Tuesday 28 April 2015

How to Say Nothing in 500 Words on Rav Lichtenstein

Rav Aharon giving shiur in the Gush
As you have likely heard, dear reader, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein passed away last week. I had the privilege of attending his yeshiva for two years, though I didn't get the opportunity to attend his regular Shiur. Nevertheless, he has been highly influential on my Torah learning(and on the Torah World in general), so I wanted to make a post in his honor.
I could just link to all the past posts where I reference his teachings, but instead I'm going to try and take this in a new direction.

How to Say Nothing in 500 Words

There are many important themes that Rav Aharon focused on: Torah Umada, being religious in modern Israeli Society, Torat Brisk, English Literature. In light of this last one, here is a thing I stumbled upon recently. It's Paul McHenry Roberts' essay "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words". This 1956 paper offers timeless advice for new college students on how to write a short paper. The essay is largely an exercise in knowing one's audience and writing to them. Said audience, in this case, is perhaps the most jaded one possible--the English Professor who, while grading Freshman papers

"wonders how he allowed himself to get trapped into teaching English when he might have had a happy and interesting life as an electrician or a confidence man." 

Paul McHenry Roberts
Roberts makes four basic suggestions how to do this:
  1. Novelty- write something unique for this most-jaded of readers
  2. Be Concrete- don't just write abstractly, use vivid, concrete illustrations and examples
  3. Eliminate Padding- write efficiently
  4. Word choice- various advice on how to use words/phrases to write more interestingly
Of all these recommendations, I found the first most surprising. Shouldn't our focus be on making a strong argument rather than on a novel one? Isn't truth more important than entertainment?

The Beit Midrash of Rebbe Yehoshua

Now, it's possible that Roberts would give different advice to the mature writer. Certainly, the writing tyro may need help escaping simplistic thinking so that he can come up with a more complex view of the matter. That said, I'm reminded of the Yeshiva World's own fundamental question of whether to focus on the classic understandings of a topic that have stood the test of time or on coming-up with novel understandings.

Rav Daniel Wolf
Rav Wolf(Hiddush Within the Beit Midrash: R. Aharon Lichtenstein's Approach to Lomdus as an Adaptive Improvement to the Brisker Dererch) points to the Beit Midrash of Rebbe Yehoshua as being the classic treatment of this question:

The Talmud relates a story (Hagiga 3a): R. Yehoshua asked his disciples what new ideas of Torah they had heard in the Beit Midrash. The disciples declined, as the notion that they could add to the knowledge of their great master seemed brash and in fact insulting. Nevertheless, R. Yehoshua insisted, “It is inconceivable that there is a Beit Midrash without new words of Torah.” R. Yehoshua was certain that the cacophony of voices in the Beit Midrash must have produced some new halakha or idea. (What) We can deduce from this is that a study hall without novel approaches is simply not regarded as a Beit Midrash.

Rav Wolf goes on to point out that this debate over focus, on novelty vs. tradition, continues in the Yeshiva world today. He argues that Rav Aharon falls squarely on Rebbe Yehoshua's side, along with Rav Soloveichik and Rav Chaim before him(a tradition of Novelty? I DO DECLARE!). The paper goes on to argue this point in detail, pointing out Rav Aharon's novel contributions to four different areas:
  1. Halachic Language
  2. Conceptual over Textual focus 
  3. inclusion of a wider set of source materials
  4. novel comparisons between different Halachic areas.

So what does Rav Aharon have in common with Professor Roberts? They both viewed their role as being not merely pedagogic, but as contributing to the continued growth of their respective academic disciplines.

I'll just wrap this up with a personal challenge. In light of this idea of the importance of novelty, I'd like to expand the mandate of this blog. In addition to being merely a place for me to post summaries of whatever I'm learning, I'd like this to also be a place for me to jot down novel ideas or analyses that arise from that learning. Now, to come up with some novel ideas...

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