Polyphonic Diversity and Military Music:
The Brisker Derekh and the Broader World of Jewish Thought

For more than a century, the Brisker mode of Talmudic analysis has dominated the world of traditional learning. What impact does this kind of learning have on our study of Tanakh and Jewish Thought? The Brisker approach not only notes that one word can have two meanings, but argues that the two meanings are intimately related as the duality reflects the complexity of reality. Rabbi Mordechai Breuer’s approach to contradictory Biblical passages and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s explanation of the two accounts of creation reflect the application of this type of thought to study of Tanakh. Rav Yitzchak Hutner’s probing of the difference between regular prayer and prayer in the context of repentance reveals this method in the world of Jewish Thought. Rabbi Carmy mentions several examples of fruitful employment of halakhic ideas to explain Biblical passages, while cautioning against an approach that reduces everything to halakhic issues and thereby shows itself obtuse to the psychological struggles of Biblical characters.

The title of this essay refers to two types of thinkers. The first appreciates the complexity of reality and searches for the personal and the qualitative in their learning. "Military music," on the other hand, represents those who aim for the pragmatic and the quantitative aspects of learning. The latter type of thinkers fail to understand Rabbi Soloveitchik’s constant search for new explanations, while the former value the ongoing adventure and creativity found in a personal relationship with Torah. The latter are allergic to conflicting values, whereas the former understand that not all of life’s problems allow for definitive answers. For example, the latter are likely to ignore the necessary balance between Divine voluntarism and human input. Finally, the "military musicians" mechanically "say over" the Torah they have learned without truly confronting the issues in a personal manner.

Rabbi Carmy argues that the Brisker method should find a way to incorporate literary questions. He points out that today’s lay people require greater intellectual sophistication than the shoemakers of Vilna. Our quest for the personal need not be limited to saying an idea never heard before, because we understand that internalizing a commentator’s innovation is in itself an act of great creativity. Additionally, our emphases on the personal should not mean adopting the "cult of personality" in which admiration for the great replaces the strenuous efforts of the students.

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Tradition 34:4 (2000): 6-32. (© Rabbinical Council of America, with permission.)

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