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The Reb Chaim Brisker Of Bible Scholars


There are great teachers whose impact is limited to their students. Greater still are those whose students initiate students of their own. The greatest teachers, however, influence not only the direct line descending from them, but an entire climate of thinking. All of us are their talmidim.

Twentieth-century Orthodox Bible study boasts two such figures. Nechama Leibowitz’s writing, teaching and broadcasting turned the exacting, microscopic study of Jewish parshanut into an exciting and popular pursuit. And Rabbi Mordechai Breuer fashioned the tools that enabled Orthodox students to confront the literary problems raised by modern biblical criticism. He entered a situation where the Orthodox approach was an apologetic one, in which the Torah was to be defended against heretical assault.

By the time he died last month, Rabbi Breuer had transformed the encounter with kefira into a positive act of Torah study. Where his influence is felt, the literary questions posed by the Bible critics are treated no different from other interesting questions endemic to Torah study: questions are a spur to chiddush and deeper understanding rather than a cause for discomfort or panic.

Rabbi Breuer, who passed away Feb. 24 in Jerusalem, spent his life in the tents of Torah. Though he associated with university people, his vocation was teaching at yeshivot and women’s institutions of higher Torah learning. His scholarly publications must be viewed as part of his primary commitment to talmud Torah in the classic sense of the phrase. He is responsible for two major enterprises, each of which could constitute a lifetime’s work.

The first was relatively uncontroversial. Rabbi Breuer devoted many years to clarifying the mesorah – the best tradition preserving the biblical text. This aspect of his work culminated in his publication of the Keter Aram Tzova and in his consultation on Mosad HaRav Kook’s Daat Mikra project. His work was respected and recognized among academicians regardless of their religious beliefs. He received the Israel Prize in 1999.

By contrast, Rabbi Breuer’s other great quest isolated him from the academic consensus and frequently baffled other Orthodox thinkers. The Higher Critics, who have become dominant over the past two centuries, profess the Documentary Hypothesis. According to them, the Torah comprises several sources, with different authors who represent conflicting outlooks and traditions about Israel’s history and laws. They point to phenomena well known to any reader of the Torah.

Traditional readers, of course, were hardly naive about the scholarly discoveries. The critical analysis of Bereishit, for example, was much concerned with the different names of God: by assigning all mentions of the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name for God found frequently in Chumash) to one source they could separate the passages ascribed to that source from other supposed authors. But, countered the defenders of tradition, Chazal had long ago anticipated the distinction between the different names of God.

The Tetragrammaton, if we may simplify the matter, denotes God’s quality of mercy. On the other hand, Elokim denotes the attribute of judgment. The Rabbis applied this distinction to the opening chapters of Bereishit, teaching that God had intended to create the world according to the principle of strict judgment (chapter 1), conjoining it with the Tetragrammaton (meaning the quality of mercy) in chapter 2, only because a world of strict law is not viable. A complex message requires a complex mode of communication.

Chazal were even more keenly aware of inconsistencies in the legal sections, as any student of Talmud and halachic midrash can attest. While a straightforward reading of isolated halachic passages might imply conflicting halachic conclusions, Torah she-b’al Peh does justice to all the relevant parashiyot.

Where the Bible critic discovers a multitude of cacophonous authors, juxtaposed by an editor who only fitfully and unsuccessfully contends with the abundant contradictions, traditional commentators perceive a complex message. To quote one of Rabbi Breuer’s favorite pesukim: “Achat dibber Elokim, shtayim zo shama’ti” (God speaks one truth; we hear multiple voices).

Such responses draw upon Chazal and traditional commentators. Rabbi Breuer systematizes these approaches but he offers more. Where his predecessors had generally been satisfied to present a plausible reconciliation of localized problems, Rabbi Breuer’s frame of reference is the Torah as a complex system of texts. He is not only interested in explaining, for example, what different, seemingly disparate details of the Torah dealing with Pesach mean – why Shemot insists that the sacrifice cannot be boiled, while Devarim uses the generic term bishul, to cook; or why Devarim includes the chagiga, while Shemot omits it – but in establishing what each “voice” of God is about and what partial truth God is communicating in each passage, which must then be understood as part of the total message of the Torah.

Rabbi Breuer’s achievement in the study of Chumash can be compared to Rabbi Chaim Brisker’s revolution in Talmud study. Both build on the insights of their predecessors, back to Chazal themselves. Both advocate systematic analysis. Both shift the focus of study from the localized clash of question and answer to the search for underlying principles that would explain the data.

In the academic world this aspect of Rabbi Breuer’s work was received with a thundering silence. Naturally those scholars committed to the Documentary Hypothesis for religious or intellectual reasons would not be eager to discard the consensus, especially as Rabbi Breuer offered not an all out refutation, but rather an alternative method, compelling only to those already inclined to embrace Torah miSinai on other grounds.

Many observant academics had become comfortable with a policy whereby they gained tolerance by publishing only on “neutral” subjects, employing vague formulations that do not require explicit affirmation or denial of ikkarei emuna. Some avoided teaching Chumash altogether to avoid offending either the Orthodox or the secular.

Acknowledging Rabbi Breuer’s work directed unwelcome attention to the ways in which Orthodox students of Bible are divided from their non-Orthodox counterparts.

Many readers of his early articles simply didn’t grasp what Rabbi Breuer was getting at. He used kabbalistic terminology without fully explaining how it was relevant to modern biblical inquiries. I believe he was not understood until his work became known among students familiar with Brisk who could appreciate the analogies noted above.

Even after he became popular there were valid criticisms from those largely sympathetic with his approach: Rabbi Breuer was too exuberantly prone to accept questions raised by Bible critics as legitimate regardless of the particular merits of the case, simply because they were taken seriously in the literature he studied. More important, Rabbi Breuer and many of his followers underestimated the degree to which adopting the vocabulary and stylistic tics of academic Bible study subtly undermines the sense of reverence essential to Torah study. The fact that many live their lives in Torah institutions may have been a drawback rather than a boon – had they spent more time in the university, they might have become warier of this danger.

Misunderstanding and loneliness is the fate of the pioneer. Rabbi Breuer persevered against the indifference of the academy and initial lack of comprehension within the Torah community. He can no longer join us in cultivating the fields he has plowed. But as we continue to expand and deepen his work, it is a duty and a privilege to show gratitude for his initiative and inspiration.

About the Author: Rabbi Shalom Carmy is professor of Jewish studies and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and editor of the Torah journal Tradition.


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There are great teachers whose impact is limited to their students. Greater still are those whose students initiate students of their own. The greatest teachers, however, influence not only the direct line descending from them, but an entire climate of thinking. All of us are their talmidim.

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