Sago Boulevard

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Jewish Philosophy Via Halakhah

In the recent Edah Journal, Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill reviews the three collections of articles and speeches of Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein as a way of evaluating his thought in general and his role as a leader of "modern" or "centrist" Orthodoxy. There's a lot to say about the article but I'll defer to close students of R. Lichtenstein for the details of his approach. One point of Dr. Brill's, though, stood out to me as somebody concerned with the appropriate method of doing philosophy of Judaism:
In the texts cited to prove his social views, we gain a window into R. Lichtenstein’s approach. He avoids the texts of Jewish thought of the last millennium except for those of the Eastern European beit midrash; he does not cite liturgists, midrash, medieval philosophers or kabbalists. Instead, he bases his corporate view of life on the legal texts that discuss the laws of sacrifice, property responsibility, and the four watchmen. His proof text on the need to work is a citation from Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gezeilah 6:11) that a dice player cannot be a witness because his vice places him outside of society. This case is paradigmatic of the way in which R. Lichtenstein takes a particular halakhah and globalizes it into a general idea about society.

It seems obvious that on this point, R. Lichtenstein takes a page from his rebbe and father-in-law. R. Soloveitchik devotes the last section of The Halakhic Mind to advocating the approach which Dr. Brill criticizes:
...There is only a single source from which a Jewish philosophical Weltanschauung could emerge; the objective order - the Halakhah... The halakhic compass would also guide us through the lanes of medieval philosophy and reveal structural standards by which to judge and evaluate the philosophical thought of the golden age... Out of the sources of Halakhah, a new world view awaits formulation.

Personally, I think the shift from medieval philosophical methods to what I'll call "philosophy via Halakhah" is the most important treasure that R. Soloveitchik bestowed on the Jewish community (at least as far as Jewish philosophy goes). Of course, neither R. Soloveitchik nor R. Lichtenstein exclude biblical references, midrashim, kabbalistic sources, or medieval philosophic ones; but their focus is the normative Halakhah.

In traditional Judaism, the Gemera is authoritative in a unique way. Even biblical episodes are understood by the great rabbis through rabbinic lenses. More importantly, though, basic halakhic categories such as the four shomrim (watchmen) are considered to be unchanging and objective - which makes them suitable as the raw material for philosophy. The realities of space and time influence only the application of such halakhot, not their essence. Poskim may disagree about the status of a particular shomer (watchman) but none would deny the halakhic fact of four distinct kinds and their implications for compensation. The weight that Halakhah carries in governing the life of the traditional Jew, I think, stems from this basic assumption.

Halakhah is the window into the divine mind. In formulating a genuinely Jewish philosophical position, it makes sense to rely primarily on such foundational sources. It is the basic halakhic principles around which traditional Jewish life bases itself. If Jewish philosophy is to be grounded in the Jewish experience, it must focus on what motivates that experience.