Structuralism and Brisk

Although the MAPPS program offers unparalleled academic freedom, the directors of my program require one particular survey class, “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis.” Over the 10 week quarter, Dr. John MacAloon and various other professors present 9 different perspectives with Dr. MacAloon presenting an overview and another scholar discussing contemporary applications of that perspective.

In week 8, we covered “Structuralism,”1 and I was surprised to see the similarities between this perspective and ” lomdus” – specifically the Brisker Derekh. There are several decent summaries of Structuralism on the web and some more on one of its main advocates Claude Levi-Strauss.2

For those too lazy to click the links or God forbid do your own research, I’ll give you the short attention span summary.4 Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, utilized aspects of linguistic theory to interpret social phenomenon beyond language.3 Linguists, like Saussure, distinguished between the words used in language and the effect, the symbol and the meaning, the langue and the parol’. How did they do this? After analyzing how speech works throughout all cultures, they realized that some phenomenon repeated themselves and they explained the different phenomenon through polar binary opposites.

Levi-Strauss applied this methodology to social phenomenon like myths. In his work The Structural Study of Myth, Levi-Strauss demonstrates that the Oedipus myth contains elements found in myths from other cultures. He identifies the patterns by breaking down the myth into atomic elements, and “re-structures” these elements into classifications. Once Levi-Strauss classifies these elements into categories, he then uses his categorization to compare the Oedipus myth with similar myths. Although the categories are arbitrary, Structuralists like to formulate categories in binary opposites. E.g. symbol and meaning, personal and communal, etc.

How is this like the Brisker Derekh? Unfortunately, there isn’t much directly written on the methodology of how to do “Brisk.”5 However, I picked up a few things from my numerous years in yeshiva, and I can say that the analytical methodology is similar – though perhaps not identical.

Like structuralists, Briskers tend to explain several sources and rulings though binary comparisons. Some popular ones are heftza (object) and gavra (person), shem (name) and halos (legal status), mitzvah hiyuvi (obligatory commandment) and mitzvah kiyyumi (fulfilling a commandment), or simply “qualitative” and “quantitative” differences. Although this might apply to other areas of “lomdus” I’ve noticed that Briskers tend toward the binary opposites more than others. Just about every shiur I can remember from Gush involved a two-way mahloket and tannaim, amoraim, rishonim, and achronim neatly fitting into one of two arbitrary abstract categories.

Some Briskers also apply this perspective to areas of Jewish Thought. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most famous descendant of the “Brisker Rav” and his tradition. In “The Lonely Man of Faith, R. Soloveitchik contrasts the personalities and religious attitudres of “Adam One” and “Adam Two” from the creation narratives. Elsewhere, R. Soloveitchik’s rational “Halakhic Man” stands in opposition to the more emotional “Homo-Religiosus.” Again, his thought leads him to present theological and religious ideas through manufactured binary oppositions.

Methodologically, Briskers construct and categorize the concepts in ways similar to the structuralists. Specifically, they first remove the sugya from the original context of the gemara. The sugya becomes the unit of analysis as opposed to a chapter, or even a page of talmud. Consequently, Briskers will not concern themselves with literary analysis or even finding the correct version of the talmud,6 because the details are not as important as the structure or the concepts. Like structuralism, these concepts are arbitrary and subject to the whim of the scholar. Unlike structuralism, yeshivas have canonized the scholars i.e. the rabbis, and therefore artificial structures become sacred and part of the “tradition.”7

I am not surprised that the Brisker Derekh attracts so many followers, nor am I surprised at the criticisms. Structuralism can be useful, and often it may be the best method for explaining a particular data set. Critics, however, will note that as a standalone system – as an “ism” if you will – structuralism assumes and imposes too much on the data. Furthermore, in the social sciences critics will complain that structuralists remove the human participants from the analysis. Social interaction becomes a bloodless game of abstract categories with no attention to human emotions. Similarly, critics of the Brisker Derekh deride the lack of attention to detail of the sugya in its original context. Literary approaches and historical evidence may often contradict the structures imposed on the text of the talmud.

I am not going to speculate on who got what from whom. Levi-Strauss was born and raised Jewish, and it’s likely his background influenced his scholarship. I also don’t think I’m saying anything radical or new here, it’s just an interesting similarity I noticed in class. Take it as you will.

1. Unfortunately, the laptop was in limbo then, so I don’t have typed notes from the lectures.
2. Not to be confused with the guy who made jeans.
3. See Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology
4. I.e. don’t cite this description for anything useful.
5. When I was in Gush, a small book called “The Brisker Derekh” came out and it was pretty close to a “How To Brisk.” As I recall, most of the ramim and students dismissed the book as too simplistic, which was probably as good of an endorsement as it could get. At any rate, I can’t find a link to it on the web.
6. The standard “Vilna” edition is loaded with errors. See Dikdukei Soferim or the Lieberman Project for other versions of the Talmud Bavli – and manuscript work is ongoing. If this sounds too heretical for you, consider that a passage may appear in several places throughout rabbinic literature (Bavli, Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Mishna, Midrash Halakha…), but there will be significant changes in their presentation. See for example, Dr. Elman’s Authority and Tradition and many, many, other works.
7. For some ramifications in education, see Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh by Rachel Furst and Mosheh Lichtenstein, “What Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited” Torah U-Madda Journal, volume 9, 1-18, 2000.

Posted in Academia, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

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