Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.
Religion is preoccupied with the question of boundaries. What practice, idea, or allegiance puts this person or that community beyond the pale? Why can some Jews observe in ways that would be inadmissible to others (for example, Sephardim eating rice on Passover and Ashkenazim forbidding it)?
To address these questions competently it is not enough to know the halacha; a mastery of halachic literature is a prerequisite of course, but so is vast historical knowledge, sociological sensitivity, and detailed familiarity with the area under examination. Since Jewish law was practically coextensive with Jewish life, to understand halacha historically is a scholarly statement, essentially saying that nothing Jewish can be alien to me.
Given the range required, few can practice this well, and rare indeed are masters of the discipline. The last generation gave us Jacob Katz. In our generation the premier practitioner of history of, and through, halacha is Haym Soloveitchik.
In Collected Essays, Volume 1, this first of three projected volumes, Soloveitchik presents essays that deal with boundary questions. Some stir agonizing historical memories, like his much-discussed essay on the rabbinic approval of the practice, not entirely uncommon in the Middle Ages, of committing suicide or even murdering children in order to prevent their conversion to Christianity. Anyone who supposes for a moment that Jewish law cannot find a way, in extremis, to approve of something that seems prima facie contrary to every supposition of Jewish law should read this essay.
Soloveitchik is an historian of the Tosafists, those Franco-German masters of the 12th and 13th century whose subtle dialectics are the delight and bane of every Talmud student. He illustrates how much of what we think of as ‘normative’—the intricate regulations concerning milk and meat for example—are the product of these Ashkenazi legal minds. For many students of Talmud they are names on the page, associated with argumentation alone, but in Soloveitchik’s hands they come alive as human beings whose life circumstances shape a devotion to law that result in both surprising twists and sharp-tongued polemics.
Some of the essays require not only close attention but a background in Jewish texts. But others are more accessible, and Soloveitchik, in addition to his many other merits, is an elegant stylist—though he’s also known as an acerbic controversialist. Part of the pleasure of reading him is that there is more learning and illumination to be found in his remarks dropped along the way than in the pages of a lesser scholar. You will find here both attacks on views Soloveitchik finds mistaken or learning he deems shallow. But that makes his warm appreciation of sound scholarship that much more meaningful and sincere.
A later volume will contain Soloveitchik’s most famous essay, which argues that the loss of organic communities and the overreliance on book learning has resulted in greater rigidity of law. Human beings, after all, are more malleable than words on a page. But some words on a page do have life. As evidence I offer the profound, poignant essays of Haym Soloveitchik.
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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe