Sunday, May 14, 2006

I spent some time this Shabbos reading the Orthodox Forum book on the “conceptual approach to Jewish learning”, which in this case refers to the Brisker derech.

The eponymous lead article is by my revered teacher, RAL. Like everything RAL writes, the article is a masterful review of all the relevant issues revealing complete control of the sources and thorough grasp of all their intricacies.

It’s also quite tedious. Now I don’t really expect a discourse on the Brisker derech to be zany and madcap. But is fluid and to the point really too much to ask? Yes, the use of a hundred fancy words where ten ordinary ones would turn the trick is part of the problem but not all of it. If you’ve read enough RYBS, RAL and RSC, you’re probably already accustomed to the sorry results of the sesquipedalian impulse. No, there’s a bigger problem here.

(Time out to say one thing: It would be arrogant of me to even state the obvious fact that RAL is an exemplary scholar and human being. He does not need my worthless approbation. If my style is a bit irreverent, this should not be taken as reflecting any lack of awe on my part for RAL’s brilliance and character.)

Let us begin with an example of Brisker conceptualization that RAL cites in the article. Consider a particular requirement for a succah to be kosher, say, that it have more shade than sun. If a succah fails to satisfy this requirement is it not a succah, a succah but not a kosher one, or a kosher succah in which one is not yotzeh the mitzvah? I assume that if RAL chose this example to make his point that there are numerous consequences to how this particular question is resolved. There had better be because I was pretty clear on the more-shade-than-sun requirement until the fairly fuzzy conceptualization kind of threw me. So I would hope that there’s some payoff lurking here.

Let me explain. People in my line of work are not afraid of abstraction. But abstractions are pointless unless they offer the benefits of parsimoniousness. That is, if a whole lot of details are subsumed by a single abstract rule, the rule has explanatory power and is a plausible candidate for use in generalizing the known details. If the abstract rule is more complicated than the details it subsumes, then the rule has no explanatory power. You might as well just enumerate the details and be done with it.

In a good piece of conceptual Torah, we are faced with a number of unexplained facts about something. (If it’s a yeshivish piece of Torah, the facts will be presented as kashas in search of a terutz, but this is not essential.) Finally, the something in question is recast in some more abstract way and all the facts about it suddenly line up sensibly like ducks in a row.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard plenty of Brisker Torah in my day that doesn’t fit that bill but rather consists of abstraction for its own sake. (Or, at least, so it seemed to me but maybe I missed something.) Sometimes there are so few facts to explain that the abstraction is simply unhelpful and sometimes there are zero facts to explain (or questions to answer) so that the abstraction is utterly meaningless. Sometimes a particular abstraction actually has negative explanatory power (such as the insistence that aveilus of bein hametzarim is aveilus of shteim esreh chodesh) because it is contradicted by more facts than it actually explains. And sometimes abstraction for its own sake simply misses a point that is clear to those a bit more in touch with concrete reality (such as when the question of whether everyone at the seder needs to say the hagaddah to be yotzeh the mitzvah of sipur is framed in terms of the question of shome’a ke-oneh, completely oblivious to the fact that down here on earth the whole idea of sipur is that one person talks and the others listen).

One result of abstraction for its own sake is that the dearth of ground facts doesn’t allow conceptual questions to actually get resolved. Instead of proving that the proper conceptualization is X rather than Y, we are simply faced with two possibilities. But then why stop there? Assuming that it is X and not Y, we can always hatch some other equally irresolvable dilemma. And the full tree can be grown and elucidated ad infinitum, or at least until lunchtime.

That can get pretty tedious.

10 Comments:

Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Excellent post!

I'd be curious to know more about the later chapters in the book that deal with practical educational aspects of this methodology in learning.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, whatever.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous monsey mjm said...

Tzoras Rabbim... Also felt bogged down by the yegiah needed to get through the tedious RAL sentences, which unwittingly render his highly original insights harder to discern. But greatly enjoyed the less comprehensive yet highly fluid, readable piece by R Moshe Lichtenstein. R Rosenzweig's essay was squarely in the middle.

12:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"(such as when the question of whether everyone at the seder needs to say the hagaddah to be yotzeh the mitzvah of sipur is framed in terms of the question of shome’a ke-oneh, completely oblivious to the fact that down here on earth the whole idea of sipur is that one person talks and the others listen)."

the real question from your definition is why you can tell yourself. The presumption they are working with is that everyone must do the sipur.

"such as the insistence that aveilus of bein hametzarim is aveilus of shteim esreh chodesh) because it is contradicted by more facts than it actually explains. "

how do you tot that up?

4:15 PM  
Blogger bar_kochba132 said...

Ben Bayit--I do recall reading an article
by Rav Eliezer Berkovits (whom I am a major fan of) critical of yeshivot that teach the Brisker
derech to those who are really not capable of appreciating it, which is the majority of bachurim. I have
also encountered veteran kollelnikim who were quite critical of many of those who claim to adhere to that system, saying they really don't understand it and that it becomes something of a game to spout off Brisker terminology simply to impress people.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

bar_kochba132 and ben bayit: suffering from split personality issues again, are we?

10:21 PM  
Blogger bar_kochba132 said...

Ben---as smart as you claim to be, we are not the same person. As a matter of fact, we do know each other, and we do agree on a lot of things, but I don't understand why that should bug you.

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I read this post relatively quickly and it reminds me why I was never interested in the Brisker Derech. That lack of interest came about when a rebbi of mine, long ago, presented a Brisker Chakirah and I when I asked for a difference between the two sides of the Chakirah, I was told that the nafka mina was if you are mekadesh a lady al tnai that pshat is one way or the other.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

BK,
Sorry for the confusion. All is now clear.

Ben

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That lack of interest came about when a rebbi of mine, long ago, presented a Brisker Chakirah and I when I asked for a difference between the two sides of the Chakirah, I was told that the nafka mina was if you are mekadesh a lady al tnai that pshat is one way or the other.

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Man, that was one funny rebbi.

9:00 PM  

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