Sunday, August 05, 2007

21st Av - R' Chaim Brisker

Today is the Yarzheit of R' Chaim (Brisker) Soloveitchik. Perhaps more than anyone else in the past 200 years he has shaped yeshivas and the style of learning that goes on within them.

R' Chaim's most famous work 'Rabbeinu Chaim Halevy al HaRambam' has the status (almost) of one of the Rishonim and is learned in all yeshivas.

The classic 'brisker' style resolves contradictions within texts by making distinctions between two similar things (often 'cheftza' and 'gavra' the object itself and the mitzvah on the person who is relating to it). In a sense he brought the scientific method into Talmud study, as this HaAretz article points out:

Defining the exact nature of the Brisk revolution is not easy. Certainly, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik was an extraordinarily gifted teacher, who combined profundity and close analysis with clarity of explication. Yet much of the vocabulary he used is found in earlier sources. The emphasis on seeking an underlying conceptual stratum to explain halakha can also be traced to Soloveitchik's predecessors.

And yet there is no question that Reb Chaim's method of Talmudic analysis is revolutionary, not least because he created a language that could be applied to many different areas of halakha. Like Freud and Marx's terminology, his language mapped out new territories for consciousness to explore. His teachings inspired a generation of wildly creative Torah scholars. Whereas earlier Talmudic geniuses, as Lichtenstein writes, relied on brilliant intuitions that could not be replicated, Reb Chaim's methodology could be learned and disseminated. The sudden explosion of yeshivas at the beginning of the 20th century coincided with the spread of the Brisker method.

And this is what Wikipedia has to say about him (there is also a great chart there with the whole family tree - take a look at it):

Chaim (Halevi) Soloveitchik (Hebrew: חיים סולובייצ'יק), also known as Reb Chaim Brisker, (1853-July 30, 1918) was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar credited as the founder of the popular Brisker approach to Talmudic study within Judaism. He was from Brest, Belarus (Brisk in Yiddish), then in Imperial Russia, now in Belarus. A member of the Soloveitchik-family rabbinical dynasty, he is most commonly known as Reb Chaim Brisker ("Rabbi Chaim [from] Brisk").

He is considered the founder of the "Brisker method" (in Yiddish: Brisker derech; Hebrew: derekh brisk), a method of highly exacting and analytical Talmudical study that focuses on precise definition/s and categorization/s of Jewish law as commanded in the Torah with particular emphasis on the legal writings of Maimonides.

His primary work was Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim, a volume of insights on Maimonides' Mishnah Torah which often would suggest novel understandings of the Talmud as well. Based on his teachings and lectures, his students wrote down his insights on the Talmud known as Chiddushi HaGRaCh Al Shas. This book is known as "Reb Chaim's stencils" and contains analytical insights into Talmudical topics.

He married the daughter of Rabbi Refael Shapiro and had two famous sons, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (also known as Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik) who subsequently moved to Israel and Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik who moved to the United States and subsequently served as a Rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University in New York and who was in turn succeeded by his own son Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993).

He had four main students; his son, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz, Rabbi Isser Zalmen Meltzer, and Rabbi Shimon Shkop.

A witty anecdote is used to illustrate how the three of them differed in their studies and related to their teacher: it is said that had Reb Chaim said, "This table is a cow," Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik would say that the table had the same Talmudic laws as a cow, Rabbi Shimon Shkop would say the molecules in a table could be rearranged into a cow, but Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz would go milk the table.

I love that last quote!!!

May His Soul Be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life

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