R. Berlin and R. Hirsch
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
This shiur is
dedicated in memory of
our beloved father Harry Meisles (Elchanan ben Yitzchak) z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar the Meisles family.
Shiur #17: R. Berlin and
Reasons for the Mitzvot
R. Berlin argues that every mitzva has a chok quality to it, manifest in two ways. First, a mitzva remains binding even when the reason we attribute to it does not apply. Second, we cannot rationally explain all the details of the commandments. The latter position is similar to, but not identical with, Rambams theory in Moreh Nevukhim (3:26). Rambam argues that logic necessitates a certain arbitrary quality with regard to the details of mitzvot. For example, the Torah must select some number of bullocks for a given sacrifice, but the specific number is arbitrary. For R. Berlin, the apparently arbitrary nature of the details stems not from logical necessity but from the desire to include a chok element in each commandment. Human beings should feel incapable of fully understanding the teleology of mitzvot.
At the same time, Netziv did seriously engage in the endeavor of suggesting rationales for mitzvot and often did so in an illuminating fashion. He offers an insightful explanation for certain anomalies in the korban toda, the thanksgiving offering. Even though this offering is a subset of the korban shelamim, the peace offering, it differs from the normal procedures. Regarding the standard shelamim, the owner has two days to eat the sacrifice, but only one day when it comes to the toda. Additionally, the toda is accompanied by loaves of chametz bread, something unusual in the world of sacrifices. R. Berlin explains that the person bringing this sacrifice experienced divine salvation that obligates expression of gratitude. Halakha wants this person to make a festive meal with many invitees who will hear about the salvation. Limiting the amount of eating time forces the sacrifices owner to include more people in the meal, and the bread helps enhance the festivity.
In this vein, R. Berlin adds a novel reading of two famous verses in Tehillim. Lekha ezbach zevach toda u-veshem Hashem ekra. Nedarai la-Shem ashalem negda na le-khol amo (I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord, yea, in the presence of all His people Tehillim 116:17-18). The verses clearly refer to bringing a thanksgiving offering. According to the simplest translation, negda means toward or in the presence of. R. Berlin suggests an added level of linguistic resonance, with negda alluding to the word lehagid (to tell). A person obligated to bring the toda must tell the story to many members of the Jewish people.
Sometimes, R. Berlin locates two separate themes in a single mitzva. His analysis of the nazir differentiates between different possible motivations for taking on this vow. Some take the vow as a striving for extra sanctity. Others feel endangered by sexual temptation and take this vow as a way of curbing their impulses. R. Berlin argues that both these motivations explain the need for prohibitions against drinking wine and cutting hair. On the other hand, only the motivation of striving for greater sanctity explains the prohibition against coming into contact with a corpse. The person struggling with temptation might actually find support in the gloomy atmosphere of human mortality. Nevertheless, Halakha applies all three prohibitions to standard nezirut, irrespective of which of these two motivations inspired the vow. Only the distinct legal category of nezirut Shimshon reflects a model that includes the wine and hair prohibitions but lacks the tumat met component.
One factor may have
enabled Netziv to feel more comfortable than
R. Berlin relies on a narrative section of Torah to illustrate his conception of the multiple reasons for each commandment. God says that the Jewish people did not go up on the mountain at Sinai because they were afraid of the fire. Netziv points out that this does not exhaust the reasons for their remaining below. After all, God explicitly instructed them not to ascend the mountain. Apparently, when the Torah gives a reason for an action or policy, it does not intend to comprehensively list each and every reason. The same principle applies in the broader realm of Halakha.
Netziv also contends
that we do not think about reasons at the time of the mitzva
performance. At that time, the only
relevant factor is the divine command per se. The Torah tells us that Yaakovs sons
brought his dead body out of
The principle that
the mitzva remains in force even when the reason no longer applies
appears in many places in Haamek Davar. We wait thirty days before redeeming a
first-born son to insure that the baby is viable, but we do so even if we know
that the pregnancy was full term.
The price of five coins reflects the economic evaluation of a baby, but
that price stays intact even when redeeming an adult. We provide the Levites with
maaser rishon (a tithe of the produce) partially because they lack their
own real estate, but the obligation of that tithe remained in force during the
In another example, a guardian is exempt from paying for the loss of an object if the owner of that object was working with him at the time of the loss. In halakhic terms, we call this baalav imo. R. Berlin explains this exemption based on the special dynamic unique to the borrower, the shoel. Nonetheless, he asserts the halakha that the same exemption applies to other types of guardians as well.
All the examples up
to this point relate to extended scope. Even though the basic rationale no
longer applies, the mitzva remains binding. Netziv also mentions another type of
chok element. The
mitzva of honoring parents would seem to reflect the rationally
understandable mitvza par excellence. Regarding rational commandments, we do
not anticipate finding any differences between the
An important exception to the above exists in Netzivs thought. There are mitzvot that depend fully upon human reasoning. The Torah commands gemilut chasadim in a very general fashion and the rabbis filled in the details with specifics regarding visiting the sick, burying the deceased, and so on. Regarding such mitzvot, no chok element exists, and the details fully follow human reasoning.
The popular account
states that R. Berlin closed the yeshiva of Volozhin rather than accede to the
demand of the Russian authorities to introduce secular studies. In an extensive study,
Strikingly, the passage in Haamek Davar makes a parallel point about the relationship between Talmud study and other branches of Torah knowledge. Netziv argues that intensive Talmud study must precede heavy involvement in Tanakh or Aggada. The Talmudic dictum, Keep your children away from higayon (Berakhot 30b), means that one should not pursue Tanakh (at the expense of Talmud) in ones formative years. Here, we have another strong contrast between R. Berlin and R. Hirsch. R. Berlins emphasis on the primacy of Talmud study was not shared by R. Hirsch.
R. Berlin does offer some moderate support of secular wisdom. He explains the seven branches of the menora as representing the seven branches of human wisdom. All the lights point toward the center to indicate the primacy of Torah, but the other forms of wisdom do make a contribution. R. Berlin notes areas of Halakha, such as kilayim and calendar calculations, where mathematical knowledge proves helpful to understanding Torah.
strongly with the approach of R. Hirsch.
R. Berlin offers a limited endorsement of secular wisdom, while
Relation to the Gentile World
According to R. Berlin, attempts at integration and assimilation actually bring about an anti-Semitic backlash. It is only a proud separatist approach that earns us respect. Hen am levadad yishkon u-vagoyim lo yitchashav (It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations Bemidbar 23:9). R. Berlin interprets the verse as contrasting our two possible postures. If we remain badad, alone, we dwell securely. On the other hand, if we try to live interwoven ba-goyim, then lo yitchashav, they do not grant us respect.
symbolizes this trait. He settles
outside of Shekhem to maintain his distinctiveness. He makes it clear to Esav that he does
not desire ongoing integration between their two families. When Yaakovs family moves to
R. Berlin presents some important and nuanced positions. He favors Jewish separatism, but still maintains a universalistic message that includes concern for non-Jews. He emphasizes intensive Talmud study, but sees value in some secular wisdom. He offers suggestions regarding the reasons for mitzvot, while stressing the chok element in every commandment. Such positions merit careful study and appreciation.
[This is our final
shiur on the thought of Netziv.
Next week, we will begin looking at the thought of the Meshekh
 Haamek Davar Bemidbar 15:16.
 Haamek Davar Vayikra 7:13.
 Harchev Davar Vayikra 7:13.
 Haamek Davar Bemidbar 6:8.
 Haamek Davar Shemot 29:20.
 Haamek Davar Shemot 13:9.
 Haamek Davar Shemot 23:19, Vayikra 16: 28, 19:26.
 Haamek Davar Devarim 5:5.
 Haamek Davar Bereishit 50:12.
 Haamek Davar Bemidbar 3:47.
 Haamek Davar Bemidbar 18:23.
 Haamek Davar Shemot 22:14.
 Haamek Davar Shemot 20:12, Devarim 22:7.
 Haamek Davar Shemot 18:16, see also Bemidbar 15:16.
 Harchev Davar Devarim 32:2.
 Meishiv Davar 1:44.
 Haamek Davar Bemidbar 8:2.
 Harchev Davar Bereishit 45:16.
 Haamek Davar Bereishit 17:4.
 Harchev Davar Bereishit 17:4.
 Haamek Davar Bemidbar 23:9.
 Haamek Davar Bereishit 33:18.
 Haamek Davar Bereishit 33: 15.
 Haamek Davar Bereishit 46:34.
 Haamek Davar Bereishit 33:4.