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Yosef Bronstein: Rav Tzadok & Rav Kook on Jewish History

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Dr. Yosef Bronstein. A deep thinker with scholarship and experience in many areas of Jewish thought, Yosef has a PhD in Talmud, an upcoming book on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, work editing at the Reshimos Shiurim on Kiddushin of Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik, and countless lectures, classes, and students on Talmud, mysticism, and Jewish philosophy. Yosef joins us to talk about R. Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, whose thought on the history of halacha, the relationship between human and God, and the ascending evolution of Jewish thought are deeply fascinating. How do we make sense of change in our religious systems and laws, and the development of our traditions? Listen now to find out. 

In this interview, we discuss: 

  • How does Rav Kook think about change in Jewish life and law from the Temple times until today? 
  • How can we work through dissonance between our individual moral sensitivities and the halacha? 
  • Can and should our relationship to Jewish people and law change over time? 

Yosef Bronstein received rabbinic ordination and a PhD in Talmudic Studies from Yeshiva University. He currently teaches halacha and Jewish philosophy at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY) and online for Yeshiva University’s Isaac Breuer College. Rabbi Dr. Bronstein is a beloved lecturer, writer, and teacher on topics of Jewish thought, and his book, Engaging the Essence: The Philosophy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is forthcoming.

Interview starts at 25:52

Resources:

To the Process of Ideas in in Israel (LeMehalech HaEideot BaYisrael) by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

“Jewish Thought: A Process, Not a Text by David Bashevkin

B’Rogez Rachem Tizkor by Dovid Bashevkin

Iggrot HaRav Kook – Letter #90 by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

Moreh L’Nevuchei HaDor by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

״Derech HaTechiyah״ in Ma’amarei Ha’Reiyah by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

Chacham Adif M’Navi” in Orot by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

Introduction to Ein Ayah by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

״Tzimaon L’Keil Chai״ in Orot by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook by Betzalel Naor 

Progressive Derash and Retrospective Peshat: Nonhalakhic Considerations in Talmud Torah by Yaakov Elman

Mevakshei Panekha: Sichot im Ha-Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, In Quest of Your Presence — Conversations with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein by Chaim Sabato

David Bashevkin: 
Hello and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring the origins of Judaism. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18forty.org where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

I have a hesitance about this week’s episode, but not for any reason that I have ever shared or had for any other episode. Normally, I am somewhat concerned because it’s a topic that might get me in trouble. It might be, I don’t know, heretical. It might be a topic that I don’t feel comfortable with, I don’t know so much about. Today’s episode, which is about Rav Tzadok and Rav Kook’s approach to the development of Judaism itself, to the development of Yiddishkeit gives me pause because the writings of Rav Tzadok in particular and through Rav Tzadok, also Rav Kook, are something that is so intimate to me. It is something that’s such a part of me that I am worried that I’m not going to be able to do it justice. I’m worried that I’m not going to be able to adequately explain, at least in my mind, why I think Rav Tzadok’s approach is so foundational.

But thank God we have an amazing guest this week who is really an expert, not just in the academic background, not just in the actual lived experience of Torah she’baal peh, somebody who is immersed in the Beis Medrash, and also somebody who has spent a great deal of time explaining the writings of Rav Kook. So I’m not all too worried about that. But I do want to give some context to Rav Tzadok in particular, who will be contrasting in some ways to Rav Kook, they run on parallel tracks in a lot of ways. Just a little bit of background, there’s so much to talk about and I think particularly for this series, I would just want to remind our listeners to check out 18forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org. Normally I say where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, et cetera, et cetera. We are running specific series, written series throughout this month that are focusing on this topic.

There’s an incredible series by Yosef Lindell, I think a five part series on the development of the oral law that has a lot more sources, gets involved in a lot of the nitty gritty and the development and the key ideas that are involved in this and proceeds much more sequentially. So if you want to reach out and see more, definitely consult our website, 18forty.org. And also you can check out, we have a great primer on the key articles about Rav Tzadok’s approach to Torah she’baal peh in particular that you can check out that’s on our website. If you haven’t signed up for our emails, we’ll be emailing it out or of course you can check it out. I think it’ll be a thread on social media. But make sure that if this is a topic that interests you, there’s so much to talk about and it’s so easy to have misunderstandings, to have an incomplete understanding. So don’t stop with the interviews, really delve into it deeper and we have so many resources online to support that.

But in this intro I want to focus specifically on Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin. I’ve mentioned his name many, many times and for listeners who are new, just a little bit of background. He was born in 1823 and he died in 1900. He’s somebody who animates so much of my thought. He began his life, not in the chasidic world, he really began as an absolute genius, immersed in classic rabbinic thought. I know everyone is called the genius, every famous rabbi, it’s called the genius. But we don’t have to just speculate about his genius. We have his bar mitzvah drasha, we have actual documents that he wrote as a teenager that attest to kind of where he was in his own development and it really is jaw dropping what he accomplished at such a young age. At the heart of all of Rav Tzadok’s work, which is so interesting, he’s coming in around the same time in the mid 19th century when there were so many questions about the authenticity, about the authority, about what the project of the oral law actually was.

And many people respond directly somewhat polemically to people who dismissed the notion of the oral law. I think chief among them is Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who wrote some excellent works on this topic, but Rav Tzadok takes a different approach. Rav Tzadok acknowledges that something changed and something developed. And I think more than anything else, based off of everything that we’ve been discussing, that there was some sort of development, that there was some sort of change in the world. Rav Tzadok really gets to the heart of why such a change is necessary and what are the theological archetypes, what is guiding these changes? Why is this necessary in the world? Why not have it given in a more direct way, in a more simplistic way, so to speak?

Just give us the book of the rules. Why do we have this kind of period where we are guided from a more prophetic experience and then we kind of shift to an experience that comes through the interpretive community, through the baalei hamesorah or the interpretive community that not only invest authority in the oral law, but are the ones who explicate build upon it generation after generation. And we obviously don’t have enough time to go through all the writings of Rav Tzadok. I just really want to highlight three important thinkers in this area and then try to get like a nugget, like the core essential idea of what is animating his thought. The first person is my teacher who I’ve written about in Tradition. I was invited to contribute to Tradition Journal in the fall of 2020, volume 52, number four. And I contributed an article called ‘Jewish Thought, a Process, not a Text’. And in that article, which is really all about Rav Tzadok and his influence on me, I spoke about Rav Tzadok’s contribution through the three teachers who brought me to Rav Tzadok.

And one of those teachers who really is the first person to write about Rav Tzadok in English and it’s a series of articles that we have on our website and you can check that out of course at 18forty.org and that is Dr. Yaakov Elman. And you want to be sure to check out all of his articles, again, check out the website. The second person who I actually came to even beforehand and was briefly a guest on 18Forty, that is Rabbi Jeremy Kagan. He has a fantastic book in English. He has multiple books, but the one that really resonated with me is called The Jewish Self. And you’ll see why the title is so important. We’ve been talking about the origins of Judaism, the interaction of prophetic Judaism and rabbinic Judaism. His book is about the Jewish self and the formation of ourself and kind of a historiography of what it means to be involved in Yiddishkeit, how religion itself has evolved through time. It’s an absolutely fascinating work and I strongly recommend for anybody who wants to get a better understanding.

But the last person who’s probably the least accessible, not just as a personality as a person, though I’ve had many, many conversations with her and I’m not, I don’t want to make a promise, but I want to hope and continue to pray that she joins as a guest on 18Forty because her work has been such an influence on my life and that is Professor Amira Liwer and she wrote her PhD, which again is available on our website. And her PhD is called Torah She’baal Peh Bi’kisvei Rav Tzadok. This is a monumental work. It is more than 500 pages, it is in Hebrew, most of it in academic Hebrew. But she is an incredible person. I’ve never met with her in person, I’ve spoken to her on the phone a few times and I really want to recommend that and I want to begin just kind of explicating at the heart of Rav Tzadok’s work, his ideas and why it’s so essential.

With the introductory quote to her PhD. And she begins with a quote from Rav Tzadok in his work, Likkutei Maamarim on the 90th page in the old print and Rav Tzadok writes as follows, ״V’lekach”, and therefore “Tachlis kol Torah she’baal peh” the point of the entire Torah she’baal peh “Hu rak chochmos v’limmudim eich li’hagya li’davar zeh”, it is a teaching, it is the wisdom of how to reach this. What is this? “La’daas” to know, “She’ein lanu mi’atzmeinu klum, rak mah she’HaShem Yisbarach nosein” that we of ourselves really have nothing, it is all ultimately from God. “V’az mimeilah HaShem Yisbarach”, and through that God “Shofeach chochma b’chol echad v’echad hamiyachel li’chasdo” bestow upon every individual who anticipates and yearns for God’s goodness, for God’s kindness. And I think that opening quote says so much that the entire project of Torah she’baal peh is a way, “eich li’hagya li’davar zeh”, is a way to reach this. What is this “la’daas”? The knowledge “She’ein lanu mi’atzmeinu klum, rak mah she’HaShem Yisbarach nosein”

And I think at the heart of everything that this knowledge that our very sense of self, our very selves emerges from God as well, really gets to the heart of the dichotomy that Rav Tzadok understands and approaches this difference between prophetic Judaism and rabbinic Judaism and this switch. At the heart of it, in the writing of Rav Tzadok and he writes theologically though many of his works are halachic, he wrote responsa of many of his works include lomdus, this is a person who the entire corpus of Torah she’baal peh of the oral law throughout the generations was at his fingertips. And you really see it, it’s not story tales, it’s something that you see on every page of his writing. But at the heart of the dichotomy is the paradox that animates the entire world, which is the paradox between divine foreknowledge and free will.

At the heart of any religious thinking person’s mind, there is a paradox that exists that nearly every religious thinker has approached. That if in fact there is a God, if in fact there is a creator of the world, who knows all, who is omniscient, then we live in a deterministic world that is called divine foreknowledge. He knows what is going to happen. Yet at the same time, there is a notion of free will that we have a sense of self. The entire purpose of the world was to create a world where man can arrive, where humanity can arrive, at the knowledge of God through their own free will, through their own choice and discover, so to speak, godliness in the world. I believe it is the dichotomy between determinism and free will, between a world that is subsumed within godliness and a world that is separated, so to speak, from God that only emerges through our choice, through our own discovery, is at the heart of this shift.

In the works of Rav Tzadok, the prophetic world that we once lived in was a world of limited choice where choice was more limited, where God’s presence was much more palpable and much more realizable. And slowly the world unfolded and shifted into a world of bekhira of free will. And this deliberately came through time and over time because the very dichotomy, that very paradox between free will and determinism, between the written Torah and the oral Torah, is the same phenomenology as the same distinction that we have in the writings of republic that we find between place and time. A place in Hebrew, a makom, a place does not require the unfolding of time. A sefer Torah, the words on the page do not exist within the context of time, it comes out in a flash that is the moment of revelation. And we contend with that moment of revelation over time and through time. And that is the world of Torah she’baal peh, the oral Torah which deliberately unfolds through time itself.

There is a fantastic book that I’ve recommended before. I may have even quoted this exact passage. The book is by Alan Lightman and it’s called Einstein’s Dreams. And as I think I mentioned, he has this one story in Einstein’s Dreams where he imagines a world that operates where time is a sense, where time is a sense like your sense of smell, your sense of touch, your sense of sight. Imagine time was a sense and different people had different senses of time. How would that work? It’s one of the few fiction books I’ve ever read. Every chapter imagines what Einstein was dreaming about when he’s coming up with his theory of relativity.

And in this chapter where time is a sense, it ends with this amazing, amazing thought experiment where he writes, “Some few people are born without any sense of time, as consequence, their sense of place becomes heightened to excruciating degree. They lie in tall grass and are questioned by poets and painters from all over the world. These time deaf are beseech to describe the precise placement, trees in the spring, the shape of snow in the Alps, the angle of sun on a church, the position of rivers, the location of moss, the pattern of birds and a flock. Yet the time deaf are unable to speak what they know for speech needs a sequence of words spoken in time.”

That is the world of Torah she’baal peh, where our very sense of self, our very Torah unfolds throughout time and in contention, in dialogue with the Torah she’bi’chsav and these two archetypes where the moment of revelation which does not unfold in time, it is kind of like a moment, a flash is the written Torah. And that is the world of prophetic Judaism, so to speak. It’s the world that’s described in Tanaakh, where God is revealed in this top down space like on a mountain, on Har Sinai, so to speak. And slowly that vision dims. We don’t live in that world forever because our ability to choose within that world is somewhat limited. And slowly we move away into the world of bechira, into the world of free will, the exilic world where our ability to find God, to discover transcendence, to develop Torah comes deliberately through human interpretation, through the darkness of God’s revelation.

We don’t see it explicitly. There are no more open miracles. There’s no palatable divine presence. But divine presence itself is manifest through our own sense of self, through our interpretations, through what’s embodied by Knesses Yisrael, through the collective body of the Jewish people. And it is specifically in the world of the oral law that we need the function of time, not just to speak, but in the unfolding of tradition itself, every generation in dialogue with the generation that came before it. People always ask me like, according to this, how do you know who is right? How do you know? Maybe we should all join and become chassidim, or maybe we should all go and become a little bit more relaxed or more lenient and go with the masses. And I think part of the answer is the certainty of knowing is much less clear in the present moment. You really require a little bit of the hand of history to guide us and to know what’s right. And that’s part of the ambiguity of exile. It’s part of the responsibility and heaviness of choice itself.

And we need that unfolding of time that all of the oral law is built upon, that guides each and every generation. It’s why the very acronym for the orders of the Mishna – Zeraim, Moed, Nashim, Nezikin, Kodshim, Taharos, which are the six orders of the Mishna, spell an acronym of “Zman Nakat” choosing time. It is that choice within time, that unfolding of tradition throughout the generation that the majesty of Torah she’baal peh emerges from. And it is in this world of choice, this exilic world that we live in where Torah flourished and the point of Torah is not to bask in the beauty of our choice, but to merge the world of choice back and reconnect it to the world of divine foreknowledge, to reconnect the world of bechira, which is the Hebrew word for “choice” to the world of yediya, to be able to find godliness and presence even in our very sense of self, even in our human interpretations, even in the guiding hands of history.

Just look at that, even in the apparent absence of explicit divinity to say that there is God there as well, which is why the great revelation of the oral law flourished after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Flourished in the shadow, in the wake of destruction. Which is why the very verse in which the Talmud couches itself and describes itself is from the third chapter of Eicha where the Talmud says, which I’ll just say parenthetically and I know we’ve probably lost a lot of people in the series. It’s been a little intense and hopefully you look at the show notes and the articles that proceed a little bit more sequentially. But in the third chapter of Eicha, of Lamentations, which is kind of this poetic response to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. The entire third chapter I believe are the roots of centering Torah as the vehicle for self expression and for rediscovering the divinity that was lost in the Temple.

And in the sixth verse of the third chapter, it writes, “Bi’machashakim hoshivani ki’masei olam” You placed me in darkness among the dead.” And the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin on the 24th page says that this verse refers to the project of Talmud. Talmud is about the rediscovery of God through choice, through our own free will, through our interpretation, through the darkness of exile and being able to rediscover the explicit God associated with prophecy, associated with that world of divine foreknowledge, where there’s a plan for everything. And merging those two worlds like that quote we began with, which is the quote that Amira Liwer begins her entire PhD with on Rav Tzadok, “V’likach tachlis kol Torah she’baal peh hu rak chochmos v’limmudim eich li’hagya li’davar zeh la’daas she’ein lanu mi’atzmeinu klum, rak mah she’HaShem Yisbarach nosein.” To come to that ultimate realization that even our sense of self, even our religious capacity, even that journey, even our own personal experiential narrative is also from God and is also a part of that story.

And the Torah that emerges from our own experience is part of Torah as well in the world of Rav Tzadok. But in that world of Rav Tzadok, everything comes back to this world shift between the world of divine foreknowledge of open miracles, of a world that is openly connected to God. A world described with miracles, with angels, the world described that we have in Tanaakh, and then the lights go out and we live in the world that we live in today. And it’s that world that is unfolding through darkness where we need to kind of construct and figure out and interpret what our purpose is. And I think these two worlds, that world of clarity and that world of darkness that I think is represented by Torah she’baal peh. I think everyone intuitively understands or has experienced this in their own lives, in their own sense of self. It is like the very unfolding of Torah mirrors the unfolding of our own individual selves where we’re born, so to speak and we have this embryonic meaning and purpose in the world.

We’re brought into the world for a purpose. And then the moment we come into the world, it seems like we are bereft. As we come into ourself, it gets more and more confusing. There’s more and more doubt, and we have points in our life where it could be total darkness. We don’t even know why we’re alive anymore. We don’t believe in ourselves, we don’t believe that there is a purpose, a direction to ourselves. And the very phenomenology of Torah she’baal peh of taking text that contradict, taking opinions that contradict and finding and constructing meaning through that darkness is I believe the very way that we construct a sense of self, that we’re born and we have this period where God brought us into the world and then our very sense of self like Torah she’baal peh, like the oral law slowly unfolds in each period in our lives until hopefully by the end of our life, that initial purpose and the very end of our lives cohere and merge together where we finally are able to embody that purpose.

And I look at Torah she’baal peh that way when somebody tells me, are you telling me that Torah she’baal peh, it wasn’t given by God, the oral law wasn’t given directly by God. I said in a transcendent sense, of course, the same way in a transcendent sense, my life has a purpose, but it’s sometimes not apparent and it’s sometimes not clear and that purpose has to come through discovery, through resolution and negotiation, figuring out how all the different periods in my life cohere into some central picture, some central narrative that gives purpose to my life. And that can be lost and it’s not always clear. It can sometimes feel that our lives itself is “Bi’machashakim hoshivani ki’masei olam” “We’re placed in darkness among the dead.” And I think Rav Tzodak is negotiating in his approach to the distinction between Torah she’bichsav and Torah she’baal peh as this world of divinity, divine foreknowledge versus world of bechira, choice and doubt and ambiguity.

Rav Tzodak is really negotiating, finding meaning not just in Torah, but this is parallel in our very own lives where our very sense of self can become, in a sense, a part of Torah. And it’s this negotiation and it’s this sense of feeling and sometimes purposelessness and our human drive to find purpose, to construct purpose and wed it to that original transcendent idea for why we’re here is not just the project of Torah, but it’s the project of life itself. And being a part of this and connecting to your own life and each period in your life. And then in a macro sense, connecting your life to all the unfolding generations is the very beauty and very majesty of what Torah is all about. And this, I believe is the very project of Torah she’baal peh, which is seeking meaning. And I want to read one paragraph before we go into our interview.

And again, I’m so sorry for the long introductions during this entire series. I just really think this requires framing because some of these ideas can be if misunderstood, can erode faith and what we’re really trying to do is build faith. And that is an article that was written by my teacher, Dr. Yaakov Elman. He has a phenomenal article that you’re not even going to get it if you try to read it once. Even the title is hard to understand. The article is called “Progressive Derash and Retrospective Peshat: Non-Halakhic Considerations in Talmud Torah“. And he has one paragraph, one really amazing paragraph where he discusses this notion of omnisignificance, this commitment that we have in Torah to find meaning even when on a more basic, more literal meaning, or maybe in a plain reading there is a contradiction. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t cohere with one another. But the entire project of Torah is about omnisignificance in insisting and finding meaning in all of the texts of Torah.

And he has one paragraph that I found so beautiful and so amazing where he really connects this project and this desire to find omnisignificance in Torah, even when two verses contradict, even when two passages in Talmud contradict, even when two halakhas, whether it’s in the Rishonim or in the Shulchan Aruch, even when they contradict, we then find a larger conceptual frame to resolve those contradictions. That very project is part of life itself. And this is what he writes, Dr. Elman in his article, he says, “in this unconstructed world, whereas information theory teaches us entropy and disorder increase in the realm of knowledge and its transmission no less than in the material world. The principle of omnisignificance serves as a bulwark against disorder is the Torah’s analog of the law of conservation of matter and energy.

Omnisignificance smoothes jagged edges of contradiction and redundancy. But those edges remain to goad us onto new and more inclusive systematization, to allow scope for the intellectually edifying to overcome the world’s irrationality, which at base mirror this world’s basic hostility to truth, the intellectual equivalent to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, so to speak. In this sense, the Torah too is in exile.”

Omnisignificance. This search for meaning is a foretaste of the world of tikkun, that world of reconciliation. And I think that world, that exilic world of contradiction and redundancy, that repetition that seems so meaningless, we experience it not only in Torah, we experience it in our lives and the experience, the phenomenology, the tools that we have in resolving those contradictions, whether it is in the Torah, whether it’s in the Talmud, whether it’s in the Rishonim, are the very tools that we use to construct the Jewish self, our individual self and the larger self of Knesses Yisrael. And that is the emergence of the Jewish people through prophecy and then rediscovering that world post destruction through the flourishing of Torah she’baal peh. And is without further ado, I want to introduce not just Rav Tzadok’s thought, but the world of Rav Kook. And Rav Tzadok and Rav Kook, I just want to mention never knew each other personally. Rav Kook I believe heard about the writings of Rav Tzadok. They never met.

And there are many wonderful works that compare their theology. There’s a fantastic sefer, there’s a book called Ahavas Tzedek. It’s written entirely in Hebrew, so I apologize to many of our listeners. That may not be accessible to you, but they’re always in parallel thought and they are sometimes called shnei Kohanim Gedolim, the two great Kohanim, two great Kohens because both Rav Tzadok and Rav Kook were Kohanim and did this holy work of trying to restore honor and integrity of the oral law in this ever confusing world. And I could think of no better guess than my dearest friend, somebody who I know for many, many years and who has expertise in so many fields as you’ll discover the interview. Without further ado, my conversation with Dr. Yosef Bronstein.

I am so excited to introduce one of my oldest and dearest friends. He really is an incredibly accomplished person, teaches in Yeshiva University, in MMY, has a doctorate I believe, which we’ll hear more about from my teacher and professor, Dr. Yakov Elman. But I could be wrong, we’ll hear more about that in a moment. But I remember him most fondly that he was the speaker at my smicha ordination at my event, when I got smicha, my Chag Ha’Smicha. It is my absolute privilege and pleasure to introduce my friend Rabbi Dr. Yosef Bronstein,

Yosef Bronstein: 
Thank you so much, Rav David. It is a pleasure to be here.

David Bashevkin: 
It’s so interesting because I feel like we’ve really been in touch over the years, kind of very sporadically, but we have a lot of overlapping interests and the reason why I specifically wanted to speak with you on this topic is we’re exploring kind of the origins of Rabbinic Judaism, which is a loaded term that not everybody likes. I don’t like it. I like Yiddishkeit. I don’t use the term Rabbinic Judaism. When people ask me, you know, what religion are you? And I don’t check off Rabbinic Judaism, I like Yiddishkeit. But what I think makes you unique is that you’re really accomplished in three different overlapping areas. One is you did a PhD, no specific order. The title of your PhD was-

Yosef Bronstein: 
Tannaitic Legal Arguments for Israel’s Observance of the Divine Law. In proper English, that means why are Jews obligated to keep mitzvos?

David Bashevkin: 
Why are we obligated to keep mitzvos? But you really go back and try to explore how this was posed in drashos, how this was unfolded in the edifice that we now know as Chazal, so to speak, how that unfolded. And you did an academic PhD. And then in a second area, I knew you and first knew you as one of the, and you’re going to kill me for saying this, but one of the absolute superstars in the Bais Medrash. There was buzz about you. I always love the buzz of like who’s going where in Israel, who are the biggest prospects in Israel? I always compare it to like NFL draft picks, NBA draft picks, and you were a very sought after draft pick in Israel. I could see your face getting very serious. You hate speaking about your own intellectual prowess or accomplishments, but you were accorded to go to a lot of Israel yeshivas.

Yosef Bronstein: 
The salary was pretty commensurate I would say with a first round draft pick for the NBA or NFL. But yes.

David Bashevkin: 
When I was in Yeshiva University you sat in the back right corner and you sat and sat. You began in Eretz Yisrael as a talmid in KBY and then switched midway to Gush to learn under Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, I believe.

Yosef Bronstein: 
That is correct.

David Bashevkin: 
And you were one of the outstanding members of Rav Rosensweig’s. You were in a shiur for many years. How many years were you in his shiur for?

Yosef Bronstein: 
I was in the shiur formally I think for three or four years, but then I continued in the kollel and he was the one giving chaburas and leading our study in the kollel for years afterwards.

David Bashevkin: 
When I first met you, you were like one of the serious talmidim of Rav Rosensweig, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, had a very specific approach. I can mention your father-in-law is also a rosh yeshiva in YU, Rabbi Reichman. And you’ve had a very serious hand in putting out the, I used the one on Sukkah when it came out and I know I’m going to butcher the name. It’s a red volume… Kuntress, I’m thinking Kuntress HaShiurim but that’s Rav Gustman.

Yosef Bronstein: 
That’s Rav Gustman. It’s Reshimos Shiurei Maran HaRav Soloveitchik, Maran HaGrid HaLevi Soloveitchik.

David Bashevkin: 
The Reshimos, the red volumes that when I was in high school, I think it was just Sukkah that was out and it was fantastic. And you’ve put out and you’ve been involved in editing several volumes and I believe when this comes out, the volume on Kiddushin is going to be published.

Yosef Bronstein: 
That is correct. That’s the only one I’ve had a strong hand in writing.

David Bashevkin: 
You have bonafides in the academic world, you have bonafides in the Beis Medrash world, but there’s a third area which is really at the heart of why I invited you, and that is midway through, it was not initially when I first met you midway through, you developed, maybe it was in secret beforehand, a very real love for the writings and thought of Rav Kook.

Yosef Bronstein: 
Just to correct one point, I’m not sure if it was midway through YU. I actually spent several months in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, in Rav Kook’s yeshiva between Gush and my return to Yeshiva University. Partially it was to be able to study Rav Kook’s writings from in the location where he himself taught or in the same edifice, yeshiva where he himself taught from his own students and students’ students.

David Bashevkin: 
What I really want to start with is Rav Kook and then refract some of his thought back onto your experiences kind of in a more, I don’t know, standard traditional shiur in the Beis Medrash and then reflected also back on your experiences as an academic. And I was wondering if we could begin with that third pillar, which is your experience and your study of the works of Rav Kook. And my opening question is, you grew up in Bayswater. You want to fairly … I don’t want to jump into stereotypes, but I’m going to use the term, it’s an ugly term. I don’t like the term. I knew you as a fairly typical Gush guy, which has evolved. You were a serious Talmud, Rishonim, Shas, and Poskim, the Talmud and all of its commentators kind of person. You did not strike me as somebody who would ever be drawn to the more poetic theological writings of Rav Kook. What on earth drew you, who introduced you? Who even put that idea in your head that there was something that would work that you needed to discover in the writings of Rav Kook?

Yosef Bronstein: 
Thank you for putting the question that way. I think you basically answered it through the question itself as all good questioners do. I had studied in MTA, which is Yehiva University’s high school. I did a year of learning in Yeshiva University, a year of college before going to Israel. Then I went to Israel and even in Kerem b’Yavneh, I started hearing divrei Torah quoting Rav Kook. And it was something new. The language was a more spiritualized language, the language is more experiential and the ideas were very sophisticated and they opened up my eyes to new ways of thinking about things. And that really got me going. I remember when I was in Gush, which is not the most typical place where Israelis at least study the thought of Rav Kook, I probably opened up the book or wrote and read the first passage a dozen times by myself trying to make heads and tails and trying to figure it out until I admitted defeat.

And I found myself in older Israeli chavrusa I started working through the writings with, and I think the answer to your question, what drew me to it was the shiluv, was an integration of those two elements that you mentioned. Number one was raw spirituality. Here you had somebody that was writing experientially writing from vantage point of somebody who knows God, feels God, is close to God. But on the other hand, in a complementary fashion, he really knew kol haTorah kulah, he was an expert in every area of Torah from Gemara and halacha to Kabbalah and mysticism. And the ideas, the writing as poetic and as passionate as they are, they’re extremely sophisticated and creative and innovative. And that integration really, really drew me in.

David Bashevkin: 
I want to begin because we’re talking about the development of rabbinic Judaism and throughout, I’ve been talking about these three models of how different communities… And it’s like kind of a spectrum. There are three models. I understand the way people look at the Judaism we practice today. One model, which I think is maybe… I mean you could negatively call it fundamentalist. Sometimes you’ll see it in chareidi children’s books, you know where they have pictures of biblical characters wearing a shtreimel and a bekeshe, is you take the present, the Yiddishkeit we know today and you project it onto the past. So what we do now is what we’ve always been doing. This is our relationship to halacha, to Torah, to mitzvos. This is how it has always been and nothing has changed. That’s model number one. Model number two is the exact opposite. And I think this was championed by a lot of early Reform writers, we take the past and we try to superimpose it on the present.

We see that the way Judaism was described in the books of the prophets, in the books of Tanakh, it’s not the Judaism we see today. Where are the batei medrash? Where’s the conversations that we’re familiar with that are taking place around Gemara and around drashos and halacha and all of these things. Something must have been corrupted. Let’s take that past, that prophetic Judaism and superimpose it onto the present. And that was the program of early Reform. There must have been a corruption by rabbinic Judaism. Let’s take the past and superimpose on the present. There is a third path which I believe was championed by many thinkers, I think most notably Rav Kook spells it out most clearly. I would also put in that category Rav Tzadok HaKohen Mi’Lublin, who talks about a necessary historical development of Torah and how it came to the people. Am I characterizing Rav Kook properly? How would you characterize Rav Kook’s understanding of the emergence of what we call today Judaism?

Yosef Bronstein: 
I think you’re correct to situate Rav Kook between those two poles. Because this wasn’t the original reason why I was drawn to Rav Kook. I wasn’t drawn to him for his historical essays, but I still remember late one Friday night in Gush, after I came back from the tisch, I was in my room, one of my roommates happened to have the book Orot.

David Bashevkin: 
Who’s running a tisch in Gush, I just need to get a little more details there.

Yosef Bronstein: 
Rav Amital was still alive and well then. He was running tischen, Rav Lichtenstein used to run tischen. It was a very beautiful situation. There was a little corner with amazing acoustics, where people would sing afterwards. It was a really, really beautiful situation. So I came back to my room and my roommate had to book Orot out on the desk. He was already sleeping and I started skimming through it. I was already getting interested in Rav Kook and I came across this essay, LeMehalech HaEideot BaYisrael, the Development of Ideas Amongst the Jewish People in Israel. And I probably sat there for three hours trying to read through it. It’s a fairly long essay as I’m sure you’re familiar. But that was probably the first historical essay from Rav Kook that I read. He traces certain ideas throughout the Jewish history.

David Bashevkin: 
Yosef, just repeat one more time, what is the name of this essay? What does it mean and where can it be found?

Yosef Bronstein: 
So this name of the essay is LeMehalech HaEideot BaYisrael. It usually translated as the Development of Ideas, or Ideals in Israel. It can be found in the book Orot. A lot of the books Orot, have a second word in the titles. This is just plain Orot. In the middle of the book, you will find a probably a 20 page essay there. It was originally published in some journal and it was then republished in the book Orot. It’s by Rav Kook himself. And as I became more familiar with Rav Kook, I realized that he has several other historical essays. We could go through them one by one if you wants.

But altogether they create a very holistic and very comprehensive approach to the development of Jewish history. And on the one hand, Rav Kook is a traditional rabbi. He believes that the Torah was given at Sinai. Halacha was given at Sinai. Jews kept halacha from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu all the way through the prophetic period. He doesn’t believe that Jewish law was a complete fabrication of the rabbis in the end of the Second Temple period or the post destruction of the Second Temple period. But at the same time he’s reading texts and at the same time he’s aware of the fact that the Judaism presented in Tanach seems radically different than the Judaism presented in the Mishna and the Talmud and subsequent what we call Rabbinic Judaism.

David Bashevkin: 
Can you give me an example of that distinction that Rav Kook notices or kind of where’s the tension that’s drawing out this theory that we’ll get to in a moment? Is there a glaring example of like you reading Tanach and I have my own, but I’m curious if Rav Kook mentions or you have any of your own where you’re like, this does not sound like the Judaism that we know of?

Yosef Bronstein: 
Well I think, Rav Kook has four historical essays, each one points out something that is a major difference. As Judaism presented in Tanach and Judaism presented by the Mishna and after reading through them, after reading each essay, it strikes you as obvious that such a distinction exists and it’s hard to peep over the distinctions once you are familiar with them. Do you want me to pick out one or just to list?

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah, pick out one or two. I’m curious which ones jump out at you.

Yosef Bronstein: 
For me, I think the most succinct formulation of the idea is in an essay entitled Chacham Adif M’Navi, The Sage is Greater Than the Prophet. Its also in the book Orot, it’s in the Zironim section. It’s a two page essay. And there Rav Kook points out what I think you pointed out, that the early reform rabbis, the early academics, the wissenschaft people pointed out that Judaism of the prophets seems to be very focused on general moral principles. These are the verses that appear on the walls of the UN. These are the psukim that have inspired morality for everybody through Martin Luther King through Barack Obama, all the way to modern times. And these are very beautiful, poetic, inspirational verses and this is what people refer to as biblical morality. But there’s no mention at Halacha. There’s nothing about tying your left shoe before your right shoe or what happens if your milchig spoon and falls into your fleishig pot or things of that sort.

When you get to the Mishna, which was written in the year, let’s say 200 CE, so we’re talking about… Let say the prophetic period ended around the year 500 BC, we’re talking about 700 years later, you get a very different picture of Judaism. You get a very detailed oriented picture of Judaism and Rav Kook refers to these general values as being swallowed up within the details. So much so that it’s hard to see them. So that is one distinction Rav Kook draws. Another distinction is who is the subject, who is God talking to? In Tanach, almost always God is talking to the nation as a whole. Schar v’onesh reward and punishment in Tanach is all about the nation. You will hardly find a verse referring to reward and punishment of the individual person. So much so that all the Rishonim are bothered, where is Olam Haba, where is the world to come in Tanach? Then if you open up a Mishna, who is the Mishna talking about? It’s talking to the individual person.

David Bashevkin: 
I love this.

Yosef Bronstein: 
What is my obligation when I wake up in the morning?

David Bashevkin: 
I don’t remember this, that such a fascinating distinction. In Tanach, God speaks of the nation of the Jewish people and any Mishna, almost all of them, I mean maybe one or two exceptions jump out when they talk about following the law, it’s all on the individual level.

Yosef Bronstein: 
On individual.

David Bashevkin: 
Fascinating

Yosef Bronstein: 
Rav Kook points out that the stories in the Tanach about individuals, almost not always, but almost always are individuals that have a large national role. The prophet, the king, the political leader. You don’t have stories about the sage, so to speak. You don’t have stories about the individual Joe Schmo. You have stories with Isha Shunamis. There are stories here and there, but we’re talking about by and large the stories about individual people are the people that have a very large national or communal role. A third major distinction is something that really blew me away is not just about the content of Judaism, not just about who is God talking to, but what is the relationship that the people have with God. In the Tanach, the relationship people have with God is palpable. Rav Kook, in the third essay called “Derech Ha’Tchiya”, the way of the revival. Rav Kook refers to this as “zerem p’sichi ruchani”, a psychic spiritual current.

David Bashevkin: 
Psychic spiritual current. Sign me up. Wow.

Yosef Bronstein: 
That is a literal English translation of Rav Kook’s Hebrew. He was clearly making up the term in Hebrew to try to capture what does it mean to be living in a time period where you could see Eliyahu HaNavi you realize that’s an Ish Elokim, that people should open up their eyes and all of a sudden these say angels around them. There is a palpable spiritual feeling, which I’m sure as you’re familiar from Rav Tzadok could either be geared towards God or it could be geared towards idolatry, towards paganism, but this spirituality was part of the vibe of the world. Once we get to the Mishna, the people don’t talk directly to God.

Again, there is some continuity and Rav Kook’s always careful to point out. There is a bas kol and we assume… We’ll talk about this. We assume the sage, the chachamim have some divine intuition, but we’re shifting from a world of prophet and the prophet is leading people to feel close to God. It’s something Rav Kook calls “zerem ruchani limudi”, an academic spirituality. That you study, the text you study to you study halacha. And that is the ultimate way to connect to God, Talmud Torah k’neged kulam. So not just the content that Judaism, the general principles versus the pratim, versus details, not just who is God talking to, the nation or the individual, but also the very content of Judaism in terms of the way we relate to God also seems to have a different vibe, seems to have a different texture.

David Bashevkin: 
Explain to me, he points out these fascinating distinctions in the world that emerges from the world of Tanach and the Judaism that we know today. What you’re describing, the world of the Mishna in many ways is closer to me than just like a common person living there. My rebbi once told me, I’ve quoted this before, Reb Ezra Neuberger one time said, wasn’t talking to me specifically, he talking to the whole class, you have more in common with the Tannaim and Amoraim, with the sages of the Mishna and Talmud than with a common everyday Jew who lived in the time of the prophets. We’re living in a different world, different universes that we’re inhabiting. So I’m curious, what does Rav Kook do with these distinctions? He’s clearly noticing that something has changed or developed or there’s some tension. How does he go about explaining this?

Yosef Bronstein: 
So this is where Rav Kook is perhaps unique and taking what was pointed out in some earlier Jewish sources, but is also pointed out by the founders of academic Jewish studies and by Reform rabbis, but really pulling it in a much more traditional frum direction. Two points, first of all, for Rav Kook, there are no hard breaks. There is always halacha, always a focus on the individual. But the question is what is the emphasis? What is the overall message? So that’s point A and point B, Rav Kook points out is that you would think that the biblical Judaism is beautiful. You would think that the biblical Judaism is the ideal. Yet if you look in Tanach, the prophets utterly failed in their own enterprise. By the end of the time period of the prophets, the Jewish society was one that was rampant with Idolatry. It was rampant with murder, it was rampant with the corruption.

So on the one hand you had this very beautiful picture of Judaism focusing on nationalism, focusing on relationship with God and focusing on the general values. But then on the other hand it totally utterly failed in its own mission. And that’s where Rav Kook points out that you need to have this… He doesn’t refer to it as dialectic. When many Rav Kook scholars refer to it as a Hegelian dialectic, Rav Kook read Hegel, was influenced by Hegel. On the one hand you have Bayis Rishon Judaism, First Temple Judaism, the biblical Judaism. And in the major folcrum is when prophecy leaves the beginning of the Second Temple period. And then you have a more quiet, more toned down, more academic form of Judaism. One that focuses on the details of a Halacha, details of Halakah that aren’t totally broken and aren’t totally ruptured from the general values, but it’s hard to see that.

A Judaism that focuses on the individual. a Judaism that focuses on academic study where you find remnants of the First Temple Judaism, but Second Temple Judaism and Judaism in the Second Temple throughout the long exile is something that’s more sustainable, something that creates a framework for each individual Jew in their own lives. Whether or not they feel close to God or not, they know what to do. They know when they wake up in the morning, I as individual person have to say modeh ani, wash my hands, tie my left shoe before my right shoe. So the great values to Judaism are encapsulated within these details. But the details, even though they’re tamer, they’re less exciting, but they are a creative framework that sustains Judaism throughout the long galus, throughout the long exile when Judaism no longer has perhaps that amazing shine and amazing vibe.

One more point though is that for Rav Kook, this is exactly the uniqueness of the 20th century, that Second Temple Judaism exiled Judaism wasn’t working anymore. The majority of Jews were leaving the fold, they were leaving Torah observance. And if cook’s analysis of the situation was that, not that we have to return to biblical Judaism, but as the Messianic process unfolds, as the Jewish people were turning to the land of Israel, as there other indications in the world as a whole and things are advancing, we have to slowly be sure we reintegrate the biblical Judaism, First Temple Judaism into our existing structures. This means we have to change the curriculum a little bit. This means we have to focus on spirituality, means we have to focus on nationalism, on Zionism, on the land without letting go of Halakah of the details of everything that’s there. But we have to reintegrate, create a synthesis between the First Temple Judaism and Second Temple Judaism. And that’s where Rav Kook is going with it.

David Bashevkin: 
And that’s kind of the struggle of modernity. Meaning in this framework, there’s this major transition with the cessation of prophecy, the world changes. God is not as palpable. Nationhood, feeling a part of that nation, is not as obvious, not as real to people. And everything becomes more individuated. Now we’ve lived in that world and a lot of people have left, have assimilated. It doesn’t relate to people in many, many ways. To Rav Kook, if I’m understanding you correctly, the Messianic age doesn’t mean literally the coming of Mashiach, but this awakening of modernity that came through modernity is about this synthesis between that moral palpable godliness that existed in the world in the First Temple period and the more individuated academic approach, so to speak, where your own personal grappling with text and ideas can then be synthesized with that national idea of God.

Yosef Bronstein: 
Yeah, exactly. And for Rav Kook, he viewed himself and his generation as the beginning of this transition. And the reason why so many Jews were leaving the fold was because they were still being taught the same way they were being taught in cheder 500 years ago. Which is fine for the people that were the neshamos, the souls that were in the world 500 years ago. But as we approach the Messianic era, we need a different model.
And the model’s already there. We just have to reintegrate it into the Judaism that exists.

David Bashevkin: 
I want to kind of reflect back at the other pillars that we spoke about, that you’ve been involved in, in your life, not only Rav Kook, but also these ideas from Rav Kook, into the world of your academic studies and into kind of your upbringing, in the beis midrash. I think I’m going to start with the academic studies. Your thesis focused on what exactly? Elaborate a little bit more, not just the title. What was the question that you were trying to figure out?

Yosef Bronstein: 
So the question I was trying to figure out was a little bit philosophical. It’s: What’s the authority of the Divine Law? Meaning all groups in Second Temple Judaism and beyond assume that the Jewish people were obligated to observe the Divine Law. The question was: What was the basis for that commitment? So my argument was that, if you look into different groups, in Second Temple period, and look into Dead Sea Scrolls, look in Book of Jubilees, look in the Book of Ben Sira, there’s a commonality. They all want the Jews to observe the Commandments. But they talk about the authority of the Commandments in different ways. Once you get to midrash halacha, once you get to Tannaitic Midrash, which is the same people that are quoted in Mishnayot, as, more or less, like the foundational people of Torah she’baal peh So they have a specific understanding of why the Jewish people are obligated to observe the Divine Law.

David Bashevkin: 
And what’s that?

Yosef Bronstein: 
My argument is that it’s a legal argument. That it’s the argument you get, if you read Tanach. If you look in the Book of Jubilees, you look in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s more: This is just the way God created the world. Sun rises in the east, sets in the West. The Jewish people are there from day one. The Book of Jubilees integrates the choice of the election of the Jewish people into the creation story. Because you can’t have a world there, without the Jewish people. They’re just part of the fabric of reality. You mess up the fabric of reality, you corrupt everything. The Jewish people don’t observe the law. If you read Tannaitic midrash… My argument is… I hope that’s a true argument. … Is that you get a different picture, or you get the picture which you would get if you read Chumash, that there is a God and there’s a Jewish people. And they’re treated as two legal entities. And there’s an historical narrative.

And, at some point in that historical narrative, something happens that obligates the Jewish people to observe God’s law and obligates God to do some things for the Jewish people. And then the next level of the argument is that there are different Tannaitic schools, which consistently focus on different points. Either it’s the exodus of Egypt. My argument is that that is the Rabbi Akiva school, that God acquired the Jewish people as slaves, when He took them out of Egypt. And the Rabbi Yishmael school argues that the Jewish people volitionally accepted God as their king, at Har Sinai, at Matan Torah, at the giving of the Torah. So the topic itself was not so related, I think, to our general conversation.

David Bashevkin: 
I think it’s extraordinarily related. I really do. And we’ve spoken about this. I mean, most of our conversations… Maybe it says more about me than it does about you. Most of our conversations took place in the fifth floor of The Yeshiva University Library, though we had some conversations in the beis midrash, in more typical learning, which we’ll get to. But I do remember you sharing this idea with me, particularly about the schools of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael and how they relate to midrash. I’m wondering if you could, aside from being a academic and talmid chacham and all these other things… You’re also a teacher. And I happen to think… And so many people who reach out to 18Forty kind of reach out for this very question that we’re dealing with, which is: If you’re not in school of thought number one, where you project the present onto the past, it’s always been this way.

And you acknowledge that there has been some development, some chain, the corpus of halacha, as we know it today. I mean, certainly the Rambam says this nearly explicitly. Most of the drashas, most the midrashei halacha, at the center of your PhD, we don’t believe were, in a national sense, given at Sinai. Many of them were extrapolated and developed much later. We have mitzvos that were given at Sinai. We have the basic understanding of them. But a lot of the details and the development of the law came much, much later. And I know, from a lot of people, it’s like, “What obligates me to do this, exactly? Why should I listen to this? I want to serve God. I don’t want to serve…” And they always say it pejoratively, like it’s an illness, like the measles, the mumps. “I don’t want to serve the rabbis.” “The rabbis,” like it’s some contagious illness. Did your understanding, did your motivation, did your relationship to how you personally, or how you teach the relationships to halacha, change through your academic studies?

Yosef Bronstein: 
I’m not sure if my relationship changed. The way I teach changed because based on… I have a different, I guess, orientation or vantage point, right now. And I just wanted to make one correction.

David Bashevkin: 
Please.

Yosef Bronstein: 
I did most of my dissertation work under Professor Elman, and he was the one that really grabbed me into the world of Talmudic studies.

David Bashevkin: 
He was our mutual teacher. Yes.

Yosef Bronstein: 
He’s a mutual teacher. But he passed away, unfortunately, as he was editing one of the later chapters.

David Bashevkin: 
Wow.

Yosef Bronstein: 
So I actually finished the dissertation under Rabbi Dr. Professor Richard Hidary, who was… He was a fantastic scholar.

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Yosef Bronstein: 
So Rabbi, fantastic scholar talmid chacham… And I owe the world to him for taking a 90%-done dissertation and bringing it to the finish line. I would say as follows: That I was never really bothered by the question of development because, like you said, I had read the Rambam’s introduction to his commentary and the mission. I read the Rambam in mission at Torah. The fact that there is development in Torah she’baal peh is something that I think is very basic to the system. There are people that disagree. The Gaonim think everything is M’Sinai.” There are Rishonim that think everything is M’Sinai. But I think the Rambam is the simple understanding of the Gemaras, if you were to read them.

I think any legal system, without any spirituality, without any academic things, without… Just on a very simple level, every single legal system needs to have the ability to develop because… I think Rabbi Yosef Albo says this very nicely, says God couldn’t put every single new scenario or every single detail into Chumash. It just would’ve been way too long. And, therefore, you have to have a system where the foundations, the pillars are there in the psukim. There is some explanation that God gives to Moshe at Sinai. The Rambam proves that… You prove, from psukim themselves, that there are some things that God told Moshe at Sinai that aren’t explicit there, in psukim. And the rest is going to be developed. I think that you’re going to find that with any legal system. The unique thing about Torah sheba’al peh is that, according to the Rambam at least, in addition to God giving us the text of Chumash and certain explanations, God also gave us the hermaneutical tools.

God gave us way to read Chumash extremely carefully to tease out the laws, tease out dinim that are already there, latent in psukim. So all of that, I think, is hopefully… Every yosehv beis medresh, anybody who’s learning, even in a regular beis midrash setting should be comfortable with that. It’s all explicit in the Rambam, I think. I hope it’s very intuitive. What Rav Kook gave me… And this is one of the reasons why I got interested in what Dr. Elman was teaching. … Was that it’s not a linear system. If you read the Rambam, the Rambam sounds like, from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, until the end of the Talmudic period, until Rav Ashi, everybody was doing exactly the same thing. They were all reading the psukim in exactly the same way, trying to come to exactly the correct conclusion. But Rav Kook gives you… And this is what the academic world gives you, is that maybe not, maybe, in a certain generation, the law was a little bit amorphous. The law was very general. And you could trace this throughout the time periods of Chazal, from the first century BCE, to the year zero, to the year 100 CE, all the way to the end of the Gemara, to the end of the Talmudic period. There are certain halachos, certain laws, still underwent changes. They underwent more details. Some Amora threw in a left curve, and, all of a sudden, the sugya changes. But, if you study things chronologically, you reorganize the page of the Talmud and the way it appears and break it down chronologically, you could see that development. That development could be very scary. But that means maybe Rav, maybe Rabbi Akiva kept a different halacha than Rabbina or Rav Ashi, and maybe Rabbi Akiva didn’t know everything. So what Rav Kook does is that he gives you a framework through which to think about these developments, that: Yes, that at the beginning of the Tannaitic Period, things might have been more general. Things might have been more amorphous. But the focus of the relationship with God wasn’t in the text or the details of halacha, per se.

Those were there. But the focus of the relationship was on the relationship per se with God. As that wanes, there is an ascent. There’s an acceleration, on the other side of the ledger. Things get more detailed oriented. Things get more complicated. Things get more onerous, per se, so to speak, in terms of the obligations, in terms of how many details there are per mitzvah. And therefore what the academics… What Dr. Elman was teaching me, that there are certain halachos you could trace this. It’s very general at the beginning. It’s more and more detailed, as you go on. That, actually, is not just something you could trace in a page and just say, “That’s it. Great.” Rav Kook gave it meaning. He imbued it with spiritual meaning and, therefore, tracing that became part of this grand narrative in Jewish history.

David Bashevkin: 
Because he read theologically into the development of the oral law itself. I’m curious. Do you have a prime example, in halacha, which you teach to your students, of where you could see this, like an easy thing, where you kind of see the development over time, in those left turns, so to speak, those-

Yosef Bronstein: 
I will be totally honest. I don’t teach in an academic setting, per se. And my job in Yeshiva University is more on the rebbi side. So I talk about these ideas, in general, but I don’t actually go through text.

David Bashevkin: 
Is that because it’s boring, or you think it’s dangerous, or both?

Yosef Bronstein: 
Not boring. Not dangerous. I think that there are different functions for… People are in different educational settings, educational institutions, for different reasons. I think focusing on the development of Torah sheba’al peh is not something that’s necessary for all of my students at this stage in their lives. If I was teaching a graduate class, it would be very different. But I’m usually teaching 18-year-olds, one year out of high school. There’s so much basic knowledge that’s missing. We could talk about things in general and then focus on the Rambam’s categories and Torah sheba’al peh. It’s much more important for them to know difference between the drasha, halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai, and d’Rabbanan, than to trace the development of a particular halacha. But I could give you an example. One of Dr. Elman’s early reading assignments, which really caught me was somebody by the name of Dr. Yitzchak Gilat. He was the head of the Talmud department in Bar-Ilan.

He taught me also. I never met him. He passed away in 1997. I came to his material much, much later. But he came from the world of the the beis medrash. He learned in Kelm, he learned in Telz. Then he came over to Israel, pre-war. And he studied academically, studied in Hebrew U. He was a talmid of Ephraim Auerbach. And so he does this. He’s familiar with the personas. He was familiar with language of the beis medrash. And he’ll take a subject, let’s say, of kavanah, how important is intentionality. And he’ll show you.

Rabbi Eliezer, in general, throughout Shas, plays down the importance of kavanah. He’s much more rigid, in terms of: What are you doing? If you have kavanah, you have intention to pick a black date… You end up picking a white date, Rabbi Eliezer says, “Doesn’t matter, if you pick the white…” Sorry. On Shabbos. You picked a white data on Shabbos, you violated Shabbos. The other Tanaaim disagree. They say no. They say that your intention matters. And you could trace this from the earliest time. Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkinus is one of the earlier ones that we have. All the way through, I think, my colleague Dr. Shana Schick, who’s also tell a talmida of Dr. Elman-

David Bashevkin: 
And did her PhD. Sure.

Yosef Bronstein: 
She did her PhD under Dr. Elman, on this concept of intentionality and damage law. And she tried to show how intention played a very little role in the beginning of the Tannaitic period. And, as you go on, there are all these sorts of questions. If you’re holding a rock, and you’re not aware the rock is there, and you stand up, but you should have known about it… Maybe you did know the rock was there, and you forgot at some point. You stand up, and the rock falls and damages somebody. Are you obligated or not? And she shows how intention becomes a more important factor, as you go on, as the details really, really increase.

David Bashevkin: 
Let’s turn for a moment, and we might come back to the kind of the more academic perspective on this. But I want to talk about the hesitation of the beis midrash with these ideas. And, when I say hesitation, it’s a spectrum. Sometime are hesitant. Some are outright hostile and I think for good reason. When I think Geiger first really pushed this idea of prophetic Judaism… So the pendulum swung to the other side. And, the people who were trying to defend orthodoxy, in the early 19th century, they began to shift to this model, where: No, no, no, everything was at Sinai. They played down the role of midrash, of hermeneutical tools to extract and develop halacha. And I think there is a sense now that, if you allow for that fluidity, it creates a shaky ground for people’s commitment. I know personally, as do you, that your rabbeim, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Rosensweig, have expressed very real hesitations in this area. I’m curious if you understand why they are hesitant and what you have done to avoid the potential pitfalls of what they’re concerned about.

Yosef Bronstein: 
I think that’s a great question. Perhaps one slight correction or amendation is that I’m not sure if Rav Rosensweig, or Rav Lichtenstein, or even the people like the Malbim, the Ksav v’Kabbalah, they were trying to root all of halacha in the biblical text, whereso arguing that everything was there at Sinai. Well, I think the Malbim is explicitly against that. What the Malbim does say though, what the Ksav v’Kabbalah does say is that everything is there, if you read it correctly. It’s a scientific process that the Malbim in his introduction to his commentary in sefer VaYikra, he gives you 613 grammatical rules that are not mentioned by Chazal. But he argues that Chazal used them. And, if you read the text carefully with these rules, you will get to every single midrash halacha. So it’s not that everything was there, in present form, at Sinai. But all of the development was pre-programmed, was pre-planned, and it was one correct way to do it.
I don’t think Rav Lichtenstein or Rav Rosensweig would go as far as the Malbim, but the model that they use to think about the development in halacha, based on the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, are developments in science, meaning there are certain axioms, certain postulates. There’s certain facts you just can’t get around. Gravity exists. Electricity exists. So we are the chiddushim in science. You’re playing around. I’m not a scientist. I never read Thomas Kuhn, or Paradigm Shift in Science or whatever it’s called. I’m really out of my field. But, the way Rav Soloveitchik describes it in the realm of science, and he it takes it into the realm of halacha, is that, within the system, within the logic of the system, when you’re bounded by certain postulates, by certain facts, there’s a lot of room for innovation. So Einstein innovative greatly, but it was based on certain limitations. It wasn’t a free for fall. It’s not English literature. It’s not the arts. It’s scientific development within a scientific discipline.

So that’s the model of development in halakha that they prefer. And Rav Soloveitchik uses this model all throughout his writing. Same Lawrence Kaplan, Heimz Saman. They’ve both written amazing articles, just tracing this idea of halakah as science and the development in halacha seeing similar development in science, in the thought of Rav Soloveitchik. For Rav Soloveitchik, what that does… On the one hand, it allows for amazing innovations. Einstein was an amazing mechadesh, an amazing innovator. But, on the other hand, it sort of circumscribes where the innovations can be. Because you’re always working within the rules of the system. Where Rav Kook gets a little bit dangerous is that he has a little bit of fluidity about some of the foundations of the system. Obviously, he doesn’t think it’s fluidity about the foundations of the system. But, once you’re saying the focus of Judaism changes a little bit, from the First Temple period to the Second Temple period, and now it’s supposed to shift back, and for Rav Kook, there’s an added layer of the center of morality.

Everything’s always getting better for Rav Kook. Generations are supposed to be getting more and more and moral. So halacha itself, Rav Kook writes, has to keep up, so to speak, with the ascending levels of morality. And, therefore, where things can get a little bit dangerous, Rav Kook himself is very conservative, as a posek in terms of halacha itself. But one might say a certain halacha is immorral. So what do I do with it? So if you are a Rav Soloveitchik person, you say, you think it’s immoral. But, science to science, gravity exists. You have to deal with it. If you’re Rav Kook, if you’re a student of Kook, a follower of this school of thought, you have the possibility, at least, to say, maybe a Sanhedrin will get rid of this, maybe it will find some drasha. Maybe there’s some fluidity about the system where new Sanhedrin is going to use the new moral principles that God gave them.

Because Rav Kook trusts in human moral intuition and assumes that’s ascending over generations, and, when mashiach comes, they’ll just get rid of this halacha, that creates a very different attitude to these halachos. That’s where the danger comes in. And Rav Kook himself writes about this explicitly in a book called Moreh l’Nivuchei HaDor. It’s a book which he didn’t publish himself. He references in his letters that he has a full manuscript he wants to publish. He never published it. It was published, maybe 15 years ago, from the archives of Rav Kook that are still there. There are two versions, the censored version and the uncensored version. But in both the censored version and the uncensored version, there’s a chapter about this. Rav Kook writes, his example there is korbanos, is animal sacrifice.

Rav Kook really thought, based on midrash, based on advancements in the world, that in the ultimate, ultimate, ultimate layer of reality, there’s not going to be animal sacrifice. So what do we do with all the psukim, with all the Rambams, all the halachos about animal sacrifice. He says the Sanhedrin will find a drasha. They’ll say “b’rtzono“, and sacrifices have to be based on your ratzon and your volition. Once the world develops to a point where people don’t want to sacrifice animals, they want to connect to God in a different way, that one pasuk, that one drasha will abolish an entire area of halacha. So Rav Kook himself writes. He says we don’t have the ability to do it now because we don’t have the Sanhedrin. We can’t fully trust our moral intuitions. But he predicts that such a change will take place. You can understand how that could undermine the whole fabric of halacha.

David Bashevkin: 
And Rav Kook is basically suggesting that we can use the interpretations of drasha to create more alignment between our inner moral sense and halacha itself. Whereas Rabbi Soloveitchik says morality is much more tethered and kind of emerges from the halacha system itself.

Yosef Bronstein: 
Exactly. I mean, if you’re Rav Kook, we’re going to guess this in another element of Rav Kook’s thought that we didn’t get into, which might have been a good introduction to this section. So Rav Kook felt that, A, God gave us pure selves, “Elokai neshama she’nattata bi tehora hi”. We should trust our moral intuitions, to a degree, and our moral intuitions are continuously ascending from generation to generation. That is a beautiful theory, if it’s true. But, on the other hand, it seems to fly in the face of halacha, which is entirely based on precedent.

We’re following the halacha for people that lived 2000 years ago, who might have had all these sort of assumptions about the world that we don’t share nowadays. How do these two things square? So Rav Kook said that’s exactly the system of drashos. That’s why the Rambam says God gave the chachamim, the sages, the ability to look into Torah and find new interpretations that are fitting for that generation. Rav Kook writes explicitly one of the factors that the Sanhedrin, the sages used to figure out how to read the psukim is through their own moral intuition. And that is Rav Kook’s chiddush. It doesn’t appear in the Rambam, it doesn’t appear in the rishonim.

David Bashevkin: 
And where does he write this again?

Yosef Bronstein: 
So he writes this in two places. He has a letter. I think it’s in Iggeres Tzadi, pei tes or tzadi, in Iggros HaReayah, in his letters. There says that HaShem will be Meir aynei Sanhedrin. HaShem will enlighten the eyes of Sanhedrin to find the drasha that is rauy lifi hador, that is fitting for that generation and is ascending levels of morality. In this book, moreh denuvachei hador, which he left as a manuscript, there he says explicitly that it is a factor that the sages used, when they are determining drasha, which is also a theory you will find in the academic world.

Moshe Halbertal has a book about this, that Chazal might have used their moral intuition when determining how to read, how to understand zevachim, when they’re creating new halakhas. So that is something which Rav Soloveitchik, if I understand correctly, would not be comfortable with, something Rav Lichtenstein or Rosensweig, if I understand correctly… I don’t want to put words in their mouth, especially as Rosensweig is alive. We could just ask him if he would be comfortable with either. Because you’re allowing subjectivity, internal moral sense of the chachamim, of a particular generation, to influence how they read the psukim. But think about what that would mean in the realm of science.

David Bashevkin: 
Oh, I’m going to get there. And we’ll think about what it would mean for nowadays, in so many of the issues that we deal with in Judaism. Before we get to that… And I am curious how you kind of personally reconcile these two worlds. I’m curious. Have you ever spoken about these ideas with Rav Rosensweig or Rav Aharon Lichtenstein? I mean, there was a notable incident, where they took great offense at some of these ideas, really felt that there was no place for them. You were a very close Talmud of both of them. Yet you also seemingly ascribe or appreciate, at the very least, that Rav Kook for sure said these ideas. And I don’t know. In some ways it sounds like you ascribe or believe in this notion, as well, in your own life. Maybe you could weigh on that afterwards. I’m curious if you ever discussed this explicitly with either Rav Aharon Lichtenstein or Rav Rosensweig.

Yosef Bronstein: 
One more correction. I can’t say I was a close talmid of Rav Lichtenstein. I was very shy, bashful and I-

David Bashevkin: 
You were quite shy.

Yosef Bronstein: 
I was quite shy. Thank you. I did not make use, at the time, in Gush, to develop a close personal relationship with him.

David Bashevkin: 
Okay.

Yosef Bronstein: 
So I cannot say I was a close Talmud of Lichtenstein. Rev Rosensweig, I did spend a lot more time with. We had half a conversation, once, about this and maybe a full conversation. Again, I don’t feel comfortable speaking on his behalf. But I do think that the model of halakha is science and development in halakah, as development in science, versus everything is internal to the system, versus the model Rav Kook has, where human moral intuition, as constantly ascending, is part of the process, that does create two very different models of how halakah develops.

David Bashevkin: 
I’ve always had a great admiration for your religious sensibility and your moral intuition. I think, anybody who has met you, it is recognizable. I’m sure, even me saying, that which is a part of your own moral intuition absolutely hates hearing it and hates even talking about yourself in any such way. But it’s hard not to think about this, in 2022, when there are so many moral issues that are unfolding, issues related to women, issues related to the LGBT community, where it feels like the internal sensibility of our community can sometimes be at odds with the mandates of halakah. And I’m curious, for you, whether or not, A, you even feel that tension. Is it easier to just retreat to the world of science and Rabbi Soloveitchik? And, if you do feel that tension, and something tells me that you do, how do you not get pulled? What keeps you anchored in the world that you inhabit?

Yosef Bronstein: 
This is a great question. I definitely feel a tension, in several realms. I’m not sure if it’s important to go into which particular realms I feel a tension in, but the tension definitely is felt. That is one of the reasons I was attracted to Rav Kook, or this particular aspect of Rav Kook. I’ll explain it as follows. Several different points. Number one is important to note Rav Kook himself was extremely conservative, in the sense that, despite these grand theories, as opposed to as chief rabbi by Israel, he left volumes of response. He was more or less a machmir posek. Academics try to go through his writings, and maybe you could see certain ideas of Rav Kook, in his teshuvos. And, more or less, it’s just read like classical teshuvos. And Rav Kook is explicit. And, every place where he mentions his idea, he says we don’t have the ability to practically implement it nowadays because the only divine intuition we can trust enough to change halakha.

And the only authority we have to change halakha is a Sanhedrin, the high court, living in the land of Israel with the Jewish people there, which creates, if go back in the times of the Tanach… That is what brings down the shechinah onto the Jewish people. And, at that point, we will have enough divine intuition, and we will have enough authority, through the Sanhedrin, to make practical changes. And it could be my intuition is correct in a certain area. And the Sanhedrin will make that change. It could be my intuition is totally incorrect, and the Sanhedrin will not make that change.

But we don’t have the ability to make those practical changes nowadays. That’s why, on a practical level, I keep all the halakhas, despite certain halakhas that I feel like, maybe, they will be changed when the latid lavo, when Messiah comes. And maybe it’s 15 generations until Messiah comes. The Sanhedrin will sit around and create a new drasha to change something. Let me give you something that’s very, very simple, a non-moral topic. Zman krias shema. When are you allowed to say krias shemain the morning? Until the third hour after sunrise. Why? Because that’s the time when the bnei melachim, when the princes used to wake up. During what time period did the bnei melachim, did the most aristocratic, most luxury-oriented people, wake up in the third hour after, talking about 2000 years ago, in a time period of the taanaim? I think we both know people that regularly wake up more than three hours after sunrise. It would be a very simple shift-

Yosef Bronstein: 
… where we wake up more than three hours after sunrise. It would be a very simple shift to go… You’re not even shifting the Halakhah. Halakhah is recite krias shema until the time period when the last demographic of the population are waking up. And nowadays it’s much later.

David Bashevkin: 
Oh yeah.

Yosef Bronstein: 
I think it’s pretty clear, maybe. Maybe yes, maybe not. Maybe Sanhedrin, we’ll change that. It is a non-moral issue that should be tweaked lchora. And again, the Chazon Ish has a theory that all Halakhah is based on the metzias, on the reality of what happened during the time period of the taanaim. But Rav Elchanan Wasserman and Rav Osher Weiss in both their pieces, they say, “No, maybe chazal will change something, will change things like this.”

But Kook goes one step more and says there might be moral issues as well that the Sanhedrin will change. So that’s A. A is that the Sanhedrin has the ability to change things. We don’t have the ability to change things today. So on a practical level, not so much is going to change about my life if I believe Rav Kook’s theory or not. However, one place where things do matter is the areas which aren’t actually circumscribed by halakhah, but might be Jewish communal practice for several hundred years. I think we could all think of examples where the Shulchan Aruch is mute on a certain topic, but just Jews have never done this before. It’s not something a Jewish community does. There’s a negative minhag against it and there are many rabbanim that are very, very reticent to make changes in that area.

So I know of some talmidim who will say that basing out of Kook’s theory, we’re not going to change halacha We don’t have the ability to change halacha. We don’t have the sanhedrin, but at least in these gray areas, if the Halakhah doesn’t actually say anything, just the Jewish communal practice, maybe that’s where we can apply Rav Kook’s theory to make certain changes in the Jewish communal practice.

David Bashevkin: 
What do you say to that? Are you more comfortable with that?

Yosef Bronstein: 
Depending on the situation, I’m definitely more comfortable with that. I think it also gives meaning or gives a context to some of the changes that have already taken place in our community, let’s say women’s talmud torah. I think it’s very clear if you went back a thousand years, women’s talmud torah would be frowned upon by all the Rishonim. Nowadays in the modern orthodox community in America it is something that is celebrated.

What changed? If you actually read the letter of the Chofetz Chaim, it’s actually yeridas hadoros, it’s something negative. Now the street is so much more attractive and Jewish education, they’re picking up on the Jewish traditions through osmosis and the home has broken out, and therefore nebach we have to educate what? If I recall correctly, that’s the language of the Chofetz Chaim.

David Bashevkin: 
Correct. Yes.

Yosef Bronstein: 
If you ask people in the Rav Kook world, and this is something in the chabad world as well, again Rav Kook himself was very conservative about women’s issues. But people in this general world of Rav Kook who had this idea in mind, will tell you that women’s education, women’s Talmud study was never something that was formally assur. It was something that was tzivui chachamim, the sages just said not to do. Nowadays as we get closer to Moshiach, as we’re fixing the sin of Chava and the eitz hadaas and the gender hierarchy is weakening as we approach the Messianic era, which obviously comes with a lot of confusion, but also is accompanied by a lot of good things… So we should celebrate women’s talmud torah not as a bidieved because nebach the trigger is the fact that the street is so attractive, which is celebrated as something that was always muttar, was never done.

David Bashevkin: 
A value onto itself.

Yosef Bronstein: 
But now is the generation to do it because we’re getting closer to Moshiach and Rav Lichtenstein has articles celebrating women’s talmud torah, but what’s lacking, if I understand correctly, what he doesn’t talk about is what shifted from the time period of the Rambam to today. The context, the framework, the way to think about it is not necessarily there. He’s proving from the mekoros it’s okay, it’s good, it’s celebrated, but the general context is not there. I can give you another example. Say slavery. This is not something that’s practical, this is totally theoretical. The Torah condones slavery, slavery of non-Jews, slavery of Jews in certain situations. How do we think about that? So Rav Lichtenstein in the book Mevakshei Panecha, it was a series of interviews by Haim Sabato.

Haim Sabato, he said if Kook has a way to think about this… Again Rav Kook himself happened to be very traditional about slavery, but somebody from Rav Kook world has a way of thinking about this, in the time period of the Torah slavery existed and therefore the Torah limited it in certain ways and taught the true ideals of tzelem elokim and freedom, et cetera, et cetera, and put us on a trajectory that we should realize those ideals.

But the fact that we don’t have slaves today should be something that’s celebrated as a fulfillment of the Torahs values, even though there’s certain areas in Shulchan Aruch that were just totally ignored. But Haim Sabato asked Rav Lichtenstein, but you don’t buy into that theory. So what do you think about the fact that the Avos had slaves and the Avos had multiple wives and we don’t? And not that we just don’t, we don’t want to. How do you understand that shift?

So I did not fully understand Rav Lichtenstein’s response. I can send you the page numbers in the book Mevakshei Panecha. Rav Lichtenstein, he says, “I am not more moral than Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov who had slaves and had polygamous relationships – or some of them did at least. But on the other hand, I think it is immoral today to have slaves or to be involved in a polygamous relationship.”

David Bashevkin: 
Mm-hmm.

Yosef Bronstein: 
What shifted? I’m not exactly sure. I’m not saying Rav Lichtenstein doesn’t have a way to explain it. I’m sure he does. I didn’t fully understand the general framework he was creating.

David Bashevkin: 
But Rav Kook provides this framework?

Yosef Bronstein: 
Provides that general framework. So you could look at halachas that seem immoral and we’re not changing Shulchan Aruch. There’s no obligation to own a slave. There’s no obligation to be in a polygamous relationship. At least we have a way of understanding why we have evolved past that and why it was okay for the Avos, Emahos and people in the time period of Tanakh to be involved in those types of relationships.

David Bashevkin: 
Kind of curious on a personal level, everybody has different things that kind of push their moral buttons or their own interiority, this individual world that Rav Kook describes and then we have this communal world, the standards that we try to uphold. And I’m curious for you, I have no doubt and I don’t want to go into details of what your particular moral trigger is or where you find it difficult in affiliating or ascribing to some of the details of halakhah as we have it today.

What I want to know from you is where do you go when you have those feelings? Where do you go internally? What gives you the strength? You have a very rich theological world that you inhabit and it’s nearly impossible given what you’ve been exposed to, given the writings that you understand that you can just live and just have blinders on and nothing ever upsets you. I’m sure you live with a measure of tension. I don’t know if it’s a great deal of tension or a little bit, but I’m sure you live with some. Where do you go to give yourself the capacity and strength to continue remaining committed with all of this theological nuance and fluidity and depth but still remain anchored?

Yosef Bronstein: 
That’s also a great question. Off the top of my head, without reflecting on the question too much, I would say two things. Number one is that for me personally, there are very few and small number of halachos that I find mystifying in the sense that it seemed to be against one of my own internal principles. The system as a whole is beautiful, it’s amazing, it’s a wondrous system and it works. I think Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the previous iteration of English did the most amazing job of describing Halakhah from a bird’s eye view, the Jewish living, which is Halakhah. Halakhah, giving a bird’s eye view and describing the beauty of the majesty and the value system that’s there embedded in living the system and how if you live a halacha life, you are living out those values.

And it took me to reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and now that I’m in Israel, I started reading Rav Eliezer Melamedthe author of Pnenei Halacha who also has this bird’s eye view of Halakhah and after you’re reading their works, and thank God I’ve had the privilege of studying Jewish text for a long time and I have a lot more to study, but my own findings, they were giving language to my own feelings in the sense that the system as a whole is beautiful. It works, it’s living out values, it connects you to God. It’s an amazing, unbelievable system. It’s kept the Jewish people alive for so many, so many generations. Not just alive but thriving.

And after you read their works and you reflect on it and you think about your own lived experience or my own lived experience, why wouldn’t I want to be a part of the system? Yes, there’s 1% here, 2% there again, it might be different for other people that I don’t find that meaningful, but the system as a whole is unbelievably meaningful. That’s one in terms of the understanding of the system.

And number two is an essay actually written by Rav Lichtenstein and the source of faith is faith itself, where it describes the importance of just religious experience; that if you feel connected to God through living an orthodox Jewish life, so that itself should be enough fuel to propel you to continue to do that because this is the way I encounter God. This is the way I encounter transcendence. This is the way I interact with the spiritual world and it gives me that, it allows me to connect to God. The system on an intellectual level I think is majestic. It’s beautiful. The values are amazing and there are here and there are certain Halachas which I do find mystifying, but I think they’re counterbalanced by those two other factors, the intellectual factor, the beautiful factor and also the experiential factor.

David Bashevkin: 
Yosef, I cannot thank you enough for your time and wisdom today, you’ve just been a friend and a thinker to me where we back channel and talk about all things in life. I always look forward to our conversations. I always wrap up our interviews with more rapid fire questions.

My first question, and I first want you to go through in an organized fashion, if you were to recommend a book on this topic, specifically on Rav Kook, let’s start with primary sources and then the secondary sources. Somebody wants to understand Rav Kook’s approach to the development of the oral law. Where do they turn, where do they go?

Yosef Bronstein: 
Perhaps the most pointed essay is the introduction to Rav Kook’s commentary on Aggadata entitled “Ein Ayah.” So, Rav Kook wrote a long introduction to his commentary on Aggadata , and that’s where he leads out this theory, not about Judaism as a whole, but about development of Halakhah, how Halakhah was learned and studied and practiced during Bayis Rishon and how it was learned and practiced during the Second Temple period. There are English translations available online.

David Bashevkin: 
Is there any secondary literature on Rav Kook that has stood out for you that specifically discusses these ideas?

Yosef Bronstein: 
I think one, a great introduction. It’s a translation of some of these essays and amazing footnotes and introductions, and a book by Rabbi Betzalel Meor who is the ultimate master on Rav Kook in general and particularly in English. It’s a book entitled “When God Becomes History” and he takes some of Rav Kook’s historical essays, translates them, annotates them, gives you historical contexts and also gives you very, very beautiful and erudite introductions to give context and cross references to what Rav Kook is saying.

David Bashevkin: 
I am curious, I don’t usually ask this, but I’m going to say, do you have a favorite essay or work of Rav Kook or a passage that always sticks with you?

Yosef Bronstein: 
I’ll say two if that’s okay. The essay that I enjoy teaching the most I would say is in the book Orot, The Source of the Living God. It is the first essay in the section, and there Rav Kook describes basically how to try to develop a relationship with God while living in this physical reality. The language is poetic, the ideas are profound. He goes through some standard Jewish philosophical ideas without quoting sources and then goes in a particular direction.

The second one, which is related to this, is a passage in the end of Orot HaKodesh. Rav Kook writes that the Jewish people have been great at teaching themselves and teaching the world about obligations, about Mitzvahs. But the time has come as we approach the Messianic era to teach the world how these Mitzvahs are really the source of all pleasure, the source of Eden, the source of Gan Eden , the source of Taanug. And through these Mitzvahs you can really bring yourself and a nation and the world as a whole to a beautiful, majestic, meaningful life, the individual family and community. So I think that in a nutshell sort of encapsulates some of what Rav Kook was trying to do.

David Bashevkin: 
I absolutely love that. My next question, I’m always curious: you already have a PhD, but I wonder if somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical and go back to school and write another work from scratch, what do you think the subject and title of that dissertation would be?

Yosef Bronstein: 
That’s a good question. If I could veer the question in a different angle. I think if I had a year off, I would not spend it in school. I spent my entire life in school. I think I would spend it familiarizing myself more with Eretz Israel. I love going on Tiyulim. I love walking around with a Tanakh, going to ancient places.

I’ve studied a lot about these ancient places through academic Talmud study, the ancient shuls, I’ve read about them, but many of them I haven’t actually been there. And I think it’s so powerful to be in the places that I’ve been reading about for years. Just to go to Qumran, I’ve just read so much about the Dead Sea Scrolls. To actually go to Qumran where they lived and practiced and just think 2000 years ago, Jews in the land of Israel were trying to read Tanakh and figure out how the world God wanted them to live, and here I am 2000 years later in the land of Israel, reading Tanakh, trying to figure out what in the world God wants me to do. I think that’s a very, very powerful feeling.

David Bashevkin: 
That is absolutely beautiful. My final question, what time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Yosef Bronstein: 
I usually go to sleep I would say between 11:00 and 12:00 and I usually wake up around 5:00.

David Bashevkin: 
Last question, this is a technical one I don’t ask everybody, is your PhD available online if people want to read it?

Yosef Bronstein: 
It’s not available online. You could be in touch with me if you want it. God willing, I hope to be able to publish a revised version of it as a book. So stay tuned on that.

David Bashevkin: 
We will absolutely stay tuned for all of your thoughts and writings. Rabbi Dr. Yosef Bronstein, thank you so much for your time, your wisdom and most of all your friendship. Thank you so much.

Yosef Bronstein: 
Thank you so much. It was an exhilarating conversation.

David Bashevkin: 
After my conversation with Yosef, he sent me a voice note, an addendum like so many people do ’cause he felt he left something out and we’ll include those now.

Yosef Bronstein: 
Shalom Aleicheim Reb Dovis I hope everything is well. I’m sure if I listened to the interview again that there would be a million and three things that I would want to change. So, I’m not going to listen to it. However, almost immediately after we ended our call, there was one thing that jumped out in me. The answer I gave I definitely think is insufficient and I would like to add to it right now. Towards the end of the interview you asked me that if I have some moral questions about different Halakhahs, so what keeps me committed and do I have any advice for other people? So what I feel like I failed to emphasize was that this was a personal answer based on my own limited and subjective experiences. Meaning I am somebody for whom the system more or less has worked for. I was blessed with amazing parents, amazing opportunities to learn Torah, amazing teachers along the way, amazing opportunities. And I was able to really grow and learn and develop an appreciation for the system as an insider. And whatever questions I have about the system are really negligible when I think about things on a total scale.
However, perhaps just state the obvious. Number one, I am male and number two, I am heterosexual and I’m able to be part of an amazing, amazing family right now. And in addition to my upbringing and my experiences, my educational experiences and the opportunities that I had, it could be that all of that uses together to create this ratio that, on the totality, I could see the beauty and the grandeur intellectually of the values of Halakhah. And number two, the system could lead toward those positive experiences. However, I totally understand how somebody with a different identity or different background might have a different ratio between the parts of the system that they feel very connected to intellectually and experientially and the parts of the system that they feel mystified by and for such a person and the conversation would really have to be very, very different.

David Bashevkin: 
It has always intrigued me that at the heart of the oral law, there are two personalities who have a disproportionate contribution to the very development of torah shbaal peh. And those are Kohanim like Rav Tzadok and Rav Kook and gayrim, meaning converts like Yitro, who the very giving of the Torah is in the parsha of Yitro, like Unklus who translated the Torah, and of course the person who stands at the center of all of Torah Shbaal peh and that is Rebbe Akiva. And it’s these two archetype personalities in their approach to Torah, kohanim and gayrim, converts and Kohanim and I believe model these two paradigmatic tug of wars that are taking place throughout Jewish history. Where Kohanim in a sense represent the people who are protecting and preserving the Mesorah. So they’re the ones who are insuring that the underlying ideas remain intact generation after generation.

Yet there is another component in our Mesorah which is all about creativity and interpretation and stretching the ideas. And that is represented I believe in the work of gayrim and their contribution and interpretations of Torah. All you have to see there are two schools of thought in drash, two central ways in which we derive laws from the Torah. And that is the school of Rebbe Yishmael and Rebbe Akiva, who scholars have already pointed out that the school of Rebbe Yishmael is much more tethered to the plain meaning of the text while Rebbe Akivais much more constructive and interpretive and likes to expand the ideas.
And Rebbe Yishmael of course was a Kohen who lived kohanim are all about insularity and the integrity of that chain that stretches back to the days of the temple, that protective preservationist mindset. While there is a second school which are gayrim converts, people who come and literally go through self transformation in their very sense of self who begin as gentiles and then come under the wings of the shechinah, come towards tachas kanfei hashcheina and reinvent their very sense of self, dare I say, the ultimate act of creativity.

And I think these two archetypes are always in dialogue with one another. I actually have an essay on this in my medium selling Hebrew Sefer that I never quote and wasn’t far from a bestseller, but you could find it for free online on HebrewBooks.org. In the last essay in my Hebrew work B’Rogez Rachem Tizkor, I have an essay called Mispach, which is actually pun if you read it online, it means an appendix, but it has a double meaning in this context. And it’s called Kohanim v gerem bmisoras Yisroel, the role of converts and Kohanim in the development of the tradition of the Jewish people. And what the essay is all about is this tug of war that I believe is throughout history, not between literal Geyrim and literal Kohanim, but between the ideas that they represent. One representing preservationist, people who are trying to protect and preserve the integrity of the Mesorah. And the other are the mechadshei mesorah, people who are creatively reinterpreting and adding new ideas.

And these exist throughout Jewish tradition, the Mishamrei Mesorah, the people who are protecting our Mesorah and the Mechadshei Mesorah, the people who are creatively reinterpreting our Mesorah. And I’ll just end with an idea of people ’cause I know so many people did reach out. I think there is a struggle when you see that there was development and evolution in the tradition of the Jewish people. It wasn’t given necessarily in one shot. What I think what we are doing is we are wedding these two worlds together, whether it’s gayrim and kohanim whether it’s taking the world of bechira and free choice and uniting it to that world of yediya, of divine foreknowledge, uniting the messiness of the world that we live in with all of its creativity, with all of its ambiguity to that pristine divine plan that we could only access with divine foreknowledge.

There is a beautiful, absolutely beautiful medrish that I believe taking note of these two types of Torah that emerge from the world of preservationists, of kohanim and the world of creativity of geyrim. And that medrish appears in medrish raba in the 19th chapter, and it says:

In the future it’s going to be the geyrim, the creativity that is going to be united and also be serving within the Beis Hamikdash. And I think that that is a futuristic vision where these two worlds that seem to sometimes be at odds with one another, it’s not easy to see how the creativity in our mesorah coheres with the preservationist, how the more traditional camps can cohere and coexist with the more creative camps. But I think it’s with the ultimate unfolding in time and that great future where it’s going to be the geyrim that are going to be able to serve directly in the Beis Hamikdash where these two worlds and these two archetypes are going to be integrated and cohere with one another, deterministic and free will, the world of prophecy and the world of choice.

What we’re ultimately working towards is to integrate these both and see it was the plan throughout that even our very sense of self, so to speak, is part of that divine prophecy, that divine promise that unfolds throughout our lives and throughout all the generations, ultimately uniting that world of ambiguity and chaos with the divine plan that was there all along. The knowledge, that our very sense of self, our very capacity, our very story, our very narrative was God all along.

So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes was edited by our dear friend, Denah Emerson. And before I go even further, I’m going to actually break from our normal outro and remind our listeners: be sure before you shut off this episode, be sure to check out the articles that we have online. Specifically on this series, we have an article by Yosef Lindell, a five part series on the development of the oral law. Check it out on 18Forty.org. And you really want to check out an excellent collection by our fearless editor, Yehuda Fogel. It really collects the key primary articles, the thought of Rav Tzadkok Hacohen. If you’re still listening, make sure you go online and check those out.

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