'Perpetuating the Masorah': Essays from a Torah giant - review

Perpetuating the Masorah consists of four essays that were delivered orally by Rabbi Twersky between 1994 and 1997 in memory of Rabbi Soloveitchik, close to the date of his passing (yahrzeit).

 TWERSKY WAS close to top officials at Yeshiva University (pictured) both ideologically and through family ties.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
TWERSKY WAS close to top officials at Yeshiva University (pictured) both ideologically and through family ties.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Hebrew word “masorah” is frequently translated as “tradition,” but as Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky (1930-1997) explains in his book Perpetuating the Masorah, it means much more than that. It is the preservation and transmission of the written and oral law throughout the generations. 

Few individuals were as qualified as Twersky to write about the transmission of Judaism’s traditions. A world-class academic, he was the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University and founded and headed the university’s Center for Jewish Studies. Considered one of the outstanding Maimonidean scholars of his time, Twersky was a master of medieval Jewish intellectual history, with a specialty in the relationship between Halacha and Jewish spirituality.

He himself had a distinguished family lineage, succeeding his father as the hassidic head of Beit Hamidrash Beit David in Brookline, Massachusetts, and serving as the Talner Rebbe. Moreover, as a son-in-law of the renowned Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the rosh yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinic Seminary at Yeshiva University, he benefited from his immense erudition and counsel.

Four essays of Rabbi Twersky

Perpetuating the Masorah consists of four essays that were delivered orally by Rabbi Twersky between 1994 and 1997 in memory of Rabbi Soloveitchik, close to the date of his passing (yahrzeit). The final essay in the book was published in a special memorial edition of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, which was dedicated to Rabbi Soloveitchik.

The essays focus on aggadic, halachic, ethical, and spiritual themes. Explaining the author’s specific interest in the subject, editors Carmi Horowitz and David Shapiro write in the book’s introduction, “The Masorah emphasizes the centrality of law, which included its observance as well as the heavy intellectual demands of its study, while simultaneously giving a place of preeminence to religious spirituality, and to moral and ethical living. This fusion of law and spirituality was a central focus in Prof. Twersky’s scholarly writings, but for him, the topic was not solely academic. It lay at the very heart of his own religious consciousness, his own spiritual commitment to a life of kedushah, holiness. It was a cherished and honored feature of the spiritual legacies he had inherited: the Hasidic tradition he received from his father, and the intellectual-spiritual heritage he received from his father-in-law.”

 SCULPTURE OF Maimonides in his Cordoba birthplace. Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky was one of the outstanding Maimonidean scholars of his time.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
SCULPTURE OF Maimonides in his Cordoba birthplace. Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky was one of the outstanding Maimonidean scholars of his time. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the central goals of the essays, they explain, was to demonstrate the correlation between Halacha (Jewish law) and aggadah, the non-halachic component of rabbinic tradition narrative material, expressed as parables, maxims, or anecdotes, in the Talmud and other rabbinical literature.

Among the topics covered in this slim volume (172 pages, including the source and subject index) are the teaching of the Torah and its goals, how one becomes a Torah scholar, the responsibilities of Torah scholars, and the uniqueness of Jewish tradition.

The relationship between Jewish law, spirituality, and ethics is perhaps best exemplified by the first chapter, entitled “Raise up Many Disciples,” a quotation taken from the first mishna of Tractate Avot. Twersky first cites the introductory remarks of Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura, the 15th-century Italian rabbi and commentator, who addresses why tractate Avot begins with a listing of the chain of tradition ­– “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.”

Bartenura suggested that, unlike the other tractates of the Mishna, Avot does not relate to the specific performance or elaboration of a single mitzvah but rather contains ethical and moral statements. While gentile scholars also composed works of ethics, he explained, these works were humanly contrived. It is for this reason that Avot begins by listing the chain of tradition to teach that the moral principles and ethical principles in the tractate were not invented but were received at Sinai and were passed down through the generations.

Noting Bartenura’s assertion that Jewish ethics are innately religious values, Twersky writes, “He [Bartenura] says that morality must be anchored in religious axiology. Without religious values and norms, morality will erode and collapse, will not endure, and will not resist distortion.”

Proceeding to the Talmud, Twersky then quotes a statement from the Babylonian Talmud, which he uses to buttress Bartenura’s point:

“Ulla the Great interpreted a verse homiletically at the entrance to the house of the Nasi. What is the meaning of that which is written: “All the kings of the earth shall give You thanks, O Lord, for they have heard the words of Your mouth” (Psalms 138:4)? It is not stated: The word of Your mouth, in the singular. Rather, the verse uses the expression: “The words of Your mouth,” in the plural. To what is this phrase referring? When the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2), and, in the same verse: “You shall have no other gods before Me,” the nations of the world said: He teaches this for His own honor, as both statements entail respect for God. Once He said: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:11), they returned and conceded the truth of the first statements, which is why the verse uses the plural expression: “Words of Your mouth,” i.e., all the words of God’s mouth” (Kiddushin 31a).

Twersky writes, “What the Gemara says is that they realized that without God, there would be no fifth commandment to honor your father and mother. One cannot implement it properly, fully, without this religious base. There is no self-sustaining secular ethic. The wise men of the world acknowledged the inseparability of the ethical norm from the act of faith.”

He then addresses Bartenura’s point that Tractate Avot has no relationship to a single commandment of the Torah. “The assertion that moral principles and ethical virtues found in this tractate are not based on any mitzvah is extremely puzzling,” writes Twersky. Most people, he suggests, would contend that its ethical concepts are based on the principle of “walking in God’s ways” (vehalakhta bidrakhav).

Twersky ingeniously reinterprets Bartenura’s comment to mean that the ethical precepts expressed in Avot are unlike all of the other mitzvot in that they cannot be quantified. “These ethical precepts defy the normal method legislation since they defy quantification,” he writes. For example, when one is fulfilling the mitzvah of eating matzah, one knows precisely how much matzah one must eat – a kezayit – the size of an olive. “The mitzvah is performed in a clearly delineated, quantifiable manner.”

By contrast, ethical perfection is open-ended and depends on each individual’s level of knowledge and sensitivity. Twersky cites the mitzvah of giving charity (tzedaka), which is not quantifiable but is achieved by one’s giving to the best of one’s ability or acts of benevolence and lovingkindness (gemilut hassadim), which are also not quantified.

Twersky goes on to discuss the principle of “Raise up Many Disciples” listed by the Men of the Great Assembly and quotes a discussion between the students of Shammai and the students of Hillel from Avot De-Rabbi Natan, a companion volume to Pirkei Avot from the Geonic period that presents maxims of wisdom alongside explanations and stories.

“Beit Shammai said that one should only teach a person who is wise, humble, of distinguished pedigree, and affluent. Beit Hillel says, teach everybody. There were many sinners, many people who had gone astray, who were then brought close to the study of Torah; they became upright people; people of great integrity and great piety” (Chapter 3).

Twersky traces the divergent views of Shammai and Hillel through the Talmud and its application to modern times, and the prerequisites for the fulfillment of raising disciples – among them being compassion, humility, and an effort to instill self-confidence in the students of Torah. He further explains that the teachers of Torah must not only communicate the content of the mitzvot to children and students but also the emotional and experiential components of the Torah. 

Perpetuating the Masorah is a deftly written tour de force that takes the reader through the rabbinic world of Talmudic, Midrashic, and halachic sources to provide a better understanding of Jewish tradition. All the sources quoted in the book are translated into English, and their original Hebrew text appears at the bottom of each page where they are cited. The book skillfully combines a wealth of Jewish sources with outstanding writing that is clear, cogent, and understandable. 

Perpetuating the MasorahBy Rabbi Yitzhak TwerskyEdited by Carmi Horowitz and David ShapiroMaggid188 pages; $22.95