Tuesday, 12 August 2014

What Hath Brisk Wrought

OK, so let’s take a break from the gemara and have a look at Rav Moshe Lichtenstein’s 1999 paper “What” Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited. Here, Rav Moshe looks at some of Brisk’s methodological biases, the rationale behind them, and some of their pitfalls.

Every Academic school has its methodological biases. These include limits on the source material being studied, the sort of research questions considered interesting, as well as the types of models used in answering those questions. These biases allow the school to specialize and also reflect certain philosophical assumptions on the part of the school's adherents.

The methodological features of the Brisker School that Rav Moshe mentions concern which texts to study and the type of questions adherents seek to answer:

What over Why?

  • Preference for "What" over "Why"
    • Nafka Mina over Shakla Vetarya of gemara
    • Halachik conclusion over Taamei Hamitzvot
    • Preferred texts are Rambam, Rishonim, Gemara’s conclusions
  • Interest in Conceptual over Interpretive debates

Now, despite the advantages of adopting an academic bias, there is clearly a trade-off to this narrowing of focus. Rav Moshe argues that the Brisker Derech's bias of "What" over "Why" opens the door to certain mistakes in learning:

“Lack of consideration of the reasonableness of an idea…can lead us to accept untenable, unreasonable, or, at times, even absurd theories”

He brings several examples of well-known results by Brisker adherents (Rav Velvel, Rav Chaim, and Rav Elchanan Wasserman, in particular) which he argues are shown to be incorrect once the “Why” is considered.


Ultimately, Rav Moshe offers a number of proscriptions for avoiding these pitfalls, expanding the borders of Brisk's biases, as least in a limited way:

The major goal for proponents of Brisk, therefore, should be a greater integration of the “why” element into the current search for the “what.”…The first step, therefore, must remain the classic Brisker inquiry(hakirah)—clarifying the facts and concepts. This being done, the next step should be an attempt to align these concepts with their theoretical foundations and to develop them accordingly.

First, somewhat of a shift in balance from Rambam-Ravad and other rishonim back to the disagreements in the gemara itself. The very same analytical method that so successfully analyzes the underlying concepts lurking beneath the factual surface of a disagreement between Rambam and the Ravad can achieve similar results regarding the disputes between Rav Sheshet and Rav Yosef as well.

Second, a much more detailed conceptual analysis of the play-by-play within the sugya itself. Rather than immediately “jumping to (the sugya’s) conclusions” which is what is effectively being done when the discussion begins with Rambam and other rishonim, effort should be devoted to the fleshing out of the conceptual implications implicit throughout the twists and turns of the sugya.

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