Of Concepts and Precision: Understanding Torat Brisk

During the lifetime of Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), a revolution occurred in the world of Talmud Torah. Despite the well known aversion of the leaders of this movement to publish, what has been termed the “Brisker method” caught fire in yeshivot and quickly became an extremely popular method of Talmud study.[1] While not without its critics,[2] this style of learning made a tremendous impact on the manner in which people studied Torah.[3] Many important updates and changes to the brisker method have been made since R. Hayyim. A depiction of the origins of this method will help provide a framework to understand the transitions the movement has undergone since its formation.

Reservations About Study of  Methodology

Prior to beginning this study, a few prefatory notes are necessary. The first is to qualify the significance of the study of Talmudic methodology. The study of methodology itself does not clearly classify as pure Talmud Torah, and thus priority overall goes to actual Torah study itself as opposed to analyses of methodology. Overmethodologization stands the danger of shifting the focus away from study of Torah itself.[4] R. Lichtenstein alludes to this hierarchy in his approbation to the sefer Iyun be-Lomdus:

Due to much involvement and understanding of, and innovation in, matters of Torah, we minimize diverging from halakhic discussions in order to delve into the analysis and methodology of learning. This preference is understandable and correct. It thus emerges that the power of creativity is greater than that of criticism.

Nonetheless, although R. Lichtenstein emphasizes the primacy of creativity in Talmud Torah over methodological criticism, he still attributes significance to the study of methodology:

And nevertheless, the methodological plane is also relevant to the world of Talmud Torah, and in different formulations, our forebears have also addressed it.[5]

As such, a brief discussion of the benefits of methodological analysis is of order as it helps one understand more deeply the shiurim one is studying. When one grasps what the teacher is trying to accomplish in their shiurim and the manner in which they go about doing so, a new depth of understanding is achievable. Furthermore, it makes emulation a much more attainable feat.

Yet, there is also a second impetus for us to embark on our study. A common problem in our day is the inability to accurately express the uniqueness and personality of a specific gadol ba-torah.[6] R. Lichtenstein laments this problem in a comment about hespedim for gedolim:

Just recall, if you attended the funeral of a great rabbi, how abstract, repetitive and inane the eulogies were. When R. Aharon Kotler zt”l passed away, there was what was considered at that time a huge funeral downtown. There was a long row of eulogizers— rashei yeshiva and rabbis—but the only person who began to give an insight into the fire which animated that giant was Irving Bunim, a layman.[7]

Though, R. Lichtenstein’s specific argument is that an exposure to literature refines one’s sensibilities and capacity to understand someone (a gadol) at his depth, I believe the message has important implications for our study; the study of methodology is important because it is a way of appropriately appreciating the legacy of these great teachers and innovators; it allows one to pay due respect to these scholars for their distinct impact on Talmud study.

However, it is important to note that there is another danger in overly stressing method over content; namely the risk of devaluing Torah study that does not achieve the same depth or rigor as study utilizing “Torat Brisk.” While obviously depth and rigor are important values in Torah study, it does not diminish the importance of all kinds of limmud Torah. This point is neatly summed up in a statement by Rabbi Herschel Schachter:

Many who have studied in Yeshivot in their youth are so trained in learning Talmud in depth with all the super-commentaries, that after leaving the Yeshiva they think that to study Gemorah without Rav Chaim or Rav Shimon is of no value. This is not correct. One who studies Gemorah with Rashi – even without Tosafos – has also fulfilled a marvelous level of this great mitzvah of Talmud Torah. Even mishnayos with the commentary of the Bartenura, or for that matter any other commentary, is also quite an accomplishment.[8]

Thus, it is important to point out that although we will study this intricate and high-level methodology, it is not to diminish in our minds other types of learning that do not achieve the same form or kind of depth.

Furthermore, it is crucial to state that our study into the Brisker method isn’t to claim that it is the ideal or right way to study Torah. There are a multitude of other ways to study Torah that have allowed many people to achieve great heights in talmud Torah. An anecdote from Rabbi Doniel Schreiber strongly illustrates this point:

As a young student I once inquired of R. Aharon Lichtenstein if the method taught in the yeshivah is the “ideal” mode of Torah study. His response made a lasting impression upon me. He forcefully told me that no one may claim to have the ideal method of limmud Torah. However, he continued, one may assert that the method one has found is the most suitable for oneself. He found both the inaccuracy and the arrogance of claiming supremacy disturbing, and advised distancing oneself from such thoughts.

The Basics of Brisk

What are the basic elements of the Brisker method? In order to describe the basic style of the Brisker method, a brief anecdote will be of use. Rabbi Shalom Carmy, a significant talmid of both R. Lichtenstein and R. Soloveitchik, described that in his first experience in R. Lichtenstein’s shiur he was asked a question about what a Tosafot in Tractate Pesahim says.[9] R. Carmy responded that Tosafot describes a difficulty in Rashi and presents two alternatives. R. Lichtenstein asked him again “But what is Tosafot saying?” R. Carmy described once again the content of Tosafot. Eventually, R. Lichtenstein realized that R. Carmy’s attempts to answer this question were hopeless and he moved on.[10]

What R. Carmy did not realize at the time was that he and R. Lichtenstein were speaking in entirely different terms. R. Carmy was trying to understand the words of Tosafot and present their context, but R. Lichtenstein was speaking as a “Brisker.” What this means is that R. Lichtenstein was not interested in hearing a summary of the text of Tosafot, but rather the underlying principle behind Tosafot’s comments. The desire to seek the principle behind the literal words of texts is very much characteristic of the Brisker method. R. Hayyim’s major innovation in the world of Torah study was precisely looking for principles underlying the text, rather than simply reading the text. Digging down to the conceptual understanding that motivates the particular rishon under discussion is the goal of a Brisker. He seeks the perspective that the text’s author brought to bear on the Talmudic discussion. This approach differs markedly from the traditional approach that emphasized resolving contradictions in the text, and arriving at pesak halakha. This idea is neatly summed up by R. Reuven Taragin:

“The Brisker derekh defines iyun as the attempt to determine an issue’s conceptual nature. Success is not measured in terms of the number of questions answered or books referred to, but by the clarity of the concept arrived at.”[11] 

Another importance difference between the approach of Brisk and other traditional approaches is with regard to the value of questions and the type of answers that are satisfactory. While different perspectives have been taken on how to precisely define this distinction, R. Daniel Wolf makes the following argument about the traditional approaches from which Brisk strayed:

Within this school, certain classes of answers are repudiated and even denigrated. For example, historical or psychological differences are seldom used. In addition, positing that contradictions are due to unexplained technical distinctions between cases – the “okimta” method so favored by Tosafot and, in fact, by the Amoraim, to explain inconsistencies in the Mishna – is eschewed by Briskers.[12]

In contrast to these methods, the school of Brisk had a different approach :

The Brisker methodology prefers the use of fundamental distinctions and precise conceptual classifications as the main tool to resolve these difficulties.[13]

While we have emphasized the conceptual and theoretical emphasis of the Brisker approach, R. Elyakim Krumbein makes an important qualification to this point:

In Reb Hayyim’s discussions, the goal of resolving textual difficulties is not subordinated to that of dealing with theoretical principles. It would be correct to describe the relationship between these two components as “two lovers who do not separate,” embracing and clinging to each other. Sometimes Reb Hayyim’s efforts are directed at proving his conceptual innovation; sometimes they are pointed at applying the new concept to the task of resolving a difficulty and sometimes they are aimed at both goals. The discussion, however, is always very focused, directed at a particular goal and persevering toward its achievement… The textual dilemma and the theoretical concept are inseparably bound to each other in mutual subordination. On the one hand, the idea is subordinated to the resolution of the contradiction between the sources; on the other hand, the textual difficulties prove that the idea is correct by the very fact that it brings to their resolution. This mutual subordination determines the bounds of the discussion, there being no possibility of going beyond them.”[14]

Thus the immediate question at hand, and the broader conceptual understanding were closely connected for R. Hayyim. R. Krumbein’s point also dispels the notion that R. Hayyim’s hakirot were exclusively for the purpose of solving an immediate question. One can even say that according to R. Krumbein there were two dinim to R. Hayyim’s hiddushim.[15]

Another distinction between traditional approaches and that of R. Hayyim is with regard to how one is to understand disputes among the rishonim. In his essay “The Brisker Method Reconsidered,” Marc Shapiro describes the approach of R. Hayyim:

When R. Hayyim approached a dispute between Maimonides and Rabad, or between other rishonim, he did not adopt the traditional approach, which was to answer the difficulties raised (e.g., by Rabad against Maimonides) or to bring proofs in support of one side against the other. Rather, he attempted to clarify the divergent understandings of the rishonim, those which brought them to their different conclusions.[16]

The significance of this technique is that it does not necessarily lead to a preference of one rishon over another. This is reflected by an insightful statement from R. Carmy: “As Will Rogers reputedly said he never met a man he didn’t like, the Brisker never met a shittat rishonim he rejects.”[17]

An additional hallmark of the Brisker method is the emphasis on precise definitions and classifications. In his introduction to his book on lomdus, R. Yitzchak Adler describes this facet of the movement:

Finally, this method, in order to successfully compare and contrast fundamental issues requires accurate definitional terminology and precise schemes of classification. Such definitional precision and classificatory accuracy are two hallmarks of this method.[18]

For R. Hayyim, an inability to precisely define the nature of a certain halakha implied a deficiency in one’s understanding of it.[19]

R. Hayyim also introduced a new set of terminology to the world of Talmud Torah. R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, describes this new terminology as follows:

Shnei Dinim (2 elements): This term of R. Hayyim became popular and well accepted in Yeshiva circles. In R. Hayyim’s analysis, he would show that there are two elements in a well known halakha or Torah concept.[20]

Similarly, R. Carmy writes, “The phrase two dinim is the popular hallmark of the analytical school.”[21] While the use of this term is varied and complex, it is clear that this new terminology was very much part of the revolutionary nature of the movement.[22] Furthermore, introducing new terminology to the world of Torah study has continued to be a key component in the Brisker tradition.

Affinity for the Rambam

Furthermore, R. Hayyim and the Brisker method are strongly associated with the study of Rambam. The reason for this is described by R. Hayyim’s descendant, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein:

This is the reason that Rambam occupies center stage in the Brisker orbit, for it is he who distilled the talmudic conclusions into pure halakhic form, systematically omitting any interpretation or mention of the accompanying discussion, presenting us only with the halakhic hard data without encumbering it with any explanations… Areas of disagreement between Rambam and Ravad (or other rishonim) were crucial per se—not simply because they implied divergent readings and interpretations of the talmudic text, but because they were the raw material which indicated different conceptual approaches. Simply put, Brisk’s essential concern was not with how Rambam (or anyone else for that matter) interpreted the gemara but rather with what was wrought from it.[23]

A further reason that explains the affinity Briskers have for the Rambam is that the Mishna Torah provides the rare opportunity to see a rishon’s position across a wide range of issues as opposed to exclusively the local issue. I have heard from Dr. Haym Soloveitchik that Briskers love the Rambam because his Mishna Torah is the perfect laboratory for them since you can always check other places for nafka minot of the Rambam’s opinion.[24] For other rishonim, one is not always afforded the same opportunities because a rishon may or may not choose to discuss, or rule upon the parallel topics.

Historically Accurate

Before moving on to subsequent generations of Briskers, a critical issue must be raised. Do the interpretations suggested by R. Hayyim adhere to the historically accurate opinion of the Rambam? Would the Rambam agree with R. Hayyim’s understanding?[25] The answer to this question is subject to significant debate. R. Hayyim himself felt that his explanations were indeed peshat in the Rambam and other rishonim. This sentiment is described by Marc Shapiro as:

R. Hayyim and his colleagues/students believed that even though there were novel elements in their approach, through their interpretations they were able to reveal what was latent in the sources. This is the meaning of R. Hayyim’s comment, as transmitted by R. Elhanan Wasserman, that it is not our role to create hiddushim, for this was the task of the rishonim. Our duty is merely to understand the words of the rishonim. R. Hayyim’s approach postulates that in order for us to properly understand both Talmud and rishonim, we must study in a fashion which causes everything to appear in a new light, even though, in truth, our insights are not “hiddushim.” Rather, what we are stating is simply the obvious and plain meaning of the texts…[26]

Yet, as Shapiro points out, while many authors believe this to be the case with their works, often times they are in truth really hiddushim. Shapiro, in line with a comment from R. Yehiel Weinberg, contends that many of R. Hayyim’s novella are not accurate depictions of the Rambam’s own opinion. He bases this, in part, on the Rambam’s explanations of his Mishna Torah, in which his teshuvot which are not particularly analytical. Nevertheless, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik seems to take a different stance on this matter in his famous eulogy for his uncle:

When Reb Hayyim or his sons would finish their shi’urim, the situation had entirely changed. Suddenly, a great light shone, the confusion disappeared, the paths were leveled flat and the vicious cycle was broken…Everything became so simple, so clear, so elementary, so much so that they wondered why they themselves hadn’t explained the view of the Rambam or the statement of Tosafot as had their teachers. Why, they would ask, hadn’t they grasped the central point of the matter? Surely, their teachers did not say anything new at all. They merely removed the veil from the pretty face of the Halakhah, and all became enchanted by its beauty.[27]

By saying that their teachers did not say anything new at all and merely removed the veil, it sounds like the Rav believes that R. Hayyim was really revealing the original intent of the author.

An important secondary question which falls beyond the scope of this article is whether or not the original authorial intent really matters in the world of lomdut. Put simply, there is likely to be tremendous significance to how the Rambam has been understood throughout the generations outside of his original intent.[28] Mori ve-Rabbi R. Michael Rosensweig argues that while each case should be judged on its own merit, “Notwithstanding their underlying motivation and intent, halakhic positions reflect basic perspectives and often affect other halakhic categories.”[29] Furthermore, R. Rosensweig makes a critical point about the legitimacy of attributing conceptual considerations to certain opinions:

It is often nigh impossible to determine precisely what complex combination of forces really are determinative. Conceptual considerations may unconsciously shape viewpoints although other factors are projected as decisive. Advocates of a position may be unaware that they are drawn to a certain theme or formulation, while detached observers might detect a pattern in the consistency of rulings or a clue in the use of language… one should still consider that rulings may reflect definite conceptual predispositions.[30]

Another relevant consideration, suggested both by R. Carmy and R. Rosensweig,[31] is that there is often significance to an analytical explanation outside of its accuracy in explaining the immediate issue it is addressing. This idea is neatly summed up by R. Rosensweig:

Most analyses, while they may be inspired by specific difficulties or doctrines, attain independent value, as they are anchored in a broader discussion of the topic and its various components. The very engagement of substantive issues and often, some of the insights that emerge from such an engagement constitute an important contribution to abstract talmud Torah even when it is determined that what has been developed has no bearing on the specific doctrine that initially motivated the endeavor… Moreover, the insights produced, perhaps with some necessary adjustment, may resonate in the positions adopted by others. At minimum, the fact that a prominent halakhist, attuned to the topic and total system, perceives an approach to be plausible is meaningful for the range of theoretical talmud Torah, if not for normative Halakhah.[32]

Second Generation: Rav Velvel

A critical passage from R. Hayyim’s son, Rav Velvel Soloveichik, shines light on another significant component of the Brisker method. In a letter responding to a suggested hiddush he wrote that: “There is no need for any rationales or explanations regarding this, since such are the halakhot.”[33] This quotation from Rav Velvel is subject to an important dispute in later scholarship. R. Elyakim Krumbein understands the statement to be an indication that Brisk doesn’t value hiddushim unless there is a need for them to resolve a problem. He writes:

Reb Velvel implies that he sees no flaw in his correspondent’s explanation, other than the fact that it is superfluous. Reb Velvel maintains that when a matter is understandable and presents no difficulty, there is no reason to propose “rationales or explanations.” Every explanation must stand up to the test of need and benefit.[34]

In contrast to R. Krumbein, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein understands this passage to imply something different about the Brisker method:

Here, as there, a shift was effected from the “why” to the “what,” and from the final cause to the efficient cause. No longer is it the task of the learner to ascertain why a certain halakhah is as it is, any more than it is the role of the scientist to determine why nature behaves as it does. Rather, in both cases, the goal of the analysis of the concrete phenomenon at hand is to understand what it is and how it works.[35]

This dispute is significant because it emphasizes whether Brisk intentionally avoided “why” questions or did so simply because hiddushim were only raised in response to immediate problems in the text. Each of those issues is addressed extensively by later generations of Brisker lamdanim and have immense ramifications for accurately understanding the evolution of the Brisker method.

Moreover, it is entirely plausible that either of these two elements are more apparent in R. Velvel’s writings than those of R. Hayyim. In his article on this topic, R. Rosensweig wrote, “My impression (without any systematic study of the issue) is that the de-emphasis of any explanation or rationalization is particularly pronounced in the writings of R. Yitzhak Zev (ha-Griz) Soloveitchik.”[36] Thus, it is possible to draw distinctions between R. Hayyim and R. Velvel’s approaches. R. Krumbein also senses a slight transition from R. Hayyim’s work to that of R. Velvel’s:

Hiddushei Maran Riz ha-Levi exhibits a certain liberation from the mold cast by Hiddushei Rabbeinu Hayyim ha-Levi. Even though the tools of lomdut found in this book are only activated “when needed,” there is greater freedom in defining “need.” Reb Velvel is more likely than Reb Hayyim to sense intuitively that a dispute between the early authorities has not been understood and requires explanation. He sometimes takes as his point of departure not a difficulty, but some unclear point in the Gemara or the Rambam that needs to be clarified. In such cases, he writes: “This matter requires examination” (ve-tzarikh iyyun ba-zeh).[37]

Despite these differences, the consensus is that R. Hayyim and R. Velvel shared a very similar methodology, and the major adaptations to the Brisker method truly occurred in later generations.

Precedents for Brisk

How did the Brisker method come about? While different suggestions have been made with regard to this question, a compelling approach is suggested by R. Rosensweig:

Certainly, the conceptual method did not arise in a vacuum, nor does it represent any discontinuity in the unfolding of the mesorah. Although the exact lines of development may be ambiguous… the roots of this derekh are clearly evident in countless Talmudic passages. In some tractates, like Keritot and Sanhedrin, whole sections read like conceptual dialogue. Numerous trenchant examples of this mode of formalistic and conceptual thought can be adduced from the literature of Rishonim and Aharonim. Undoubtedly, these formulations and doctrines made a striking impression on those who projected this derekh.[38]

As R. Rosensweig argues, the Brisker method should not be viewed as arising ex nihilo in the mind of R. Hayyim, but as a  natural step in the unfolding of the mesorah.

Transitions

As mentioned at the outset of the article, many significant updates and transitions in Torat Brisk have occured since the initiation of the movement. Significant talmidei hakhamim  including R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, and R. Michael Rosensweig have all made important contributions to the development of the method. All of these “updates” should be understood in light of the origins of the movement, and be evaluated within that context.

 

Avraham Wein is a senior at Yeshiva college, and is majoring in Jewish Studies, Psychology, and Tractate Shevuot.  

[1] See the chapter on R. Hayyim in Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s classic Ishim ve-shitot. Also see, Mosheh Lichtenstein, “What Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 9 (2000), 1.

[2] Most notably the Hazon Ish. For a presentation of some of the other historical critiques see Marc Shapiro’s review essay “The Brisker Method Reconsidered” Tradition 31:3, 78-82. For some modern day criticisms of the Brisker method see Jeremy Wieder, “The Role of Lomdut in Jewish Education,” in Lomdut: The Conceptual Approach to Talmud Study, ed. by Yosef Blau (New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, 2006), 163, and Rav Shagar’s critique in his sefer be-Torato Yehegeh.

[3] This impact continues to this day and is true for both Haredi and Dati Le’umi groups. In the Haredi world, yeshivat Brisk is known as the “Harvard of yeshivot.” Yeshivat Har Etzion, a popular and well respected hesder yeshiva, is also known for it’s Brisker style of learning.

[4] See Doniel Schreiber’s comments in Wisdom From All My Teachers (Atid Press, 2004), 245. who writes that “Actual learning of Torah is vastly more important an endeavor than the study of how it ought to be accomplished. One who is obsessed with “how to learn” runs the risk of neglecting and even forgetting to actually learn.”

[5] Iyun B’Lomdus, v-ix. All citations are translations of my own.

[6] See Isadore Twersky’s similar comments in his published eulogy for the Rav in Tradition 30:4 (Summer 1996).

[7] Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 2003), 230.

[8] http://torahweb.org/torah/special/2002/rsch_learning.html

[9] Although R. Lichtenstein moved beyond the original Brisker method as established by R. Hayyim, this example is not a reflection of these advancements but rather of the core of the Brisker method.

[10] Rabbi Carmy humorously remarked that he is glad R. Lichtenstein did not give up on him overall as a talmid.

[11] Reuven Taragin, “The Goals and Methodology of the Brisker Derekh,” Alei Etzion 7, 88.

[12] Daniel Wolf, “Hiddush Within the Beit Midrash,” Tradition 47:4 (2015), 116.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This is a central issue in R. Krumbein’s groundbreaking article found in Lomdut: The Conceptual Approach to Talmud Study, ed. By Yosef Blau (New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, 2006).

[15] The exact methodology of R. Hayyim’s shiurim as they were presented to his students is difficult to reconstruct.

[16] Marc Shapiro, “The Brisker Method Reconsidered,” Tradition 31:3 (1997), 81.

[17] Will Rogers really said: “I never made fun of a man I didn’t like.”

[18] Adler, Iyun be-Lomdus, vii.

[19] For a very similar formulation of this point, see the Rav’s description in Jeffrey Saks, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Brisker Method,” Tradition 33:2 (Winter 1999), 55.

[20] Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Ishim ve-Shitot, 35-36. Translation is my own.

[21] Shalom Carmy, “Polyphonic Diversity and Military Music,” Tradition 34:4 (Winter 2000), 7.

[22] There is also heavy emphasis on the nafka minah for Briskers.

[23] Mosheh Lichtenstein, “What Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 9 (2000), 3.

[24] Personal communication (2/27/17).

[25] I mean this in the sense of being what the Rambam originally meant, as opposed to the Rambam thinking that R. Hayyim came up with a good idea.

[26] Marc Shapiro, “The Brisker Method Reconsidered: Review Essay,” Tradition 31:3 (1997): 78-102.

[27] Elyakim Krumbein, “From R. Hayyim to the Rav to R. Aharon Lichtenstein,” Orthodox Forum.

[28] For a broader discussion of this issue see Marc Shapiro’s article on the Brisker method as well as R. Lichtenstein’s extensive treatment of this issue in his seminal article R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torat Hesed and Torat Emet: Methodological Reflections,” Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning (Jersey City: Ktav, 2003), 61-87. Also see a discussion of this topic in Chanoch Waxman’s introduction to the sefer Al Kitfei Anakim.

[29] Lomdut: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning (The Orthodox Forum Series), 203.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Shalom Carmy, Ketonet Yosef, 427.

[32] Lomdut: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning (The Orthodox Forum Series), 204.

[33] Letter of 19 Sivan 5693, published in Hiddushei Maran Yizhak Ze’ev ha-Levi, (Jerusalem, 5727), 162.

[34] Elyakim Krumbein, “From R. Hayyim to the Rav to R. Aharon Lichtenstein,” Orthodox Forum.

[35] Mosheh Lichtenstein, “What Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 9 (2000), 3.

[36] Lomdut: The Conceptual Approach to Talmud Study, ed. Yosef Blau (New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, 2006), 223.

[37] Krumbein, 274.

[38] Michael Rosensweig, Some Methodological Reflections in Lomdut: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning ed. by Yosef Blau (The Orthodox Forum Series), 200-1.