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Rav Yitzchok Hutner and the Meaning of Hanukkah

A poet, educator, and master of religious prose, he believed the holiday represented a watershed in Jewish history: the transition to an intellectual rabbinic Judaism

Yaakov Elman
December 04, 2015

The complex question of determining God’s will in our own pedestrian times was of particular moment in some sections of urban Polish Hasidism, especially in the early 19th-century thought of Przysucha, Kotzk, Izbica, and Lublin. In these circles it was combined with the question of the worth of the individual and the question of the authenticity of individual perceptions. The combination of these elements is particularly marked in the work of one of the most creative Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century, whose work is only now beginning to get the attention it deserves: Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the long-time dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin (1906-1980).

Born in Warsaw to a Hasidic mother and a non-Hasidic father, Hutner grew up with a balance of Lithuanian learning and Hasidic “soul,” especially as represented by his maternal uncle, a Kotzker Hasid. His extraordinary abilities were recognized as a child—he was known as the “Warshawer illuy (genius)”—and at age 15, young even in the hothouse of Eastern European Jewry, he was recruited for the great Slobodka Musar yeshiva founded by Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel (1849-1927), whose watchword was gadlut ha-adam, “the greatness of man.” Rav Finkel, known as “the Elder of Slobodka,” instilled in his charges a doctrine of greatness, a positive view of humanity as a whole, and of human life, filled with pleasures both intellectual and physical, and especially of humanity’s role in the world God created, emphasizing the Talmudic teaching that one must hold that “the world was created for my sake.”

After several years in Slobodka the young Rav Hutner moved with part of the yeshiva to Hebron in what was then Palestine; he was to spend a total of eight years under the Elder’s tutelage. But when in Palestine he met the next major influence in his life, Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook (1865-1935), the first chief rabbi of Palestine, a rabbinic scholar and also a mystic, one who believed that all was from God, including Godless movements like Zionism and Socialism. Though Rav Hutner vehemently disagreed with these views, the impact of Rav Kook’s thought only served to strengthen his own deeply held views on individualism, creativity, and authenticity. Rav Hutner also traveled to Berlin, where he attended lectures at the University of Berlin for four months. Years later, spying a Chaim Berlin student, who was attending Brooklyn College at night, with a copy of one of the works of the German philosopher G. W. Friedrich Hegel in his hand, the yeshiva dean commented, “It was better in the original!”

Rav Hutner became a poet and master of religious prose, an original thinker who produced a theological/psychological system that incorporated elements of many strands of Jewish thought enlivened and enriched with insights from his own preternatural understanding of human nature and behavior. As an educator, he enlivened his yeshiva, Yeshiva Rabbenu Chaim Berlin, by introducing Hasidic/Musar elements into it, with discourses (maamarim) along the lines of a Hasidic tish or farbrengen, and significantly, reminiscent of those of Slobodka, discourses that were devoted to matters of “laws of dispositions and the duties of the heart” interspersed with Hasidic-style melodies. His discourses were eventually edited and collected into the volumes of his magnum opus, Pahad Yitzhak (1964-1982), which remains, more than 30 years after his passing, his major legacy, one that is still as unique today as it was in his own time.

The cover of Pahad Yitzhak.
The cover of Pahad Yitzhak.

The most remarkable—and paradoxical—aspect of his work is the fact that he dealt with very modern philosophical problems, employing his own nomenclature, often based on references from the Siddur or rabbinic literature. But once the existential—and existentialist—referents are made clear, his work becomes a compelling narrative of the encounter of a 20th-century “prince of Torah” with the modern world. And thus within the pages of Pahad Yitzhak one will find disquisitions on the difference between the psychologies of generalists versus specialists, the tensions of the individual within human society, other problems of identity and personality, of change and renewal, the problem of mortality and other aspects of the human condition. It is this attention to the existential side of Jewish thought that makes for such compelling reading.

Despite the book’s title, the world of Pahad Yitzhak is a joyful one, filled with creativity, renewal, and innovation, that celebrates the individual human mind at its creative best, that is, in the study of God’s Torah, a world that proclaims not only the greatness of God but also the greatness of His Creation, and, in particular, the summit of that Creation, humankind. It is thus a world in which the individual can—and must—contribute something of his or her own unique selfhood. It is also a world of poetic beauty and metaphor: The Maharal of Prague (1515-1609), one of the most influential Jewish thinkers since Maimonides but known chiefly nowadays for his creation of the golem, does not teach us, he “implants” knowledge in us; the Vilna Gaon does not instruct, we “discover the pearl hidden beneath his words.” These metaphors are not mere literary flourishes but reflect Rav Hutner’s inner world, a world that he wishes to share with us. It is a world mysterious but knowable; the controlling metaphors reveal the inner workings of the world and of the human mind and psyche. It is a world of parallels and analogies, analogies that connect the parallels, a world of macrocosm and microcosm. It is also a world of paradoxes that must be reconciled; a world of strict judgment, din, but also a world of loving-kindness, chesed. The metaphor of implanting reflects the Maharal’s own view of the world, which is a world of potential which must be actualized by humans, as a plant grows from a seed.

Rav Hutner’s world gains its narrative drive from a world that was set up along dialectical axes: God made things parallel (“one opposite the other”), the world is a Book of Revelation, one of God’s Two Books, each of which is a commentary on the other. Again, the dynamism inheres in the search for truth, which must be uncovered; thus it was from Creation, where first there was darkness before light was created, enslavement preceded the liberation of the Exodus, and for us, both as individuals and as societies, confusion and error pave the way for true understanding. Rav Hutner taught that the intellect is the essence of humanity, and creativity is an essential part of its work; there is no intellection without it, and the joy of intellectual endeavor ensured that creativity. With this, however, came doubt and dispute, which should not be looked at negatively, but as essentials for a creative, joyous intellectual life.

Against this backdrop, Hanukkah represented for him a watershed in Jewish history, with the coming of an appreciation for the individual’s contribution to Judaism’s intellectual life, the study of Torah. Hanukkah reflects the transition to an intellectual rabbinic Judaism, where study and intellectual creativity became the foundation and the hallmarks of Jewish life. Before the early rabbinic sages, the tannaim, we do not hear of individual contributions to Torah-learning. And it is only with the advent of the tannaitic period that the study of the Oral Torah flourishes, with the value placed on that individual contribution, despite the limitations of finite human understanding, its doubts and disputes.

Here is Pahad Yitzhak (Hanukkah) 3.2-4:

3.2… Yose b. Yoezer and Yose b. Yohanan who lived in the time of the Greek war were the first [recorded sages] to disagree in regard to the laws of the Torah. … That is, because the Greek decrees forbidding Torah study caused the eyes of the sages to be darkened, this darkening/causing to forget was the cause of the first [recorded] dispute within the Sanhedrin that sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stones—so that the increase of viewpoints and the consequent differences of opinion in Torah discourse (lit., “war of Torah”) to the present day proceeds directly from that darkening of the eyes of Israel by means of the enforced forgetting of the Torah by the Greek decrees.
3.3 But “at times the nullification of Torah is its [continued] existence” (Menahot 99b). … The breaking of the tablets [containing the Decalogue] constituted its preservation [when Moses shattered the first tablets which eventually led to a reconciliation with God]. Thus, the Sages say that had the first tablets not been shattered, Israel would not have forgotten the Torah (Eruvin 54a). We learn therefore that the breaking of the tablets led to the forced forgetting of the Torah, and from this we learn a wonderful insight: the Torah can increase by means of forgetting of the Torah. See what the Sages have taught us: Three hundred laws were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses but Othniel b. Kenaz restored them by means of his analytic ability (Temurah 16a). Thus, the words of Torah that were restored by analytic ability are identical to the laws that were multiplied only because of that forgetting of the Torah. Not only that, but the very increase of disputes in law occurred because of that forgetting, but despite this, the sages tell us that even though these declare an object ritually clean and others declare it ritually fit, these declare it invalid and others declare it valid, these declare something permitted and other declare it forbidden, etc., both are words of the living God; the upshot is that the increase in views and approaches constitute an enlargement of Torah and its glorification that proceed precisely from the forgetting of Torah.
3.4 An even greater insight than this proceeds from the foregoing: Our perception of the power of Oral Torah as revealed through disagreements is greater than when there is agreement. For within the principle that “these and those are the Word of the Living God” is included the essential principle that even the principle that is rejected as legal practice is nevertheless a Torah view, when it is expressed according to the norms of the discourse of the Oral Torah. This is because the Torah was given according to the sensibilityַ of the Sages of the Torah. … And if they then vote and decide according to the rejected view, the law then changes in a true sense. … The result is that in disagreement the power of the Oral Torah is revealed to a greater extent than by [the Sages’] agreement. The “war of Torah” (Torah debate) is thus not merely one mode of Torah discourse among others, but rather “the war of Torah” is a positive creation of new Torah values, whose like is not to be found in ordinary words of Torah [where there is no disagreement].

The paradoxes pile up: The laws that issue from the Divine mind and are transmitted by prophecy are forgotten but restored by the analytic methods of the mere human mind; revelation becomes enlightenment. Rav Hutner once complained that he spoke poetry, but his students wanted prose. The paradoxes, in which he delighted, are the poetry; their explanation is prose. The paradoxes are produced by the conjoining of antitheses: light, darkness, doubt, certainty, good, evil; that conjoining produces the dynamism that characterizes the system of Pahad Yitzhak.

How is this done? By the adroit use of parallelism, à la the neo-Platonic system of Kabbalah and its partial demystification in Hasidic thought. Mystically speaking, God, His Torah, and Israel are one. The minds of the sages of Israel, when engaged in the study of Torah, mirror that Torah, which in turn mirrors the mind of the Holy One, blessed be He. Thus, doubt and dispute—the application of human methods of analysis to the task of dispelling ignorance and doubt produces certain knowledge. The result of this process is described in Pahad Yitzhak (Yom Kippur) 15.4:

4. … And this is what we said [above], based on the principle of the Maharal that the sanctity of the First Temple issued from the Giver, while the sanctity of the Second Temple came from the recipient [(Israel)—YE], and this difference in the sanctity of the Temple was clearly recognizable in the building itself [since the Second Temple lacked the ark—YE], and so too this difference was revealed in the eras of the two Temples. For the governance of the Collectivity of Israel during the period of the First Temple was by the prophets, while its governance during the Second Temple period was by the Men of the Great Assembly and their disciples, as we have it in the Mishnah at the beginning of Avot, “the prophets handed it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.” And the Men of the Great Assembly are the ones who said “erect fences to the Torah,” and overwhelmingly the enactments, decrees and “words of the Scribes” are from the period of the Second Temple, and we hold that all the enactments continue in force because of their spread among all of Israel. And all of this shows clearly (lit., “shows with a finger”) that even in regard to (the nature) of the period of the two temples, that of the First Temple was closer to the Giver, while that of the Second Temple was closer to the recipient.

The role of the individual is symbolized by the Hanukkah lights, which symbolize that individual contribution to the intellectual Torah heritage which grows and deepens with each contribution. And, as Pahad Yitzhak emphasizes, acknowledging individual contributions, and the unique contribution of each individual, improves the community, in this case the “Collectivity of Israel.”

Yaakov Elman (1943-2018) was a Professor of Jewish History, and the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair in Talmudic Studies, at Yeshiva University.

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