefer Hasidim and the like.

I assume then, you are asking me what I would like to do after volume three. In volume two, I advance a radical theory of the ‘Third Yeshiva of Bavel.’  I believe that Ashkenaz comes from that ‘Third Yeshiva’. It really demands a monograph, touching as it does on the lashon meshuneh massekhtos, such as Nedarim, Nazir, Temurah and the like, Targum Onkelos which has a lashon meshuneh strata and some midreshei halachah, as Eichah Rabbati. I would like to turn to that topic. 

YH: I have been told that in your second volume you challenge the widespread notion that the cultural roots of Ashkenaz are in Eretz Yisrael and claim that early culture of Ashkenaz was Babylonian from the outset.

 DS. That is correct. That Ashkenaz has a Palestinian component was already noted long ago by the Baalei Hatosfos.  We have, for example, Torah and haftorah readings that do not conform to what the Bavli says, but with what we find in certain midrashim, i.e. those that originate in Erets Yisrael. This idea was taken up by Chochmas Yisoel in the nineteenth century. It then receded from view and was brought back and foregrounded some thirty years ago. By now, it is an academic truism.  Having a Palestinian component is one thing, claiming that early Ashkenazic culture was Palestinian is another. I didn’t understand the claim in the 1980’s and still don’t. I have registered my objections in print only now, for reasons that I explain in the book.

YH: You penned a remarkable study on yayin nesach – reprinted in your book about wine, wine production and halacha with some remarkable conclusions about Rashi’s true views only emerging later in his thought and eventually through his students to make profound changes in the way the Franco-Jewish community dealt with this halacha.  Did you visit modern wine production facilities too, in your research?

DS: I would not overstate the degree of change in yeyn nesech. In one area of production there was a change; not in the others. I have spelled this out in detail in my HaYayin biYemei haBeinayin: Yeyn Nesech— Perek be-Toldot haHalachah beAshkenaz. As to your question, I did not speak to manufacturers, but I did speak with contemporary vintners.  I read everything I could on medieval viticulture and wine production. Then I spoke to two vintners in Eretz Yisroel and one in France. 

YH: On a parenthetic note, you mention the fact that the Rash miShantz’s commentary is without equal on Zraim and Taharos.  Have you seen the footnotes on his work produced by the Mishnas Rebbe Aharon people in Lakewood? 

DS: No, not yet.

YH: It is altogether now an entirely different text.  I have brought a copy of it for you to look at.

DS: I would love to see that, thank you. 

YH:  It has been a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to your next book.

DS:  My pleasure as well.

The interviewer can be reached at

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Posted by on January 3, 2014. Filed under 5 Towns News,Breaking News,Jewish News,NY News,Slider,World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to Interview with Professor Haym Soloveitchik by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

  1. Chaim Meiersdorf

    January 5, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I kept getting the feeling reading the interview that Professor Soloveitchik was implying that the interview was unnecessary. Everything he has to say of importance is already in his books and articles. Perhaps he demands of the interviewer total mastery over these written works as a prerequisite for conducting the interview. These are my personal impressions.