REVIEW: Perpetuating the Masorah

Todd Berman Tradition Online | September 3, 2023

REVIEW: Yitzhak Twersky, Perpetuating the Masorah: Halakhic, Ethical, and Experiential Dimensions, edited by Carmi Horowitz and David Shapiro (OU Press & Maggid Books), 188 pages

Prof. Carmi Horowitz and Rabbi David Shapiro gift the Jewish people with a beautiful volume of lectures by Rabbi Prof. Isadore (Yitzhak) Twersky zt”lPerpetuating the Masorah: Halakhic, Ethical, and Experiential Dimensions provides the reader with insight into three generations of scholars. Closest to our own day, the editors are both devoted disciples of R. Twersky, and the skillful marks of the editorial hands help us understand something of how they imbibed their master’s teaching. As the work provides a collection of lectures delivered by R. Twersky in memory of his father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, it takes us back a generation further, as we receive the Torah which was transmitted from the Rav. The first four chapters are edited versions of oral presentations offered as memorial shiurim on or around the Rav’s yahrzeit from 1994 to 1996, while the final chapter was initially published by R. Twersky himself, and published in TRADITION (Summer 1996).

Twersky lived a multifaceted life, occupying and integrating roles in almost unimaginable ways. He was a world-renowned professor of Jewish intellectual history, serving as the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University, a chair originally held by his predecessor and mentor, Harry Austryn Wolfson. I had the privilege of studying with Prof. Twersky in graduate school. On the other hand, he was a Hasidic Rebbe, scion of the Talner-Chernobyl dynasty, and the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth David, also known as the Talner Beis Medrash in the Brighton section of Boston. These paths, which one might presume diverged, actually complemented one another. On the Harvard campus, in his academic writing, he was Prof. Twersky, a towering academic and pioneer scholar. In other parts of Boston, he functioned as Rabbi Twersky, a profound rabbinic figure and leader in the local Jewish community.

This dichotomy is clearly shown by a quick examination of two recently published works. Carmi Horowitz published a collection of Twersky’s essays in Hebrew titled Ke-Ma’ayan ha-Mitgabber (Law and Spirit in Medieval Jewish Thought). These essays, like his major works such as his Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) by Yale University Press, are the works of an erudite academic scholar whose center is the university and the Center of Jewish Studies at Harvard. They trace topics in the history of Jewish thought and are written with the academic rigor befitting a university professor.

In Perpetuating the Masorah we meet Rabbi, not Professor, Twersky—an expositor par excellence of Torat Hashem, delivering eternal wisdom to his faithful followers, not to his academic seminar room. That he could straddle these two worlds speaks volumes to his intellect and personality. He mentions that some, including those closest to him, viewed this approach as inherently conflicted: “I still hear her [his mother], in a tone combining a mild query with a firm suggestion, commenting on why in the world I was writing about the Rambam (i.e., Maimonides) in English!” (Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, xv). The editors elucidate the differences in approaches Twersky took in his presentations:

R. Twersky’s mode of teaching and writing varied, as did his style and goals. His scholarly works were written within the orbit of his position as professor at Harvard University, and his readers were students, professors, and scholars of Jewish studies. R. Twersky strictly adhered to the objective rigor required of such writing, and his published writings were all intended for an academic audience. Yet his Torah teaching, his divrei Torah, his shiurim, delivered in the mode of classic Torah study, were also of great importance to him (5).

For Rabbi Prof. Twersky, both aspects of his personality represented an authentic, harmonious whole. In his portrayal of the Rav (discussed below), one might glimpse how he saw a synthesis of the professor and the rabbi in his own life.

There is, in my opinion, no justification for debate or equivocation concerning the Rov’s relation to general culture – philosophy, science, literature – but it is necessary to put this in proper perspective. The facts are unmistakable. He achieved sovereign mastery of these fields and used his knowledge selectively, creatively, and imaginatively, with great philosophic acumen and originality. He often reminisced with me about his student years and his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, which, he said, was characteristic of many of his contemporaries…. The impact of those years on him was great and lasting; his quest of wide-ranging scientific-humanistic knowledge was successful. The record of his dedicated quest for and ongoing use of knowledge is clear and unambiguous….

What is distinctive is the fact that the Rov does not preach or cajole, persuade or brainwash; he does not present an elaborate rationale for the study of philosophy. The latter simply appears as part of his intellectual capital…. [T]here is no attempt to argue and demonstrate the importance of general learning as an abstract proposition, just as there is no attempt to defend or glorify Western culture. Similarly, there is no attempt to demonstrate that traditional Judaism is completely congruent with philosophy (or any part of it). This truly noteworthy feature is a result of the fact that for the Rov there was nothing essentially problematic about the masorah; he did not feel compelled to prove that Torah and philosophy or science are compatible (142, 145–146).

Similarly, Twersky did not defend his religious life nor his academic world. Both were part of a greater whole that required no explanation or apology.

The first four essays in the book feature traditional lomdus, but offered with utmost clarity. Beyond the commemoration of the Rav, the overarching theme is aspects of Torah study and Masorah. The topics range from what makes a proper student (the chapter “Raise Up Many Disciples”), personal acquisition and ownership of Torah by talmidei hakhamim (“From God’s Torah to the Scholar’s Torah”), the relationship between teachers and students (“The Sages and Their Students”), and the nature of Jewish tradition (“Make a Fence Around the Torah”).

Beyond the erudition, what is so noteworthy about this volume is the clarity of presentation of complex topics. In chapter 2, Twersky unpacks the first selection in R. Yitzchak Zev (know as the Brisker Rov) Soloveichik’s Hiddushei Maran Riz Ha-Levi and adds new aspects to deepen the original. The Brisker Rov distinguishes between two overlapping obligations due to Torah scholars—honor and respect. A teacher may forgo his honor but not his respect. Honor is connected to the personal aspect of learning Torah, which makes the Torah, as it were, a possession of the teacher. In contrast, respect is a universal category for all talmidei hakhamim. Twersky clarifies:

On what is this difference based? The conclusion is clear… [a teacher] may forgo what he earned by his teaching, that which is due to him as a result of transmitting the masorah, that which he earned by his creative contributions to the understanding of Torah and by his direct relationship with his students, with talmidim young and old, and particularly the young to whom he taught Torah…. In other words, kavod for harav hamuvhak is what people owe him as a personal obligation, as an expression of gratitude. Were you not to express this gratitude you would be an ingrate. You benefit from somebody’s learning, somebody who spent a lifetime in Torah and who then shares with you all his insights, novel interpretations, and new applications. You owe him something. This is the halakhah of forgoing one’s personal kavod, which applies only to harav hamuvhak. But the scholar who has no personal relationship with me may not forgo respect due to him because it is not his to forgo; it is God’s. This is hiddur, which unlike the kavod due harav hamuvhak, is directed toward the Torah itself. In the case of other scholars, the personal dimension is missing; there is only the objective relation to Torah, and those who represent it are the emissaries, as it were, of Torah (47).

Here, R. Twersky extends the dichotomy expressed by the Brisker Rov and clarifies the underlying basis for the distinction between kavod, which can be forgiven, and hiddur, which cannot. The former is due as an act demonstrating gratitude for a personal relationship, while the latter is a more generic demand of respect. How much of this and all the Torah elucidations are R. Twersky’s thoughts and how much was derived from his close learning with R. Soloveitchik is unclear. As Twersky suggests, “The themes of the shiur… are automatically… a tribute to the Rov [sic]. His learning underlines everything that we study and analyze” (11).

Twersky attempts to explain the Rav’s method of teaching Torah by presenting two major components. “The first component in his method of teaching is that it necessitates treating the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah not only as a code of Halakhah (as the influential precursor of Shulhan Arukh), but also as a commentary on the Talmud; it recognizes that the Rambam, the authoritative codifier, is eo ipso a versatile, original commentator” (132). Further, he presents the second aspect of the “Brisker method.” “The second component in his method of teaching is that the primary mode of interpretation used in this process is abstract conceptualization, i.e., to find or extrapolate the unarticulated idea, the unperceived association, the unifying or differentiating characteristic which informs the plethora of details, to identify and analyze the concept which undergirds the many apparently disparate facts” (137).

Although, in these lectures, R. Twersky quotes from many different sources, it is clear that he is attempting to present the material following R. Soloveitchik’s method. Regarding the first component, Rambam, mostly from Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed, is quoted in the volume close to fifty times. No other source comes close. Regarding the second component, all four essays clearly illustrate the Brisker analytical method. Twersky explains the goal of the Rav’s teaching: “This entire method, which at the risk of oversimplification I have reduced to its most essential features, lends dignity to Torah, enhances kevod ha-torah, the honor of the Torah.” He continues in a vein that could be applied to this entire volume: “Original and profound, elegant and enthralling, such novel interpretations combining massive erudition with great intuition speak not only to one’s religious consciousness but fully engage the mind as well” (138).

In explaining R. Soloveitchik’s engagement with philosophy, Twersky presents what might be understood as an autobiographical remark about his own rabbinic career. “The Rov’s point of departure—his method and objective–was not formal, scholastic philosophy of religion, which he knew in all its guises, but rather a glorious masorah of ahavat Hashemde’ot, and talmud Torah, of Zohar and Sha’arei Orah, of Reishit Hokhma and Likkutei Torah; a masorah in which the dialectic of ideas provides a natural, nurturing framework for the primary religious experience and for the open-ended ongoing religious quest” (141).

Twersky was both a son-in-law and a close student of R. Soloveitchik. This relationship is reflected in these essays, which aim to present R. Twersky’s view of the Rav. In addition to the complete memorial essay on the Rav, we get glimpses of their relationship through personal stories. The son-in-law reminisces, “I have always felt that sheyihiyu mehudadim be-fikha [that words of Torah should be “sharp” in one’s mouth] could well be the slogan or motto of Brisk. The Torah had to be presented with the greatest conceptual precision and rigor. I remember being told many times (in different tones of voice) the name of Reb Hayyim [Soloveichik] that if you needed five words to explain something, do not use four and do not use six” (29), and “I have a letter he [R. Soloveitchik] wrote to me in the summer of 1969, when I was in Yerushalayim, about his experience of… teaching Gemara, and of his great disappointment of trying to teach nishmat hatorah” (32). Early in the book, Twersky mentions his close connection to his father-in-law and the Rav’s impact as a spiritual mentor:

I remember clearly one Friday morning in 1963, I came to my father-in-law for our weekly learning, and the Rov came out to greet me, visibly excited and holding something, and he said to me: ‘I had such a surprise last night.’ He was holding a little book, Kitvei Ha-Ilui Meirakov…. What excited the Rov was that at the end of the book there are religious poems…. The Rov’s excitement was visible, palpable; you could feel it, you could touch it. What was significant was this added expression of religious feeling, of religious consciousness (80–81).

Twersky imbibed R. Soloveitchik’s religious consciousness with thirst and tried to share his feelings and experiences with his audience. Horowitz and Shapiro have done us a service in now sharing it with later generations of readers as well

One oddity in his presentation, especially noticeable in the biographical section that Twersky prepared for print, assuming a wide readership, is the omission of R. Soloveitchik’s institutional roles. Many view Rabbi Soloveitchik as the preeminent teacher at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), where he ordained thousands of American Orthodox rabbis. However, YU is not mentioned once in the volume. Instead, R. Twersky refers to “his base in Boston and New York.” The only institution linked to the Rav is the Maimonides School in Boston. Perhaps R. Twersky was biased in seeing the Rav in his position in the Boston community where Twersky grew up and lived. This position might have been understandable in talks delivered in Boston but less so in the pages of TRADITION or in this book.

A further surprising aspect of the book is the critique of Modern Orthodoxy which runs throughout. “The Rov recognized modernity; he acknowledged its problems and challenges and confronted them but did not yield or capitulate to it” (111). Twice, Twersky returns to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s eulogy for “perhaps the Rov’s closest friend,” R. Hayyim Heller. Quoting the Rav, Twersky says, “[Modern Orthodoxy] is a kind of religion that is unable to sprout wings, unable to rise above the mundane – its wings have been clipped so that it cannot soar – nor does it have roots that will enable it to penetrate to the depth of religious experience” (112). For Twersky, “What fascinated him [the Rav] most was religious consciousness. All the themes which were presented with the utmost sophistication, with unmatched philosophical erudition, eloquence of style, and exposition, are essentially religious” (79). Seemingly, Twersky understood the Rav to have been disappointed by the world of Modern Orthodoxy so often associated with his name.

This highly readable volume opens an aperture into the world of traditional lomdus and gives us intimate pictures of both R. Soloveitchik and R. Twersky. The biographical details add to the beautifully presented shiurim on Torah learning and Jewish tradition. This volume is valuable for those interested in a picture of Rabbi Soloveitchik as the Rav of Boston and Prof. Twersky as the Rav of the Talner Beis Medrash. It is indispensable for those who wish to connect more deeply with our masorah, so profoundly perpetuated in its pages.

Rabbi Todd Berman is the Director of Institutional Advancement and a Ram at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi.

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