2000–01 Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh

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Zekhariah Frankel

Zekhariah Frankel (1801–1875) and his followers embraced the new historical consciousness and academic methodologies developed by the Wissenschaft scholars in their attempt to promote “scientific” study of Judaism. Frankel indeed perceived the Wissenschaft approach as an innovative departure from centuries of brilliant but severely limited Torah scholarship. Contrasting classical Torah scholarship with the products of Wissenschaft, Frankel wrote:

The results [of classical Torah study] were not the product of unrestricted study, which rises above the whole, and concentrates on the concepts of the spirit. Rather, this [classical] study was bound by fixed and defined borders that with time became narrower and narrower because of accepted beliefs. At the end, study became purely an activity of explanation and justification. How different is the scientific research of our day! This research isn’t just another stage in a long chain of previous results. It seeks to operate with freedom regarding its source. Critical examanation demands the power to go back to the foundations in every realm, to see things in its own eyes, and to give its verdict on the basis of its own judgement.14
Turning his vision into reality, Frankel founded the Juedisch-theologisches Seminary in Breslau in 1854, with the goal of training rabbis who were proficient both in classical Torah learning as well as in the new methodologies and spheres of “scientific” research. Frankel’s rabbinical seminary soon employed the historian Heinrich Graetz, and Frankel himself pursued scholarship on the Talmudic era that was historical in nature. His seminal work, Darkhei Ha-Mishnah—a history of the development and codification of the Oral Law—elicited fervent debate among the leaders of German Orthodoxy due to the critique that its historiography leveled at traditional conceptions of the mesorah.

In his scathing review of Darkhei Ha-Mishnah, the Orthodox traditionalist Tsvi Binyamin Auerbach outlined three principal objections to an historical approach to the study of halakhic texts, two of which correspond to our categories of inquiry: (1) It is heretical in that it challenges the traditional belief in mesorah as expounded by HaZaL; and (2) It undermines the authority of the system and makes it easier to dispense with individual halakhot by attributing halakhah to HaZaL, i.e. human beings, rather than to Torah Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai, i.e. the Divine.15

Although Frankel himself declined to respond formally to his critics, feeling that they were prejudiced against him, an analysis of his other writings suggests what his responses to these challenges might have been.16

With regard to emunah, Frankel insisted that the scientific, historical approach did not challenge the principles of traditional faith but rather allowed for them to remain at the forefront of modern man’s Jewish identity:

The reform of Judaism isn’t a reform of emunah but of the practical mitzvot. These continue to live in the heart of the nation and influence it. It isn’t our task to weaken this influence, but rather, to fortify it.17
Yet in claiming that human involvement in the development of halakhah is precisely that which infuses the law with sanctity, Frankel tread a thin line between emphasizing the role of creativity in the halakhic process and denying a principle of faith, namely the divinity of the Oral Torah. In retort to Frankel’s terse refusal to respond to critique of Darkhei Ha-Mishnah, Hirsch asserted that Frankel

does not say in his writings that the Tradition does not exist or that it has no foundation. . . . However, he does say in his writings that Tradition is merely something that has been transmitted, not something originally received. The first to hand it down were those who had explored and invented it. He does not deny mesorah (the process of transmission); but he does deny kabbalah (the manner in which it was originally received), the idea that Moshe Kibbel Torah Mi-Sinai.18

Owing to to his questionable formulation of this ikkar ha-emunah, Frankel came under attack for neglecting the spiritual education of his students—“I know with absolute certainty that he does not worry at all about the religious belief of the Seminary students, this does not concern him,” Hildesheimer charged in a letter to a colleague19—and for assigning primacy to practice over faith— “You will never be content with their principle,” Hildesheimer warned a friend. “‘What I believe is an issue of no relevance, only what I do is of import,’ as if to say, sanctity of action, and nothing more.”20 Students of the Breslau seminary in later years conceded that—perhaps as a result of Frankel’s spiritual neglect, or perhaps in response to the implications of his scholarship—a growing number of his students actively questioned the divinity of the Oral Torah.21

Regarding the implications of Frankel’s approach for halakhic observance, Gottleib Fischer, whose review of Darkhei Ha-Mishnah was published by Hirsch in the periodical Jeshurun, insisted that such a heretical theological position could only result in the abandonment of Torah in practice:

Now if one accepts the teaching of your Principal that the various explanations of the Law did not originate from God but came from the men of the Anshei Knesset Ha-Gedolah, who will listen to you and, in our day and age, be willing to desist on the Sabbath from such activities as Borer Pesolet Mi-Tokh Okhel, from writing out two letters, or from carrying in Reshut Ha-Rabbim objects that are not heavy in the least? After all, these activities are not even expressly forbidden by the Written Law.22
Indeed, when approached by members of the Trier community about the permissibility of appointing a graduate of the Breslau seminary to the position of Rav Ha-Kehillah, Hildesheimer’s major objection was on the grounds that Breslau musmakhim were known to be lenient in their observance of halakhot of rabbinic provenance.23

The strength of Frankel’s approach was that it did not require him to distinguish between layers of truth: to Frankel, truth discovered through learning was meant to inform practical observance. He insisted that all reforms be grounded in “science;” his grievance with Geiger’s Reform Movement was that the changes its leaders sought to implement were not grounded in learning and, as such, did not live up to their own proclaimed standards of truth:

There is one more tenet that requires protection, that of science. It must be the basis of any reform. But science can be obtained only by a positive basis, since it alone marks the path towards modernity.24
Frankel was rejected by the Orthodox for his unabashed desire to use learning as a basis for reform. But all Orthodox scholars thereafter who embraced a scientific, historical approach to Torah learning would be hard-pressed to resolve the occasional clash between halakhic observance and the “truth” they derived through intellectual inquiry.

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