Friday, June 27, 2008

Reading like the Netziv

A fascinating video of a lecture by R' Dr. Gil Perl. Best viewed as streaming video, the download is 339 MB. Hat tip: Areivim List.

Summary and one critique below:

R’ Dr. Gil Perl:

What was the Rosh Yeshiva Reading?

Netziv R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin – went as a child to Volozhin, spent entire life (1830-1892) there as student and RY. His commentaries exhibit broad knowledge. How was it gained?

A story in Mekor Boruch (by the Torah Temimah, parts of which eventually became “My Uncle the Netziv”). Joseph Steinberg, maskil, grammarian, asks how did the Netziv learn grammar? He responds with a parable about merchants – one gets belts for free with expensive fabric, one has to pay for belts alone – grammar comes with Torah learning, vs grammar being learned with difficulty on its own.

Is the story true? Probably not, not as written.

There is an early commentary on Sifri by the Netziv, never completed, published only 50 years after his death, where he cites sources for things. Now we can know what he read.

  1. Kuzari and Otzar Nechmad – O”N was by R’ Israel Zamosc, an early Maskil.
  2. Grammar of Eshkol haKofer – a 12th-century Karaite. Now we know how the Netziv learned grammar, the same as the Maskil – by learning grammatical works.
  3. Intro to Chumash BES”V and T”A – T”A is Targum Onkelos usually, but BESV if you slightly redraw the Beit as a Dalet, becomes Dessau, and Targum Ashkenaz – the Mendelssohn Chumash. And the issue being talked about here is in fact what Mendelssohn talks about in the intro. The descendents probably euphemized it to BESV; Perl found ms. in possession of family, but family only allowed him to read page by page, because they didn’t want him to see questionable stuff. He had to ask for something a bit earlier, so as to hit the right page without tipping them off, and in fact it was DESV, underlined in pink (probably indicating a change to be made in printing).
  4. Elijah Levita (Bachur) Mesoret haMesoret – suggests that vowels and trup were in fact a later addition.
  5. Azariah de Rosse, Me’or Einayim. Mishmosh. Jewish history non-traditional. Refers to aggadic literature, narratives, as not necessarily intended to be taken literally, but as teaching of Truths based on their then understanding of the world. This got him into cherem, works banned by the Mechaber. Maharal spends pages denouncing de Rossi. Netziv tells us to read the absolute worst areas in the book (by that standard). E.g.,
    1. Netziv talks about different types of exegesis, midrash. He cites parenthetically, (See M”E IV[II]:9) à where de Rossi suggests that the midrash uses verses as a support or mnemonic for story, not story as interpretation of verse. We don’t have to take everything literally.
    2. same section in De Rossi – aggadot mere conjecture on the part of their inventor – this idea was regarded as heretical, if the stories are not based in Mesorah. This is what Netziv wanted us to see.
    3. another midrash: “let us go up to conquer Israel” means that Israel must be higher than all other lands. Netziv comments – this seems to be against geography, so see de Rossi. De Rossi says don’t take it literally.
    4. another midrash: “Kartignin place”. Netziv: Carthage, that Josephus has made famous, also see de Rossi, who says it’s in Africa. How did de Rossi know? Because “Jerome, who was also wise, translates this ref in Ezekiel as Carthage”.
    5. Text of cherem against Slifkin compares Slifkin’s writings to Me’or Einayim, which was banished by Maharal: “Cursed be the day that such things were brought to our vision; How could one who can’t understand the words of our sages at all, talk about the sages as if they were his own friends, criticizing them like his own colleagues?” – still controversial today.

Next question – what brought him to read such heretical things? Turns out he wasn’t alone.

  1. The Maggid of Slonim, RYL Edel, “Afikei Yehuda”, cites Meor Einayim.
  2. R’ Avraham ben haGra cites Meor Einayim, as a great collection of Jewish and non-Jewish sources.
  3. RaDa”L – David Luria, of Obichov, Lita. Comments on Midrash Rabbah, referring to scientific literature, describing change in salinity of ocean at the Pillars of Hercules between Atlantic and Mediterranean.
  4. Kenaf Renanim, by Hanoch Zundel Luria, Maggid of Novardok: cites [German] Letters of Mendelssohn [reads out Moshe ben Maimon – maybe he really meant Rambam?] – read his German works on philosophy.
  5. Yoel Dovber haKohen in Volozhin: Commentary on Yalkut Shimoni. Less-known, that he translated the French political work “Adventures of Telemachus” and the “Fables of Aesop.”
  6. Yitzchak Eliyahu Landau, Maggid of Vilna: “Even if we were all wise and learned in the law” – understood as “Even if we were all scientists, masters of biology and astronomy”

So what happened? Why did the Netziv not cite them in his later Torah commentary? Times change. Reform reached Eastern Europe by the middle of the 19th century. Haskalah and Reform and Mendelssohn become equated, so the RY of Volozhin is not going to tell a student to read De Rossi.

Kenaf Renanim: Later printings remove references to [Moshe ben Maimon].

What does this mean for today? I’ll leave that to you.


  • Q. Where did they have access to this literature? A. Coincides with boom in E. European boom in Hebrew printing. Lots of stuff available. Glut in traditional texts, so new printers want to go find other texts that hadn’t been printed in centuries. Get copies right off the press.
  • Q Did the Netziv know that these texts were put into cherem? A. Can’t say for sure, but cites Maharal elsewhere, albeit not a big Maharal fan, so probably knew. Certainly he would have known how people reacted to Mendelssohn.
  • Q. Maharal and others also talk about exaggerations in midrashim? A. How dare you go beyond what was already identified as non-literal?
  • Q. Self-censorship? A. ha-Amek Davar has a bit of it, also the fact that he never published the commentary on Sifri. Different to self-censor than for others to censor.
  • Q. Hatam Sofer denounced Mendelssohn, A. Pressburg and Lita were very different. Pressburg had no reform movement, but Hatam Sofer comes from Germany so he feels he must oppose Reform.
  • Q. Lita was more liberal towards Haskalah? A. Developed differently in E. Europe, because no Reform movement ever developed out of it.
  • Q. Did it flourish in Volozhin? A. No, just some were reading it. Maybe it was flourishing more in Vilna.
  • Q. Dating of these things? A. He started reading them in his late twenties. The commentary was repeatedly edited and changed throughout his life, but these marginalia were only in the earliest stratum, age 25-30.
  • Q. What do I think of the situation today with all the current controversies? A. As my advisor said, it’s great to be a historian because people are dead and can’t talk back, so I will not speculate.
  • Q. Have the relatives of the Netziv ever read my thesis? A. No, but my relations with them soured, and I can’t go back to look at the mss.
  • Q. Wasn’t the Torah Temimah his brother-in-law? A. Some of the family connections: Netziv’s first wife was the daughter of R’ Itzele of Volozhin, he was 14, she 12. Born 1816, became RY in 1853. Torah Temimah’s mother was Netziv’s sister. Netziv remarries a sister of the Torah Temimah, his own niece, so Netziv was TT’s uncle and brother-in-law. From first marriage came R’ Chaim Berlin, and from 2nd marriage comes R’ Meir Bar-Ilan. Two different people going in two very different directions.


My one issue with this is his citation of Kenaf Renanim, as noted above. He read out in Hebrew, “Moshe ben Maimon”. But Mendelssohn was “Moshe ben Menachem Mendel”, sometimes abbreviated as “Rambeman” to distinguish him from Rambam. What did Kenaf Renanim say? Rambam? “Moshe ben Maimon”? Rambeman? If the issue were Rambam, that puts an entirely different spin on the relationship to philosophy. It wouldn’t be the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but the metaphysical system based in Aristotle which had also lost favor, more significantly foreshadowing today’s Slifkin debate – were these ideas OK for the medievals but not for us?

1 comment:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Perl just misspoke in the lecture. It's written mhr"m bm"n on pg 135 of Kenaf Renanim:

See here (second column).

יעיין בספר אגרות הפלסופים להחכם השלם מוהר"מ במ"ן בל"א