Following the publication of our article in the Hakirah Journal, on the RCA Siddur, there ensued a learned correspondence, some of which was published in the most recent Hakirah volume, XXIX. Here is the most substantial response we penned, which may also be most interesting to readers.
Regarding the three shelo asani blessings:
There is no claim that the historical insight proffered is the “sole cause” for its place in the siddur. Undoubtedly the Rav’s understanding that R. Brizel cites — “they are worded in the negative… [because] the chosenness of Israel implies separation and aloneness, meaning that Israel has a specific identity to the exclusion of any other” – is emet le-amito. However, this insight does not address the specific choice of goy, eved and ishah, as opposed to, say, boor, which is found in the Tosefta and entertained and rejected in Menachot 43b. The fact is that early Christians specifically opposed the principle of Jewish “separateness and aloneness” of Klal Yisrael and made it the target of their polemics, and specifically used these three examples.
The explanation we offered is wholly in line with the one proffered by R. Steve Brizel, namely that these blessings highlight the chosenness of Am Yisrael. Yes, indeed, which is why while Christians were adopting the Pauline doctrine of Abrogation of the Law, Hazal were highlighting the differences in mitzvah obligations. The chosenness of Am Yisrael expresses itself in the obligation to fulfill more mitzvot and thereby more deeply partner with G-d to perfect His world. These three blessings highlight these differences, and them being also a polemical refutation of Christianity doesn’t lessen the timeless theological point.
Rav Soloveitchik famously, and quite cogently, opposed historicizing and psychologizing explanations for Halakhot, not merely due to the clear antinomian dangers inherent in such an approach, but as a matter of principle regarding the correct way to cognize the Halakhic system. Yet he himself did not shy away from historical insights that add clarity and depth to the understandings of the liturgical concretizations of timeless ideas. If one turns just one leaf back from the citation that R. Brizel mentions,1 to p. 167 in the Rosh Hashanah machzor, we find regarding birkhot ha-torah: “These blessings were authored by the Amoraim Shmuel and R’ Yochanan, as noted in the Gemara in Berachos (11b), and in placing these two blessings in this order, they sought to emphasize the greatness and in some sense even the superiority of תורה שבעל פה over תורה שבכתב. These Amoraim may also have felt the necessity to assert the importance of תורה שבעל פה against the attacks of disbelievers in the Oral Law.”
We heartily agree that Rav Soloveitchik rejected the feminist critique of Halakhah, and we, and our Siddur, surely do as well. For the Rav, this approach is rooted in a fundamental error regarding the principle that in the philosophy of Halakhah (fleshed out in Halakhic Man and The Halakhic Mind), religious experience emerges from the act, and not the reverse.2
And yet, the Rav himself promoted and lived women’s advancement – married to a Ph.D, having studied Talmud with his two daughters3 and having expected them to pursue doctoral degrees4 – to understand him as one ideologically opposed to any sort of “feminism” would presume a degree of cognitive dissonance on his part that is not insignificant. His association with feminine advancement goes well beyond biography. We refer readers to a brilliant exposition by Prof. Shira Wolosky,5 in which she concludes, based on numerous citations of the Rav’s works, that “…the inner structure of the self that Rav Soloveitchik projects shares many features with feminist constructions of selfhood….“
In Family Redeemed, the Rav even overtly sympathized with feminist complaints:6
“…In contrast to the defeat of the man, the woman fails in her attempt to enjoy life; she is never successful at a hedonic aesthetic level. She wants to unite in marriage with the man she loves and establish a home, raise a family and enjoy her children, and she finds herself in bondage to her companion and children. She realizes every wish of hers in sorrow. While enjoying, she restricts herself and her freedoms. Drinking from the cup on sexual pleasures is impregnated with pain and suffering… she is defeated by her husband and children.”7
A reasonable assesment of the Rav’s attitude towards feminism would be that he was sympathetic to some of its aims and values – sensitive to women’s rights, religious education, axiological parity and unique epistemological and ethical perspectives of women — while he rejected others, in particular those that threatened the integrity of the Halakhic system. We walk in this well-trodden and reasonable path.
The New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary, or the “literary-theological reading”8 of Tanakh, a term coined by R. Shalom Carmy — cannot possibly be characterized as “Pshat only.” It arguably grew out of Nehama Leibowitz’s gilyonot, which, far from jettisoning, strove to understand how the classic Mefarshim were reading the text.9 Its practitioners seek, as did Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and even Rashi, to read the Biblical text closely. On that basis, they most often reach new appreciation for the astounding sensitivity of the commentators and Hazal to semantic choices, intratextual patterns and intertextual references, and gain new insights into the profound messages that midrashim and aggadot intended to convey.
The “New School” is a remarkable boon to the entire edifice of Talmud Torah, and a natural development for a generation which has been taught to read texts closely. It bases itself on methods and values advocated by none less than R. Aharon Lichtenstein, who suggested that „we acknowledge the significance of a range of problems we generally ignore – literary problems; and that we perceive a dimension we ordinarily overlook – a literary dimension. We should learn to recognize archetypal forms and techniques of thematic development; to discern patterns of imagery and principles of structure; to be sensitive to narrative flow and dramatic interaction; to observe rhythmic movement and verbal texture.“ He called that „rediscovering“ the true, classical approach of sages and commentators to Tanakh.10 The so-called „New School“ does not challenge the historicity of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim and Matan Torah; on the contrary, one of its members who proceeded on to academia has produced the most highly regarded scholarly defense of both the historicity of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim and the integrity of the Torah text that has ever appeared.11
(AF adds:) It is understandable that R’ Steve Brizel is concerned about aspects of modern Tanakh scholarship. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a steady flow of articles and opinions from self-identified members of the Orthodox community, who have increasingly voiced opinions once anathema to anyone Orthodox. We consider some of those abhorrent, others we view with great concern. This phenomenon has been well documented elsewhere.12
However, as R. Prof. Shnayer Leiman powerfully opined13, it would be a mistake to dismiss the value of new perspectives in Tanakh, when those perspectives are rooted in Ahavat and Yirat haShem. Mikhlelet Herzog was founded under the guidance of R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, and it is with the Tanakh faculty of Mikhlelet Herzog that the “New School” is most often associated. The senior faculty of Herzog have been handpicked by R’ Lichtenstein, and as we perused their teachings we have found them overflowing with love of G-d and His Torah, as well as with acceptance of and submission to Torah. Far from eschewing Hazal – which we recognize some popular Tanakh teachers unfortunately do – these senior faculty members have shown that Hazal were constantly relating to the profound peshat. To understand Hazal, one needs to understand peshat, and often Hazal, in their flowing midrashic style, are clearly hinting at ommeko shel peshat, the profound analysis of what the peshat is or could be. They bring to our attention these ambiguities and teach us what to learn from them. Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of these proponents of the New School is to show that the distance between peshat and derash is smaller than we often assume.
That said, R’ Lichtenstein himself was apprehensive at how acceptance of some modern methods could be misused, and was also disapproving of some proponents of such methods.14 In this spirit, we carefully vetted every hiddush and every author whom we agreed to quote in the siddur. We did our due diligence to only bring the wheat, while leaving not only the chaff, but also doubtful material out. A siddur is not a place for avant-garde theological experiments.
Space considerations prevent us from expanding further in this format, but we do hope to expand on all of these themes, on the question of the presence and place of apologetics both in our Siddur and the Rav’s oeuvre, and on R’ Brizel’s fourth point – the very necessity of a Siddur commentary – in a forthcoming stand-alone article.
Aton Holzer & Arie Folger
1Arnold Lustiger, Machzor Mesores HaRav (Khal Publishing, 2007), 169.
2 Lecture at RCA Convention, June 27, 1973. Recording archived at https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/749191/rabbi-joseph-b-soloveitchik/the-rebellion-of-korach/ and accessed on December 21, 2020.
3Aharon Lichtenstein, “Fundamental Problems Regarding the Education of the Woman,” in Ha-isha Ve-chinukha, Benzion Rosenfeld, ed. (Amanah, 1980), 158-159.
4Heard from Rabbanit Tovah Lichtenstein at a small gathering at Yeshivat Har Etzion, 1996.
5Shira Wolosky, “The Lonely Woman of Faith.” Judaism 52:1-2 (2003), 3-19.
6 See, e.g., Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe, H.M. Parshley, transl. (Vintage Books, 1989), 453-455.
7 Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed, 24-25.
8Shalom Carmy, “A Room with a View, but a Room of Our Own,” Tradition 28:3 (1994): 39-69. For an excellent overview of the history of this approach, see Yael Ziegler, Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy (Maggid Books, 2015), 3-14.
9See Yaakov Beasley, “Review Essay: Return of the Pashtanim.” Tradition 42:1, New York: Spring 2009, pp. 67-83.
10Aharon Lichtenstein, “Criticism and Kitvei ha-Kodesh,” in Rav Shalom Banayikh: Essays Presented to Rabbi Shalom Carmy, ed. Hayyim
Angel and Yitzchak Blau (Ktav, 2012), 15-32, p. 31.
11Joshua Berman, Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press, 2017).
12See for example Marc B. Shapiro, “Is Modern Orthodoxy Moving Towards an Acceptance of Biblical Criticism?.” Modern Judaism 37:2 (2017), 165-193, as well as Adam S. Ferziger, “Fluidity and Bifurcation: Critical Biblical Scholarship and Orthodox Judaism in Israel and North America,” Modern Judaism 39:3, October 2019. Though Shapiro seems to particularly welcome these developments, I look at them with the same consternation and horror as Steve Brizel.
13Shnayer Z. Leiman, “Response to Rabbi Breuer,” Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, Shalom Carmy, ed. (Jason Aronson Books, 2005), 181-187, p. 187.
14See, e.g., R’ Haim Sabato, Mevakshei Panekha: Sihot im HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein (Tel Aviv: Yediot, 2011), p. 201.