The Methodology of Brisk

Rabbi Hayim of Brisk revolutionized Talmud study--and his method remains dominant today.

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The Brisker method, in some ways, paralleled modern science, which emerged at approximately the same time. Modern science does not ask why the world works the way it does or what is the ultimate cause. Instead, modern science seeks to understand what is happening in a given phenomena. Modern science asks, What patterns and processes do we observe in the natural world? So too, Rabbi Hayim sought to discover the patterns and processes in Jewish law, and to find the larger principles that underlie the legal details. He did not, however, ask why those principles, patterns, and processes underlie halakhah; he did not attempt to justify them. Rabbi Hayim's focus on the "what" questions enabled him to develop a disciplined method that is subject to criticism and verification.

Don't Ask Why

What is the philosophy behind the Brisker derekh--and particularly its emphasis on the "what" over the "why"? The Briskers see the halakhah as an expression of the transcendent and unfathomable Divine will. The goal of the Jew should be to fear and obey God, not to understand the commandments. Asking the "why" questions is irrelevant to this goal.

The Brisker method is not only a significant departure from the methods of studying Talmud that preceded it, but it is also very different from the academic method that developed later. The academic method uses historical and linguistic tools to analyze Talmud. It asks: How did the law develop? What are the different layers of the text, and how was that text transmitted? These historic and linguistic concerns are irrelevant to the Brisker project of conceptualization. Brisker categories are ideal and eternal. Unlike academics, the Briskers do not ask about the historical origin and development of a particular position, but about the eternal concepts that underlie it.

The new terminology that Rabbi Hayim created, together with the systematic and methodological nature of his approach, made that approach easy to transmit. His method soon spread throughout the yeshivot of Lithuania, and then to the United States and Israel. A wide range of yeshivot use his method, from the modern Orthodox Yeshiva University of New York to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Brisker Yeshiva of Jerusalem.

Two Sons, Two Schools

Many of Rabbi Hayim's followers can be divided into two schools of thought.

One of these schools originated with Rabbi Hayim's son, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. Rabbi Moshe immigrated to the United States, where he became dean of the modern Orthodox Yeshiva University. His son, Rabbi Yosef Dov, continued his father's legacy there. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, known to many simply as "the Rav," became the leader of American Orthodoxy. He advocated unwavering commitment to traditional Judaism while also embracing modernity. The Rav provided one of the clearest formulations of the Brisker derekh and strived to derive larger values from Brisker concepts.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.