Rav Lichtenstein on Wissenschaft in his Own (Yiddish) Words

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The State of the Question

Many leading Jewish studies scholars had their first exposure to advanced Talmud study at Yeshivat Har Etzion. For that reason, and many others, the recent Lehrhaus debate on this question is an important one: how did Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, Yeshivat Har Etzion’s academically-oriented Rosh Yeshiva, view the endeavor of Wissenschaft? Until recently, no extensive treatment of the issue had been available, neither by way of Rav Lichtenstein’s own pen nor in secondary literature.

Both Prof. Rami Reiner’s article on Rav Lichtenstein’s view and Prof. Lawrence Kaplan’s rejoinder call attention to this important topic by culling the various relevant strands of evidence, both from Rav Lichtenstein’s writings and from his administrative activities as Rosh Yeshiva over the years.

Both writers understand that Rav Lichtenstein was not the strongest proponent of academic Jewish studies. Reiner and Kaplan differ on two issues: whether Rav Lichtenstein warmed to academic Talmud over the years, and the fundamental reasons for the objection overall. Reiner believes that the primary point of Rav Lichtenstein’s opposition was that this form of scholarship did not “advance his major life-goal: serving God by studying and teaching Talmud according to the traditional Brisker method,” and he sees the intensity of this opposition diminishing over time. Kaplan, by contrast, understands that Rav Lichtenstein’s position was consistent throughout his life, concerned with the dual risks that academic Talmud will “undermin[e] respect for Hazal” and engender a “corrosive historicism, leading to relativism.”

Both contributions advance our conversation considerably. Despite these scholarly treatments, the public record on this issue still features a lacuna. As Lawrence Kaplan notes, “Nowhere … does Rav Lichtenstein discuss this matter in an extended and systematic way.”

Until now.

This article will introduce a new source to the discussion, an important, Yiddish-language talk given by Rav Lichtenstein himself entitled “Higher Jewish Learning in America,” which relates to the distinction between academic and traditional Talmud study.[1]

Considering this source, newly available in translation, will serve to extend the temporal frame of this question, to confirm some of the points made by both Kaplan and Reiner, and to sharpen some of the categories being used.

The History and Significance of the “Higher Jewish Learning in America” Lecture

The History and Significance of the “Higher Jewish Learning in America” Lecture
Rav Lichtenstein’s talk, presented in 1968 to the YIVO Institute[2], is important for several reasons. First, it is the only extended articulation by Rav Lichtenstein of his views on Wissenschaft that has been preserved. Second, it is by far the earliest treatment of Rav Lichtenstein on the topic. Finally, relatedly, and likely most importantly, the basis and framing of his position on these issues are clarified in various ways, connecting to a wide variety of Rav Lichtenstein’s other writings.

The lecture primarily offers two distinctions between the yeshiva approach and a more academic approach to the study of traditional Jewish texts.

Defining the “Traditional Approach”

For Rav Lichtenstein, traditional approaches to text are distinguished by the relationship they presume between the student and the text – both that the student will employ traditional methods and that (s)he will hold a certain stance vis-à-vis the past:

“When we describe learning as “traditional,” we refer to a methodology that is not only old but that is rooted and, to a certain extent, implants within a student a particular relationship to the past, or to certain facets thereof; in other words, an approach to learning through which the student absorbs a certain relationship to the Jewish past.”

When applied at a more granular level, this leads to several points of distinction between “yeshiva” and “academic” approaches. The academic approach is more historically oriented, collecting the various relevant facts and contexts for understanding their text. On the other hand, Rav Lichtenstein explains, the yeshiva approach is more analytically oriented, building a particular conceptual structure that draws upon the details contained within the text.

For the yeshiva student, “the main emphasis… on understanding what the gemara itself says, what kind of ideas are expressed therein, what sort of concepts are defined therein.” Summarizing the overall distinction in method between yeshiva and academic study, Rav Lichtenstein states: “The emphasis [of the traditional approach] is not so much on facts but on ideas; it is more a philosophical than a historical approach; one is concerned more with the text than with the context.”[3]

At the same time, Rav Lichtenstein does assert that the yeshiva method is concerned with the text—albeit maybe as a path to arriving at ideational content—which might speak to his support for being mindful of textual variants, as noted by both Reiner and Kaplan.

History and Literature, Text and Context

In a manner befitting a literature PhD, Rav Lichtenstein develops this distinction between methods that focus on the history surrounding the text and those focusing on the text’s ideas themselves by drawing an analogy to a then-raging debate in the field of literature. He points to a 1951 conference at which Arthur S.P. Woodhouse and Cleanth Brooks espoused widely divergent views on how to properly read Milton, with the former supporting “historical criticism” and the latter “new criticism.” The methodological question facing these scholars was whether one must delve into the historical context and circumstances of the author and his interlocutors or whether one should focus on the poetry’s form and substance alone, connecting the questions of scholarly goals and methods.

Rav Lichtenstein concludes his analysis by quoting an oft-cited and controversially attributed quip on the difference between yeshiva and academic aims: “If you want to know what Rashi looked like, what clothing he wore, and so on, go consult [Leopold] Zunz. But if you want to know who Rashi was, what he said, better to study with me.”

If this distinction between yeshiva and academic study sounds familiar, that is because it is summarized neatly in Reiner’s formulation that the academic method falls short by failing to advance Rav Lichtenstein’s goal of “serving God by studying and teaching Talmud according to the traditional Brisker method.” Such is the difference between a study focused on history and one focused on the text and its concepts.

This distinction between reading with an eye to historical context and to appreciating the text itself is also made significantly by Rav Lichtenstein in several other places, where it is deployed both explicitly and implicitly.

In his 2008 analysis of a Robert Frost’s poem presented at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rav Lichtenstein raised this fundamental question of whether to read literature in historical context or as a self-contained entity. As was often his wont, Rav Lichtenstein preferred incorporating both methods into his analysis of Frost, although a reading of the published comments might leave one with the impression of a somewhat greater emphasis on the historical aspects of the poem.

Similarly, but on a far larger scale, Rav Lichtenstein’s doctoral thesis-turned-monograph spends a significant amount of time analyzing the historical context of Henry More before undertaking conceptual analysis and a critique of his primary themes[4].

While a preference for “historical criticism” over “new criticism” animated Rav Lichtenstein’s study of English literature, both early (1962) and late (2008), his 1968 Yiddish lecture makes apparent that his preferences for the yeshiva student in learning Jewish literature are squarely on the side of internal textual analysis, i.e., an approach akin to “new criticism.”

It is worth noting two surprising features of this point. First, for someone who incorporated his Harvard literary training to such a degree, eschewing the historical-literary training so central to Rav Lichtenstein’s literary training when studying Talmud is surprising. And the surprise only increases when more closely considering the context – while most literature’s authorship is in the background, the Talmud’s varied authorship is featured prominently within the text, as Tannaim and Amoraim assert varying positions, organized, pitted against one another, and/or resolved by a redactor. One would have expected that someone with literary training in “historical criticism” to revel in the text’s explicit disclosure of the varying positions of its historical characters.

And yet Rav Lichtenstein very clearly rejects this position and favors a consideration of literary-conceptual matters over historical ones. This can partially be explained by a Brisker preference for concepts. But there is another objection to applying the historical method to Talmud, as well.

A Critique of Criticism

Rav Lichtenstein goes on in the lecture to discuss another difference between use of the traditional and academic methods.

“I wish to emphasize: certainly, when we speak here of a historical, academic approach, we refer not only to research and investigation. Certainly, those who take an academic approach go much further, undertaking not only historical research but also historical criticism. In other words, after one has studied all the minutiae through various investigations, he can assess what can be done with them, what light they can shine, to a certain degree, on some obscure corner of Jewish history.”

An academic scholar’s goal in reading a text, by nature of his or her study, is not only to uncover historical facts but also to weigh and critique them. This is certainly the case for some literary critics, even if the field of history proper might work somewhat differently[5]. At the very least, the scholar needs to determine what relevance the particular text under discussion holds for the field of study: how central or “important” is this text to the field? To what degree does it diverge from, or integrate with, other pieces of evidence?

The yeshiva student’s goals, however, are not historical but religious. Thus, (s)he not only values ascertaining facts about the text, but sees inherent worth in engaging the text itself. The student “is bound up in a personal encounter wherein the person, the student, is wholly attached and connected to what he learns and feels that he is standing before the Divine Presence as he learns.”

Rav Lichtenstein offers a helpful spatial metaphor distinguishing the academic from the traditional scholar of the text, clarifying further what is at stake:

“The question turns mainly on what direction one is looking: from outside in, so to speak, or vice versa; does one stand with both feet in the gemore, so to speak, or, to a certain degree, does one stand outside and look inward?”

Rav Lichtenstein makes this distinction from the vantage point of his field, literature, and drawing on the debates between proponents of “historical criticism,” with its focus on external historical parallels, and of “new criticism,” with its focus on internal literary considerations[6].

The Stance of the Traditional Reader

For Rav Lichtenstein, the entire enterprise hinges on this question. Whether one’s learning merely aims at intellectual activity to satisfy historical curiosity or whether it serves as a religious endeavor depends on one’s approach and stance towards the text. To successfully accomplish the mitzvah and spiritual goal of talmud torah, the study must be based on a “personal encounter wherein the person … feels that he is standing before the Divine Presence as he learns.” This can only work, asserted Rav Lichtenstein, from the inside perspective, in this case one where the student approaches the text with reverence.

Rav Lichtenstein’s later writings develop further the stakes of this question, offering two alternative modes with which one views the Talmudic or other Halakhic texts. This is clearly echoed in the important quotation, noted in his essay “Why Learn Gemara?,” on the importance of Talmud study (11): “To open a gemara is to enter into [Hazal’s] overawing presence, to feel the force of their collective personality – and not as in a historico-critical mode, in order to pass judgment upon them, but so as to be irradiated and ennobled by them.” This comment is meant to build upon the point made earlier in the essay (3): “Without doubt, the Jew, like other people, confronts the Ribbono shel Olam as redeemer, benefactor, and judge. Primarily, however, he encounters Him as commander.”

The concept of encountering God-as-Commander is essential to the reason for focusing on Talmud study in the first place; it appears throughout Rav Lichtenstein’s writings, both about Torah[7] study and about Halakhah[8]. If Talmud study not only fails to engender an encounter leading the student to commit to God but, to the contrary, spurs him or her to criticize the text and its transmitters, the study becomes irredeemably counterproductive[9].

This 1968 lecture thus presages a second important layer to the “wall” separating yeshiva from academic approaches. Not only is the greatest meaning found in pursuit of conceptual rather than historical matters in learning, but yeshiva methods are essential for experiencing God in learning, as well. The student must take an internal approach to the Talmud for that study to increase the student’s reverence and submission to the law and its Commander. As the Talmud stems from the divine word and is presumed not to be historically contingent, it follows that what one should focus on is the conceptual structure of the texts themselves rather than on outside historical circumstances.

Kaplan’s article points to various places in Rav Lichtenstein’s writings where he expresses the concern that academic methods will “undermin[e] respect for Hazal,” on the one hand, and engender a “corrosive historicism, leading to relativism,” on the other. This is indeed true. And as this Yiddish lecture indicates, both of these worries lead back to the same fundamental concern: Torah study must offer an experience of standing before God, such that one is an overawed, submissive student rather than an inflated, judgmental critic. It is imperative to use methods that probe the deep conceptual meaning of Torah, giving one greater insight into the Divine, rather than methods that historicize its teachings, reducing them to mere relativistic contingency.

Furthermore, the early date of this lecture indicates that the opposition is to a mode of study rather than to a particular method. This will stand in contrast to Kaplan (and, to a lesser degree, Reiner), who attempts to contextualize Rav Lichtenstein’s objections to Wissenschaft against the writings of two leading academic Talmudists over the past half-century, David Weiss Halivni and Shamma Friedman. Significantly, however, in 1968 these methods were only in their embryological stages of development and were not available to the scholarly public[10].

In this lecture, Rav Lichtenstein refers to Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, and, more generally, to “German Wissenschaft,” which influenced “the historical approach.” He never did identify his direct targets for criticism on this issue[11]. It is thus sensible to conclude that Rav Lichtenstein’s objections to academic Talmud, which are clearly discernible at this early stage, were responses not to particular methods but to his presumption of what a certain scholarly-judgmental stance towards the text might entail.

Can Any Historical Model be Compatible for Rav Lichtenstein?

We are left, then, to ponder the question, raised explicitly by Kaplan—and also implicitly by Reiner—as to whether it is “possible to [adopt] the diachronic approach in such a way that it would not be subject to the criticisms leveled against it by Rav Lichtenstein.” The question is too large to treat adequately in so few words, but it is still possible to offer basic directions towards a response.

It is important to consider both concerns raised by Rav Lichtenstein in the lecture. In terms of the focus on the text rather than the context, the diachronic method of Talmud study is “safely” on the side of text, in that it remains within the rabbinic textual corpus, while positing that rabbinic literature comprises different layers across the generations.

Furthermore, as indicated above, awareness of the relationship between rabbinic texts can actually contribute to textual and conceptual analysis by bringing to bear new perspectives. Indeed, Rav Lichtenstein’s consistent use of the Yerushalmi, Tosefta, and Midreshei Halakhah as conceptual contrasts to the Bavli—not to mention the inclusion within his Socratic method repertoire of the question, “Does our Gemara capture the straightforward meaning of the Mishnah?”—indicates that he was at least partially amenable to this approach.

The larger challenge stems from the second concern, that a historical approach to the text leads one to criticizing or judging the Talmud rather than being religiously edified by it. Keeping in mind that the objection is to an overall mode of study and stance towards the text rather than a particular method would seem to broaden the objection.

Any consideration of how this concern might be mitigated for Rav Lichtenstein must engage with two other articles. Rav Lichtenstein deals with this question at some length in “Of Marriage: Relationships and Relations” and “Torat Hesed and Torat Emet,” taking a different approach in each. The former deals with questions of halakhic development over time, and the specter of historical influence, while the latter runs into issues of authorial intent and the license, if not obligation, for students of Talmud and Halakhah to offer creative readings of the text. There is much to discuss on this count. Od Hazon la-Moed.


As we have seen, the “Higher Jewish Learning in America” lecture sheds significant light on our topic. Serendipitously, it confirms the suggestions of both Reiner and Kaplan regarding the reasons for Rav Lichtenstein’s preference for traditional yeshiva study and rejection of the academic method. Berukhim she-kivvenu.

Simultaneously, it also situates the objection early enough that it stands outside of any historical context relating to Yeshivat Har Etzion or the methods of late 20th century Talmudists in particular. In other words, conceptual analysis of Rav Lichtenstein’s various writings on the topic is more helpful than historical consideration, given his consistent position.

One final reflection on this text. Aharon Mishnayot, cited by Reiner, notes that in his interaction with Rav Lichtenstein, the latter “never addressed the content of the claim” he made regarding the relationship between the Yerushalmi and Bavli. Similarly, in this lecture, Rav Lichtenstein’s preference for one method over the other is based on the goals a student should have. The academic and yeshiva approach are simply presented as two alternative methods, with distinct goals. The preference is based on what the expected goals of study are for the God-believing yeshiva student: one method leads to spiritual growth, while the other leads to danger.

The question sidesteps any truth claims, and even avoids the question of who is a “legitimate” reader of the text. No ad hominem attacks are offered; no contemporary academic talmudists are noted at all. The argument is really about one’s educational goals, relating to the fundamental question of the value of Torah study, preferring (strongly) one overall stance towards the text while rejecting the other.

Newly accessible and relevant, Rav Lichtenstein’s seminal 1968 Yiddish lecture thus offers several novel points. It confirms both Reiner’s and Kaplan’s explanations for Rav Lichtenstein’s opposition to the field, but also complicates their view of his interlocutors by pushing back his opposition to a time before Shamma Friedman. The opposition is clearly based in principle and broad in basis, insisting that the yeshiva student engage the text as a wisdom-seeking insider rather than a critical outsider.

Many thanks to Chaim Saiman and Shaul Seidler-Feller for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

[1] As providence would have it, precisely such a treatment has just now been uncovered. Several months ago, my friend and Yiddishist Rabbi Shaul Seidler-Feller translated a lecture by Rav Lichtenstein analyzing different streams of traditional Talmud study that was presented in Yiddish at YIVO in 1968. A fascinating lecture, it related tangentially to academic Jewish studies, referring to a prior discussion on the topic of the relationship between academic and traditional modes of Jewish text study. After an extensive search, and based on some sleuthing from our mutual friend Rabbi Noach Goldstein, it was discovered that this lecture was hiding in plain sight, on the YUTorah repository of lectures! Seidler-Feller went about his characteristically precise and painstaking translation work, and has prepared a preliminary English text of the Yiddish audio. Entitled “Higher Jewish Learning in America,” this is precisely the lecture to fill the void that Kaplan noted and shine light on our topic, with its broader scope and explicitly comparative context.
I must add that this is not the first providential moment I have experienced regarding this topic. Mere weeks ago, as I was preparing the syllabus for a course I am teaching this semester entitled “The Thought of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,” I was agonizing over whether to include the topic of Rav Lichtenstein and academic Jewish studies. While the question is certainly an important one to consider, for the reasons laid out above, it was neither treated extensively by Rav Lichtenstein nor (at the time) by anyone else. With neither primary nor secondary materials, how could I formulate a lecture on the topic? Sure enough, the very next day The Lehrhaus received Professor Reiner’s submission. Apparently, the time has come for this topic to receive its due.
My analysis of this topic will draw upon both the Yiddish-language lecture as well as some of Rav Lichtenstein’s other writings, with this piece serving as a keystone of sorts in piecing together a larger picture. Berikh rahamana de-sayye’an.

[2] In June 1968, YIVO commissioned a pair of lectures by Rav Lichtenstein, then a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, and by David Rudavsky, research associate professor of education in New York University’s Department of Hebrew Culture and Education. The latter presented on “A Century of Jewish Higher Learning in America – on the Centenary of Maimonides College,” and the former was assigned to speak on the topic of “A Century of Traditional Higher Jewish Learning in America.”

[3] It is worth noting that this is a particularly Brisker understanding of yeshiva study; adherents of the Hazon Ish’s method would probably assert that the facts are more significant than the ideas, certainly where there is no conceptual problem with the facts as presented. (See especially n. 33 in Kaplan’s linked article; but see also newer trends in rabbinics noted by Moshe Simon-Shoshan.)

[4] The book’s subtitle, The Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist, explicitly places Henry More within his sociohistorical context, and it describes its aim as centered on attaining a broad historical scope: “This book is concerned with Cambridge Platonism generally” (ix). The work adopts a historical approach when analyzing the material rather than a textual one. Close readings are not featured; rather, the book includes surveys of the relevant writings, accompanied by conceptual analysis. As Rabbi Shalom Carmy puts it (227): “If you didn’t know the doctorate was in English literature you would certainly take it for an essay in intellectual history, about a ‘minor writer’ who dealt with ‘major problems’.”
It is thus clear that Rav Lichtenstein’s method in studying English literature has a strong historical bent as well as a preference for conceptual analysis, even as there is at least something of an attempt to consider matters of literary form and style. In this sense he follows his doctoral advisor, Douglas Bush, in “reject[ing] many aspects of new criticism.”

[5] See Rabbi Lichtenstein’s summary of this in his “Criticism and Kitvei ha-Kodesh” (based on a 1962 lecture, p. 24): “Drama critics grade playwrights, music critics weigh the merits of sonatas, and book reviewers assess the worth of current novels.” This important essay also explicitly advocates for an embrace of “new criticism.”

[6] Similar distinctions between the inside and outside “reader” of a cultural system have been made in other fields as well: both in legal theory, with H.L.A. Hart’s distinction between internal and external points of view of the law, and in anthropology, with its “emic” versus “etic” distinction.

[7] See “Study,” p. 933 in original; “Nature and Value of Torah Study”; and Talmud Study in Yeshiva High Schools, p. 8.

[8] See “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha,” p. 50 in Leaves of Faith 2; “Mah Enosh,” p. 24; “Human and Social Factor,” p. 18; and “Law and Spirituality” p. 13.

[9] Rabbi Lichtenstein’s position on the study of biblical material, which rejects biblical criticism but affirms the use of literary criticism along the lines of “new criticism,” follows the same paradigm, although it is complicated by particular features of traditional Jewish belief’s conflict with the assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis, such that opposition to biblical criticism is overdetermined.

[10] Halivni had just published the first in his Mekorot u-Massorot series and Friedman had not yet published any of his works at that point.

[11] It is possible that Rav Lichtenstein was aware of seminal methodological essays by Julius Kaplan and Hyman Klein from the 1930s to 1950s on the diachronic method in analyzing Talmudic literature, or of classic works by Zecharias Frankel, D.Z. Hoffman, and J.N. Epstein, although he never cites them.

Shlomo Zuckier
Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier is a PhD candidate in Ancient Judaism at Yale University, a member of Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon, and is a Lecturer at YU's Isaac Breuer College. Previously he served as Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. Shlomo is an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semicha), as well as of the Wexner, Tikvah, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships. He has lectured and taught widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Forms and Uses of Hasidut.