Friday, March 07, 2008

A "Torah plus 'X'" philosophy -- an interview with Rav Rosensweig

An interview with Rabbi Michael Rosensweig was published in the most recent edition of the YU Commentator, the official newspaper of Yeshiva College. Here is a link to the entire interview.

In it he discusses topics including religion's engagement with the world of secular knowledge, universalism and Jewish particularism, the doctrine of elu ve-elu divrei Elokim Hayyim [these and these are the words of the living God], the historical study of gemara or halakhah and contemporary Biblical criticism.

Below I include some selections from it that I felt described why I find Rav Rosensweig's vision so challenging, but yet attactive and spiritually energizing.

In describing a "Torah plus 'X'" philosophy, Rav Rosensweig states,

By that I mean two things. First, the foundational Torah component needs to take clear priority not only in a quantitative sense but because it is the raison d'etre of the entire enterprise. Torah values must motivate and direct the engagement of other knowledge and serve as the prism through which we assess other possible contributions, whether Madda, Hokhmah, Derekh Eretz, etc. Second, it is crucial that the perspective be one of "Torah plus." We should not merely be seeking permitted engagement that falls within the accepted confines of Torah law and that does not contravene its values. If that were the case then our investment of time and effort would be much more difficult to justify. Instead, we should perceive meaningful engagement through the prism of Torah and for the sake of Torah as stemming from and reflecting a much more ambitious commitment to Torah. We believe that the Torah's agenda is broad, that it addresses and encompasses all dimensions of life, and that with the proper filters and methodologies these interactions can enhance our understanding of both the texts and values of Torah. It is therefore not "Torah and" but an expanded "Torah plus" ideology.
Later in that same answer he declares,

A very chemical and physical view of the world, when overly narrow, creates an orientation that may pose challenges to the world of Torah particularly in terms of the central role of tzelem Elokim [image of God] and all that implies about man's essential spirituality and transcendence.
In regard to the humanities in this same answer, he says,
We may also better understand man's tumultuous nature, his flaws, the compulsions and impulses that are addressed by halakhic rules and principles. The effort to understand man's great spiritual potential along with his struggles and challenges is an endeavor to better comprehend the very concept of tzelem Elokim, namely, man's transcendence, uniqueness and creative capacity.
Regarding universalism and Jewish particularism he answers,

We should advocate a holistic halakhic approach, albeit one that perceives the halakhic agenda as broad and ambitious. Thus, we should view universalism through the prism of halakhic rules, laws and values from which a coherent approach will emerge. This way we will better determine what is demanded of us, and also what can add value to our spiritual lives.
When asked, "Does the doctrine of elu ve-elu divrei Elokim Hayyim open the door to postmodernism or postmodernist relativism?", Rav Rosensweig responded,

It absolutely does not. There is a general misconception with regard to the proper definition of elu ve-elu. It reflects respect for a range of values and perspectives on halakhic and hashkafic issues; however, this range is not unlimited. We are dealing with a broad yet concretely defined group of sources and ideas. The need to relate reverently to the views of opposing halakhic authorities on a given subject is especially crucial, as even apparently subtle or nuanced differences can reflect important differences in approach.

...Moreover, Elu ve-elu does not absolve one from the responsibility to come to halakhic conclusions, nor does it make a single conclusion any weaker. In fact the opposite may be true. The more you believe in multiple truths - if you see them as permutations of the same basic principle - the more you view the halakhic process of coming to a single, best normative conclusion as more authoritative. Decisive halakhic decision-making is designed to discriminate between elu ve-elu viewpoints. Thus elu ve-elu precludes any idea of relativism or a postmodernist perspective.

The Arukh ha-Shulhan describes elu ve-elu as a symphony, as opposed to a cacophony of discordant notes. It is part of a process that produces authoritative conclusions based on a sincere effort to penetrate the real intent of original sources. It certainly does not reflect a sense of arbitrariness, chaos or individual whim. Interpreting original sources is a complex endeavor and requires rigor and intense yir'as shamayim.

Of course he writes about this extensively in the essay "ELU VA-ELU DIVRE ELOKIM HAYYIM: HALAKHIC PLURALISM AND THEORIES OF CONTROVERSY," that I quote from here.

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