A Torah Rationalist’s Manifesto


Many thanks to Rabbi Matis Greenblatt, literary editor of Jewish Action, who not only saves me much embarrassment by picking up my errors before publication, but inevitably throws in numerous tidbits of Torah insight.

He has uncovered a fascinating document that will delight the hearts of many, both for what it says, and for who said it. The author is Rav Simcha Zisel of Kelm, one of the three great students of Rav Yisroel Salanter, the guiding light of the Mussar Movement in the 19th century. It is difficult to overestimate the impact that Kelm had on the generations that followed. (Rav Dessler, for example, was a product of Kelm both by birth and by studying in its halls. A number of years ago, Hamodia caused a huge brouhaha when it included a piece written by Rav Dessler’s student Rav Aryeh Carmel that noted that Rav Dessler had read, apparently with the blessings of his mentors, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Irate readers demanded an apology from the Hamodia staff for offering such “heretical” material as Rav Dessler reading secular material.)

Kelm was also innovative. Rav Simcha Zisel began a high school which included secular studies, virtually unheard of in its day. It is unclear whether the letter that I offer below in part, and in very free translation, was written in response to criticism of this high school or of the parent yeshiva of Kelm. It can be found on pg. 100 of Kisvei HaSaba v’Talmidav MiKelm. I am told that it also appears in the second volume of Dov Katz’s Tenuas HaMussar.

There is really nothing new. Those who know what Beis HaTalmud is all about understand its lofty stature; those who do not will speak of it in the darkest terms. We are aware of the preciousness of the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For the Perplexed). In his Introduction to the same, and in his responsa, Rambam writes that his work will likely not help a thousand fools – and it might even worsen matters for them. Yet, he writes, these thousand must give way to the single individual who lives as the more complete image of what Man should be, and who will be helped to live more completely by studying the Guide. So many people who did not fathom the positions of the Rambam distanced and banned those who supported his works! Yet truth, in the end, will prevail. This alone should quiet the complaints against us.

I will tell you this. I can point to an idea in one of Rambam’s responsa that is a central support of our yeshiva . He writes: “With all our might we will attempt to bring Torah matters in synch with rational thought. Wherever we find this impossible, we will concede that the Torah matter belongs to the meta-rational. I have seen amongst Torah personalities those whose goal is to take all of Torah – past and future – and turn it into the inexplicable. They wish for everything to be foreign to rational thought.” Rambam mocks them, and rejects them.

Those who know what our yeshiva is about know that we strive to allow Torah to appeal to reason, so that it can be well established within people’s hearts. This is particularly important for young people, the young of our generation, so that proper belief and attitudes become well-seated within them, with the help of G-d. One can easily understand how important this is. We endeavor to do the same even in the study of Gemara and its commentaries. I have written hurriedly, but it will suffice for the discerning.

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6 Responses

  1. Victor says:

    This entry gives me hope and for the same reason concerns me. There are clearly Torah luminaries that are rationalists and are able to give us insight that satisfies the “modern” mind. My concern is that they are not only in the minority but that the rise of a less worldy majority threatens their ability to continue to deseminate their Torah. I remember seeing the contents of Rav Bulman zt’l s bathroom reading pile. It was an incredible depth and breadth. He could discuss anything with you and tell you what was emes and what was sheker. But I wouldn’t think of telling you what the contents were for fear of what some close minded person with too much time on his hands would do with it.

  2. Anon says:

    A much-needed viewpoint, in contrast with today’s pervasive anti-rationalist attitude! How can we expect to win the battle for our childrens’ minds and souls, if we don’t challenge and fortify them with DA’AS Torah, as opposed to a rationalist-rejecting emphasis on emunah peshuta alone?! Why else do we see 3x daily “VIYADATA hayom va-hashevosa el livavecha, ki Hashem hu ha-Elokim…”?!

  3. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    Unfortunately, over ninety five percent of the Lithuanian Jews were killed in the holocaust. Only three or four of the people in the Slabodker beis medrash at the time of the air raid lived, and almost nobody from Kelm. The loss of the gedolim of our Lithuanian tradition resulted in the supplanting of that great tradition with the mean rejectionism and willful intellectual contraction that we suffer from today. Even R’ Mottel Pargemansky, who survived the war, died soon afterwards in Paris. It is a curse that keeps on cursing.

  4. Leapa says:

    We know Rishonim and many Acharonim advocated secular knowledge.
    But what can we do with this awareness when there is such a strong movement to rewrite and even fabricate history?

  5. Micha says:

    I’m not sure you can generalize from Kelm. Perhaps the Alter would only permit secular studies in an environment where people invest time each day to explore the effects various influences have had upon them. Or perhaps not.

    Second, the Mussar Movement was in general staunchly rationalist. Rav Yisrael took the notion of perfection of the soul and defined it in terms of one’s personality and decisions. Staunchly rationalist terms, in contrast to the Vilna Gaon’s focus on both those improvements and more mystical ones, and R’ Chaim Vilozhiner’s focus on learning as the means to improve the self through mystical connections. (Despite the number of counterexamples any of us have unfortunately encountered.)


  6. anon says:

    This explains why Telshe in Europe was considered a “progressive yeshiva”. Somehow somewhere things have certainly changed!