The Brisker Approach to the Bible

by Rabbi Gil Student

Surprisingly, proponents of the Brisker conceptual model of Talmudic study do not fully carry it over to Bible commentary. Rather, they either engage in traditional homiletics (derush) or halakhic interpretation. The latter is essentially an overlay of Talmudic study onto the Bible. Applying the Brisker method to the Bible entails something entirely different.

R. Yitzchak Etshalom, in his recently published volume of Between the Lines of the Bible on Exodus and his earlier volume on Genesis, shows us how it is done (note that I was heavily involved in the publication of the first volume and minorly in the second). With his captivating prose, penetrating depth and dazzling breadth, R. Etshalom analyzes topics in the Biblical in classical Brisk fashion.

He starts with a text and asks one or more difficult questions on it. He then proceeds to another, unrelated text and similarly poses difficulties. Each step of the way, tensions between texts and ideas grow as the questions multiply. Conflicts within and between texts multiply as R. Etshalom builds his foundation. Then comes the big idea. With one global concept, a textual or theological insight, the bubble of tension is burst. All of the questions are neatly resolved. Indeed, with the new understanding of the “big idea,” they no longer seem like questions.

Some of this is just a matter of presentation. Schooled in contemporary study of the Talmud, R. Etshalom knows how to “give a shi’ur” and arranges his Bible lessons with the same excitement and structure of a high-level Talmud class. However, he does not merely take Talmudic categories and apply them to the Bible.

One of the biggest puzzles in Exodus is the oversized presence of the Tabernacle. Not only are the instructions for its composition given in exquisite detail, they are presented twice! In three sweeping essays, R. Etshalom demonstrates the importance of the Tabernacle as a continuation of the Sinai revelation, explains the differences between the two Tabernacle accounts based on the differing perspectives if the actors (Moshe and Betzalel), and shows the significance of the adjacent Shabbos passages (both are sanctifications of the Jewish people). His conceptual-theological approach is, it seems to me, entirely appropriate because the Bible is first and foremost a theological text. Building, as he does, on the words and literary character of the text, R. Etshalom’s concepts are organic to the Bible rather than externally imposed.

R. Etshalom is singularly focused on the Biblical text. He tries to tease the true meaning from the text by allowing it to speak for itself. However, he is a sufficiently traditional Torah scholar that when he evaluates ambiguous passages, he builds on the Talmud and famous Jewish commentaries. In doing so, he takes a middle position between Dr. Nehama Leibowitz and R. Yoel Bin-Nun (see here: link). The former focused mainly on commentaries and the latter seldom uses them. R. Etshalom uses them as necessary, focusing on the texts but incorporating traditional commentaries, much like R. Elchanan Samet.

A true pedagogue teaches not only his syllabus but the tools for study. In each essay, R. Etshalom pauses to explain what he did, what interpretive tools he used. His methods are mainly literary but they vary. Sometimes his main idea comes from recognizing key words that link texts, other times by understanding the limitations of what the characters knew at the time. Walking away from the book, you are not only dazzled by R. Etshalom’s interpretations but empowered to study on your own in greater depth.

This post appeared on Hirhurim – Musings on Feb.2, 2012.

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