Ysoscher Katz Respond to Aryeh Klapper

Here is the second response to my last week’s interview with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper about his new book Divine Will and Human Experience   The first response was by Rabbi Yitzchak Roness- here. The second one here is by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, he has posted here several times before including his credo  Torat Chaim Ve’Ahavat Chesed

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz Respond to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Thank you Prof Brill for the opportunity to share some reflections on R. Klapper’s new book and your subsequent interview with him. I will first deal with the book and then consider the interview. The combined perspectives of the book and interview are richer than each on their own.

Reading R. Aryeh Klapper’s new book Divine Will and Human Experience last Shabbat was a true joy of Shabbos (oneg shabbat).  Few people have Rabbi Klapper’s ability to dissect an intricate philosophical precept with such nuance, depth, and sophistication. R. Klapper hones in on an idea, pushes aside the chaff, and gets right to the wheat, the core essence of a postulate. He then is able to dismantle the argument all the way to its granular elements and then reassemble it, in the process making the idea’s hardware sturdier, and its software more potent. The reader in turn gains new insights coupled with a greater appreciation of halakha’s secondary infrastructure: its philosophy. 

Notwithstanding the insights contained in the book, a question hovers over it. One wonders: What kind of book is it? Given the audience of this book, answering the classification question is crucial, with each essay the question of classification becomes more acute.

Rabbi Aryeh is a prominent Modern Orthodox thinker and highly regarded educator, who has a large following and vast readership. His ideas inform the Modern Orthodox laity and guide the community’s young future leaders, some of whom will in time become poskim. His thoughts about the “halakhic system and its values” (as is the subtitle of the book) are therefore highly influential in shaping the way those future adjudicators will think about halakha, obviating the question: is this indeed a book that should function as a guide for our next generation of halakhic decisors?

After much reflection, I reached the inescapable conclusion that it is its own genre, one that Chazal would call an “entity unto itself” (בריה בפני עצמה), one that operates alongside classical sifrei pesika, but itself is not on a continuum of that genre of seforim.


Over the years, R. Klapper and I have debated the essence of Modern Orthodox pesika, particularly as it relates to its Hareidi counterpart. I argue that the two are distinct genres, their building-blocks diverging on many levels from classical pesika’s starting points and first principles. The two, as a result, are incomparable and apart. R. Aryeh disagrees. He contends that Modern Orthodox psak is essentially the same as Hareidi psak with certain contemporary sensibilities thrown into the mix.

Paradoxically, the discourse in this book belies this claim. Its methodology of psak is distinctly modern and not Haredi. Both its premise and process stand in stark contrast to the way classic halakhic deliberations have been conducted for millennia. This method of pesika is so unique that it no longer operates on a continuum of traditional psak. It is indeed a new creation

The ways in which it is unprecedented

1) Process:

A central feature of classical halakhic discussions is that arguments are predominantly textual. Texts are the primary arena in which halakhic questions are dissected, analyzed, and finally resolved. A classical teshuva consists of eighty to ninety percent text. Only about ten or twenty percent are devoted to logic and argumentation. Rabbi Aryeh inverts that ratio.

The essays are overwhelmingly conceptual with an occasional text thrown into the mix. This configuration makes it difficult to claim that a Modern Orthodox posek following R. Aryeh’s methodology operates on a continuum with the Rashba, Chasam Soffer, or Rav Asher Weiss. More accurately, these different halakhic modes have some overlapping commonalities but speak in very different meters. This overlap is enough to potentially enable the two communities to dialogue, but the divergences necessitate mutual adjustments in order to have a meaningful conversation with one another. Not on a classical continuum, one cannot move naturally from traditional responsa to the halakhic discussions of those who write in Rabbi Klapper’s style.

2) Halakhic Philosophy

In these essays, Rabbi Aryeh undertakes the challenging task of analyzing the philosophical components of halakhah which are not obvious to the naked eye. Such a project lacks precedent in the classical canon of halakha. Undoubtedly, poskim are driven by a halakhic philosophy but they are hardly ever stated explicitly. It, instead, is always implicit and embedded in the textual claims they present. The reader only encounters the posek’s view and the textual sources leading to it. There is an awareness that underneath the classical discourse there is also a subtle undercurrent of philosophical, ethical and theological assumptions, but they are never expressed explicitly. And that ratio is deliberate. Classical halakhic discourse is primarily legal and behavioral, exploring what is permitted or prohibited in Jewish practice. The philosophy of halakha is merely one ingredient in the multiplicity of methodologies employed. The opposite is found in R. Aryeh’s writings: the jurisprudential philosophy is overt, and texts are embedded in the argumentation on occasion.

Classical Halakhah is doing halakha; Rabbi Klapper composes jurisprudential philosophy-in a style that is uniquely his. The difference between classical pesika and R. Aryeh’s project is not merely numerical, the number of texts used. This quantitative difference is indicative of a qualitative distinction. Classical poskim paid little heed to the philosophical underpinnings of their psak because the notion of a “philosophy of psak” was foreign to them, perhaps even anathematic to their project. “Jurisprudential philosophy” is a markedly modern enterprise, diverging significantly from the project of classical pesika-both in the past and the present.

3) Halakhah is not Law

I intend to expand on the larger issues of this topic at a later time. It is part of a larger critique I started articulating several years ago, when Prof Benny Brown published his mammoth biography of the Chazon Ish.

Dr. Brown’s project was unique. He evaluated the חשיבה הלכתית (halakhic philosophy) of the Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878-1953) through the prism of the philosophy of law. Presenting key tenets of legal philosophy, he superimposed them onto Chazon Ish’s pesakim, claiming that Rabbi Karelitz’s methodology of psak carries a robust and perhaps even innate resemblance to what non-halakhic jurists do. Underlying this juxtaposition is Dr. Brown’s assumption that these two legal systems, halakha, and secular jurisprudence, more or less do the same thing; creating law.

The assumption is flawed. The Chazon Ish and philosophers of law are not playing in the same arena, their projects are not comparable. Halakha is not the Jewish version of Law, it is an entirely different organism. Law is jurisprudence, halakha is theological prescriptive. To paraphrase the famous statement of R. Chaim Brisker (“שיעובד is שיעבוד”): Halakha is Halakha! It has little or perhaps nothing in common with other systems of law, their many similarities notwithstanding.

My lack of comfort with Prof. Benny Brown’s approach is also applicable to Rabbi Aryeh. Exploring halakha primarily through a philosophical prism means stepping out of the halakhic arena. Giving disproportionate weight to the philosophy of a psak or a posek is predicated on the assumption that halakha is “law;” that like other legal systems it operates primarily on first-principle philosophical axioms and ethical predicates. Halakha is Halakha, not law. Its foundational building blocks are theology, divine will, and normative halakha.

But not to confuse future readers, lay or scholar, this edifying book will more naturally be housed in a library, not a Beit Midrash. Classical Rabbinic texts are the foundation for the essays and philosophical discussions of this book, but once the analysis starts it guides the reader towards new uncharted vistas the classical poskim would not explore.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Klapper’s Divine Will and Human Experience is a must-read for anybody interested in seeing what halakha looks like when a modern thinker, deeply rooted in contemporary Orthodox philosophy, disassembles halakha’s operating board. The essays delve into the deep crevices of halakha and with immense creativity tries to extrapolate a harmonious logic and consistent philosophy. Rabbi Aryeh’s probing enables him to reveal that which the average reader does not notice, and what he discovers is illuminating and intriguing. They bring to mind the poetic Rabbinic formulation: “If it were not for his excavation skills, we would have never noticed the pearls [of wisdom] hidden beneath the surface” (Makot 21). Studying this book is therefore a truly edifying and vivifying experience.

4) Coda

The interview is the Oral Torah (Torah She-Ba’al Peh ) to the book’s Written Torah (Torah She’Bichtav). As with the Oral Torah itself, the interview magnifies what is only hinted at in the written word. The interview gives a better understanding of the book’s ethos and context  thereby illuminating ideas only alluded to in Rabbi  Klapper’s writing.  

It also reveals an added layer to Rabbi Klapper’s understanding of Halakha’s mechanics. For Rabbi Klapper, Halakha has a certain degree of meta-physical self-awareness. Consequently, he believes that Halakha is often in active dialogue with value systems and modes of thought outside its own universe. Illustratively, Rabbi Klapper suggests that although “ethics exist prior to Halakha,” nevertheless halakhah incorporates it into its universe as an outside partner but one with equal footing. “Making practical Halakhic decisions [therefore] ideally requires understanding each of these [ethics and other universal values] on their own terms.”

Such an interest in human values is anathema to a classical understanding of Halakha. The above-mentioned postulates are incompatible with a traditional notion of Halakah as a theological phenomenon that exists prior to-and independent of-any other system. Even if another system has parallels to Halakha, Halakha is an independent and unique genre. 

The halakhic process is animated by a Divine spirit, אלוקים ניצב בעדת אל. And while the idea of Daas Torah has unfortunately been tainted by its abuses and misapplications, it is nevertheless a (misguided) outgrowth of the premise that the process of psak is animated and guided by a transcendent Divine.

Accordingly, the value of Human Dignity (Kevod Habriyot) is not as Rabbi Klapper thinks an “ethical principle incorporated into Halakha,” it is a Halakhic category. In this regard, it is no different than the halakhic premises of “hearing is like answering” shomeia keonah,  “the more frequent act takes precedence” (tadir kodem) and the like. It is part and parcel of Halakha’s innate and self-containing infrastructure, not merely something that complements it.

For the traditional posek, ethics is a divinely ordained sacred principle.  Dickens, Hawthorne, Lofting, and Plato (authors which, according to the interview, form the basis of  R. Klapper’s ethical compass), serve at best as the Torah’s handmaidens. These thinkers can help to illuminate some of Halakha’s ethical positions but they are certainly not its source.

Therefore, as I explained, while not part and parcel of the pesika canon,  the book Divine Will and Human Experience nevertheless sheds tremendous light for those who care about that canon. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you add this important book to your library.   

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