The Synthesis of Heritage and Personal Innovation

The Synthesis of Heritage and Personal Innovation

BY: Ariel Pinn

The student of Torah, when reflecting upon its depth, recognizes that it must contain aspects not yet articulated by any of his predecessors. Which guiding principles should he use to determine if his unique insights subscribe to amittah shel Torah (the truth of the Torah)?
The Nefesh ha-Hayyim (whose fourth section is dedicated to describing the unparalleled exaltedness of Torah and its role of upholding all of Creation) magnificently describes the merit of one who reaches this priceless goal:

“[Concerning] true hiddushim (novel ideas) in Torah which are devised by man, there is no value to the magnitude of their awesome wondrousness and their effects in Heaven. For each and every individual word, which is devised in the mouth of man, the Holy One Blessed be He kisses it and crowns it, and builds from it a new world of its own.”

What is required to develop a hiddush that will achieve such awe-inspiring heights?

Pirkei Avot, the fundamental representation of Jewish Hashkafah (outlook), specifically places the description of Torah inheritance as its inaugural statement: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, u-mesarah to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the Elders, etc.” This was the founding step of the institution of semikhah, whereby Torah is passed from sage to student. While Moshe Rabbeinu disseminated the sacred words of the Torah to Yehoshua, he also transmitted his personal guidance to the future leader of the nation. In Jewish law, a musmakh (one who received semikhah) is not simply one who studied its laws; he must be a part of that transmission of Masorah (heritage) which began with Moshe Rabbeinu passing the tradition on to Yehoshua. This system ensures that each student has the tutelage of a member of the Masorah, and is provided with the proper shimmush talmidei hakhamim (live experience around talmidei hakhamim) – the added personal shimmush which cannot be learned from books, but rather is an all-encompassing heritage from Har Sinai.

Is there any room in this framework, one based on reverence for traditions of the past, for novel ideas? This question of permissibility to engage in hiddush was once presented to the Hazon Ish, zts”l:

“How can it be tenable to invent new thoughts in Torah after it was given in its entirety at Har Sinai? [ Presumably,] the creator of new ideas is merely revealing that which was previously hidden in the words? The Hazon Ish replied: All the laws of nature have been set in the world from the time it was created. However, Torah contains the thought of Hashem Who is above Creation, and [therefore] any explanation in the writings [of Torah] which has not yet been revealed has not yet reached the stage of ‘Creation;’ rather, its existence is [solely] in the knowledge of the One Above. Only after a person merits and perceives the intention of the Giver of the Torah in some explanation – only starting from that moment is the hiddush materialized into the reality of the created world, [and is thus] accordingly called a new idea.”

His words show that there surely is a concept in Judaism of man-driven hiddush resulting from thorough engagement with the Torah, as is well known in every beit midrash. Indeed, we see this manifest when each year a multitude of new works can be found on the shelves of Judaica stores.

Ha-Gaon ha-Rav
Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik, zts”l (henceforth “the Rav”), illustrated this idea by quoting the hesped (eulogy) which Ha-Gaon ha-Rav
Velvel Soloveitchik, zts”l (his uncle), delivered for Ha-Gaon ha-Rav Hayyim Soloveitchik, zts”l (the Rav’s grandfather). There, he described that in R. Hayyim’s exploration of the vast depths of Torah, “he had no need for a library [of sefarim]; his bookshelf contained only the fundamental sources and no more.” This highlighted his reliance on the core Jewish sources alone to develop his novel and creative interpretations. R. Shalom Carmy relates that the Rav himself shared a similar approach to talmud Torah (study of Torah). Additionally, many decisions have been made in Judaism by talmidei hakhamim about new events and issues which arose in their generations. For example, the crisis of Jewish assimilation in Europe prompted the Hafets Hayyim, zts”l,
to approve Sarah Schenirer’s righteous request to start the Bais Yaakov movement. Even though the movement diverged from the traditional model of female education that occurred within the home, the Hafets Hayyim realized that based on the prevailing conditions, something had to be done.

Similarly, Ha-Gaon ha-Rav
Moshe Feinstein, zts”l, permitted women to go to the mikveh with earplugs, a ruling which went against prior opinions on the subject. Subsequently, the sho’el questioned whether one can follow this decision, considering that it was against the conclusions of previous generations. R. Moshe contended that it is irresponsible to decide a law based solely on the works of earlier generations, as there are constantly new cases that arise. The Torah is to be implemented in each generation in accordance with its arbiters of Halakhah. It is certainly permissible for a talmid hakham to state an opinion contradictory to previous rulings of Aharonim
and at times even the Rishonim. This must be done with “an in-depth examination of the Talmud and the classic literature, utilizing sharp intellect and accurate proofs, even if the conclusions are new […] as is stated: ‘The only consideration for the judge is that which his eyes see.'” One caveat is that his words may not conflict with those of the globally accepted authorities on Shulhan Arukh. Additionally, this should only be exercised in great need, similar to the aforementioned case which would otherwise result in the termination of a marriage.

The Rav, in Halakhic Man, emphatically addresses the importance of hiddush: “Halakhic Man is a spontaneous, creative type. He is not particularly submissive and retiring, and is not meek when it is a matter of maintaining his own views.” However, in the context of his passion for hiddush, he adds a critical stipulation to the halakhic man’s outlook: “He recognizes no authority other than the authority of the intellect (obviously, in accordance with the principles of tradition).” The Rav then continues to describe how hiddush is placed on a pedestal in Judaism. He stresses that hiddush is not merely permissible – it is imperative:

“Halakhic man received the Torah from Sinai not as a simple recipient but as a creator of worlds, as a partner with the Almighty in the act of creation. The power of creative interpretation (ḥiddush) is the very foundation of the received tradition […] All new, creative insights that a bright student will glean are an integral part of the Oral Law […] The essence of the Torah is intellectual creativity.”

However, while the implementation of creativity is essential, there is a limitation on the context within which one can exercise it. As the Rav cautions in Halakhic Mind, “If an objective compass be lacking, the final port of landing is uncertain.” There is a distinction between suggesting a hiddush and steering towards shinnui (change), which is a departure from the Masorah. The Rav strongly contests an approach that embraces shinnuyim: “The abandonment of certain traditional concepts in favor of more modern ones is nothing but sheer whimsicality if not foolhardy iconoclasm.”

Historically, this issue came to a head when a certain rabbi decided to overstep this boundary, moving from hiddush to shinnui, and the Rav was subsequently forced to address it in a derashah (sermon) at the Rabbinical Council of America Convention. His opening statements illustrate the gravity of his words: “What I am going to say, I want you to understand, is my credo about Torah and about the way Torah should be taught and Torah should be studied.” He then firmly establishes the role of intellect in talmud Torah:

“[…] The study of Torah has never been for me dry formal intellectual performance, no matter how important a role the intellect plays in limud hatorah […] talmud torah is more than intellectual performance. It is a total, all-encompassing and all-embracing involvement – mind and heart, will and feeling, the center of the human personality – emotional man, logical man, volunteristic man – all of them are involved in the study of Torah. Talmud torah is basically for me an ecstatic experience, in which one meets G-d […] So must every Jew who engages in talmud torah stand before G-d with fear, awe, and tremor.

Perforce of this perspective, the true student of Torah will display humility, since he is engaged in the awesome words of Hashem. “When a finite being meets the Infinite, the Maker of the world, this meeting must precipitate a mood of humility.” This humility effects a surrender to the Almighty in two areas. There is a surrender of “everyday logic” in deference to the reasoning of the Masorah, and also a surrender of the will of a person to the dictates of the Masorah. He must have a complete kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim (acceptance of the yoke of Heaven) – and a yoke can be uncomfortable at times.

From a background of talmud Torah that is rooted in complete kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim, the Rav continues by outlining four areas which emerge from such a relationship:

“Firstly, we must pursue the truth through singular halachic Torah-thinking and Torah-understanding: from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moshe and passed on from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the Chachmei ha-Masorah [the ones knowledgeable in the Masorah]. To say, ‘I have discovered something the Rashba didn’t know, the Ketzos didn’t know, the Go’on of Vilna had no knowledge of; I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new,’ is ridiculous.

For one to be part of the Hakhmei ha-Masorah, his statements must be made from within the framework of that Masorah; to say a hiddush based on the surrounding influences is what leads to assimilation. Secondly, instead of suffering an inferiority complex due to a prevailing societal motto that runs against the Masorah, one should feel a pride in that very Masorah and eradicate any desire to yield emotionally to modern conceptions. Thirdly, “One must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient values of a neurotic society. (That’s what our society is.)” Lastly, we are required “to revere and to love and to admire the words of the Chachmei ha-Masorah, be they tano’im, be they amoro’im, be they rishonim. They are the final authorities.”

The Rav explains, based on the words of Rambam, that one who makes an imprudent statement about the Hakhmei ha-Masorah is touching on heresy:

“To speak about changing halochos of Chazal is at least as nonsensical as discussing communism at a Republican National Convention. It is discussing methods of self-destruction and suicide […] We are opposed to shinuyyim (changes), but chidush is certainly the very essence of Halocha. Chidushim are within the system, not from the outside […] The human being is invited to be creative, inventive, and engage in inspiring research – from within, but not from without.”

There are two seemingly opposing ideals which must come to a resolution. The call for hiddush declares that the talmid should engage in a free-minded approach. However, the foundations of the Masorah define parameters. The confluence of these two principles, as R. Rosensweig explains the Rav’s aforementioned ideas, is a recognition that we first surrender to the Almighty by maintaining a full kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim, an aspiration which takes much time and effort to achieve. Thereafter, the hiddushim of this halakhic man, who embodies a heightened level of ahavat Hashem (love of G-d) and yir’at Hashem (awe of G-d) and is anchored in the Masorah, will be amongst the greatest Torah insights.

Additionally, for a talmid hakham to issue a hiddush for halakhic application, he must be widely recognized in the Torah community. In describing such a personality, R. Rosensweig employed the phrase of being an “ilan gadol” (a big tree, i.e. a talmid hakham of great stature who is widely recognized). To make a decision that seemingly goes against the longstanding tradition of the Jewish people would require one, or perhaps two, talmidei hakhamim of this stature. This requirement of “big shoulders” is highlighted by the Ketsot ha-Hoshen in his sefer when defining the “talmid vatik” (veteran student) who is expected to develop hiddushim based on his human mental capacities, as long as they have been found to be in-line with the ways of the Torah and the ideas of previous Torah sages. [To dissuade all who may jump to include themselves in this elite category, see the continuation of the words of the Ketsot where he tries to justify himself as being worthy of this status!]

As we have seen, the ultimate scholar of Torah, the talmid hakham, exhibits creativity. In fact, it is critical to the definition of a Torah sage. As R. Moshe Feinstein clearly stated, it would be prohibited to base a decision solely on an earlier source without an in-depth personal examination of the issue in its new context as well. Similarly, the Rav enthusiastically encouraged such innovation. However, as both R. Moshe and the Rav added, it would be heretical to go in any way against the Masorah upon which Judaism rests, be it the specific, mandated halakhot and minhagim or the heritage of how a Jew should properly perform his avodat Hashem. To reach the level of a talmid hakham certainly requires years of development in the walls of a beit midrash. Additionally, there must be shimmush talmidei hakhamim to develop an understanding of what has been called “the fifth section of Shulhan Arukh,” i.e. the types of halakhic rulings which require personal intuition. These are but some of the many ways of properly acquiring Torah, which are listed in the last chapter of Pirkei Avot and expanded upon in Rambam’s description of how to acquire the Keter Torah (the Crown of Torah). Ultimately, all of the 48 methods mentioned in that last chapter of Pirkei Avot are necessary to ensure that one is in line with the retson Hashem (will of G-d) when crafting a hiddush. Within such a framework, it is obligatory for the talmid hakham to present his hiddushim.

May it be Hashem’s will that we succeed in reaching amittah shel Torah (the truth of the Torah) through this careful enterprise of innovation within tradition.


Ariel Pinn is a first-year talmid at RIETS and is a senior at YC majoring in Computer Science.