Thursday, September 15, 2005

An encounter with Prof. Saul Lieberman

Came across an interesting thing on pg. 28 of The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff and Joseph Epstein, a speech delivered by R. Soleveitchik to the RCA in 1974:
I remind myself, I had an encounter quite a number of years ago with a representative of the so-called Hokhmat Yisrael [Wissenschaft des Judentums]. He was a very outstanding scholar. (At this point, a footnote tells us that "the scholar whom the Rav was referring to was Professor Saul Lieberman (1898-1983) of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The Rav and Professor Lieberman, who were related by marriage, met at a brit milah. Professor Lieberman was married to Judith Berlin, the granddaughter of the Netziv.") He told me that lately they had discovered a parchment, a megillah, in which it was stated unequivocally that a kohen is enjoined from defiling himself with a sheretz*.

So I said to him: "Do you take it seriously?"

"Of course," he answered, "very seriously." You know, they [the devotees of Hokhmat Yisrael] have the answer right away. It is a different kabbalah, a different tradition. They operate with "traditions" in the plural.

So I mentioned a name to him. The name was known to him, and I knew that he did not like the person. I asked him: "Do you know him?"

"Yes," he answered.

"Is he a scholar?" I asked.

"No, he is a boor and an am ha-aretz mide-oraita," he answered.

I said to him: "So only we have a monopoly on boors and amei ha-aretz mideo-oraita? Fifteen hundred years ago there were also boors and amei ha-aretz. Since there was no paper, the boor had to write on parchment. So you found a nice hiddushei Torah, so what!"
*The halakhah is that a kohen is permitted to have contact with a sheretz.

Paranthetically, I wish I knew more about Prof. Lieberman. Of those who know, is it fair to say that if he'd chosen to become a rebbe in a traditional yeshiva environment (if I am not mistaken, he considered teaching at Chaim Berlin) that ultimately he'd have been considered in the yeshiva world another one of those idiosyncratic rabbis like R. Chaim Heller (he of the Peshitta obsession)? Or is that impossible? I've read his classic "...In Jewish Palestine" books.


  1. Who says this is R' Lieberman? WR' Rakeffet just made that up? Whole thing makes no sense.

    What is this even supposed to mean:

    "You know, they [the devotees of Hokhmat Yisrael] have the answer right away. It is a different kabbalah, a different tradition. They operate with "traditions" in the plural."

    And what's "an am ha-aretz mide-oraita?" (Not to get hung up on the ridiculous use of Israeli pronunciation is quoting a conversation between two European Jews.) The only time I;ve heard it is mocking an am-haarets kharedi for the kinds of nonsensical things he might say (like glatt pizza).

    This whole thing is beneath R' Rakeffet to, who usually knows whereof he speaks (I think!--now I question that).

  2. @daized79 - Rabbi Rakeffet records the story in his book "The Rav". In a footnote, he mentions that the scholar is Rabbi. Prof. Lieberman. Based on my limited knowledge of R. Lieberman, it seems as though the "boor" that he refers to is the subject of his "A tragedy or a Comedy".



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