by Israel Drazin
Elchanan Greenman has made a welcome contribution to scholarship by translating The Path of Torah by Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, commonly known by the acronym of part of his name Netziv or HaNetziv. Greenman includes extensive clarifying insertions into the text, adds many explanatory footnotes, and improves the flow of Netziv’s writings by removing fifteen discussions from the text and placing them as addenda.
Netziv (1817–1893), a highly respected rabbi, headed the famous Yeshiva (Academy) of Volozhin for some forty years, while Volozhin was part of Russia. His writings are very complex, filled with poetic illusions and biblical passages that are mixed into Netziv’s interpretations. There are frequent digressions.
Netziv leans toward the mystical, frequently amorphous and ambiguous notions of Nachmanides, who he quotes frequently. His view of life is other-worldly and Neo-Platonic. His logic is intuitive and not deductive. He purposely combines the plain meaning of the biblical text with its midrashic interpretations. His writings are sermonic. These methods of writing and thinking might confuse many readers and therefore Greenman’s extensive clarifications are very helpful.
The Path of Torah served as one of two prefaces to Netziv’s Ha’amek She’elah, which could be translated as “Deep Questions.” The preface is divided into three parts of eighteen, thirteen, and twelve short chapters. Rabbi Greenman adds two chapters from the other preface to Ha’amek She’elah called Pesah Ha’amek, “the preface to Ha’amek,” which deal with the importance of charity and Torah study.
The first part of The Path of Torah focuses on pilpul. Netziv offers his understanding how pilpul was transmitted since the days of Moses. His method is not true history, but deductions from various biblical verses that he sees hinting at the historical transmission of pilpul.
Pilpul is a method of study that was and is fashionable in many rabbinical academies. It is a method that some people call sophistry, clever attempts to explain the Torah that show the acuteness of the pilpulist, but frequently fails to clarify the Torah. Netziv rejected this method of study, but continued to use the term with a different definition, to denote the Oral Torah that Moses gave the people without writing it down.
Netziv’s second part emphasizes the need for Jews to delve deeply into the Torah. He is apparently speaking about the need to discover the Oral Law within the Written Torah, for, as stated earlier, he does not differentiate the two; there is only one Torah. Some of his ideas are thought provoking even if one considers them counter-intuitive. For example, he states that if Israel did not sin, God would have only given Jews six biblical books and not twenty-four. The six are the five books of Moses and Joshua. Other ideas may strike people as strange, but they are psychologically reasonable. For example, he states that Jews should study not only the views of the rabbis that are the halakhah, but also the non-halakhic ideas, because people can understand the correct idea better is they also know the non-correct view. He also insists, as do modern scholars, that people should study the primary sources and not depend upon secondary sources to know what the ancients said.
By doing this, Netziv was among a unique group. He studied and wrote commentaries on the ancient writings, including the writings of the Gaonim, while most yeshivot taught and still teach only the Babylonian Talmud.
Netziv’s third part discusses the ramifications of limited intelligence. Should a person, for instance, work hard to learn more than what doctors tell him he can understand? Netziv answers “yes.” He emphasizes in this part that Moses gave pilpul (the Oral Law) to the Israelites “to ensure their survival in exile,” for Moses, he writes, knew that his people would be exiled in about a half dozen centuries from Israel.
While Netziv’s book is difficult to follow and many people may disagree with his worldview, Greenman has done a very fine job of making this respected work accessible.
From The Jewish Eye
The original text of the review may be found here.