Sunday, February 16, 2014

Are rabbis scientists or statesmen?

The Orthodox world has seen a number of disputes lately about a variety of issues - most but not all of them related to the role of women. One of the issues not directly related, but highly relevant to the outcome of these question is who gets to make decisions on halachic topics, and to some extent who even gets to have their voices listened to.

Rabbi Marc Angel, in his book The Search Committee: A Novel has a dialog between a traditional charedi rabbi and his supporters and a more Modern rabbi and his, when both are being interviewed for the role of Rosh Yeshiva of a fictional version of BMG. After the winner is chosen, the two candidates get to make final statements to the board. The charedi rabbi informs the board it was invalid from the start, the questions such as the selection of a Rosh Yeshiva are properly decided by traditional torah scholars. The role of lay people is to act as fundraisers only. They are not even entitled to offer advice. The charedi rabbi's final words were "You have no voice." The modern rabbi takes the opposite tack, saying that the lay members of the community are important stakeholders in the community and have an actual responsibility to speak up and offer guidance. His final words are "You have a voice."

Recently Rabbi Hershel Schachter published a missive that could have been written by that charedi rabbi. A Rabbi who was the principal of a school made a halachic decision for the members of that school. The decision was publicized and caused much controversy. Rabbi Schachter stated that the rabbi simply did not have the necessary stature to make halachic decisions for his own school community. Properly the rabbi should have contacted a greater authority (such as Rabbi Schachter himself) and abided by whatever that greater rabbi decided.

When I discuss this issue with my charedi friends, I often get told that questioning a great rabbi's decision is like questioning the decision of a great doctor or a great physicist. Why should any deference be paid to the opinions of someone with a college level knowledge of quantum mechanics in the face of the opinion of some Nobel prize winning physicist? Sometimes this gets into an interesting discussion of the role of the patient versus his doctor with respect to health care. Many people today will argue with their doctors regarding choice of treatment. The decision of whether to undergo chemotherapy for advanced cancer, where the treatments may only purchase an additional couple of months of pain filled life is surely not the sole purview of the doctor. (In addition to the patient's rabbi, I also think the patient has a voice.)

What I've come to realize is that some people see rabbis primarily as scientists or lawyers, who study the universe around them or the legal codes and come up with definitive definitions of the way things are or should be. But other people view them as statesmen(*), who are major players in drafting the way our society functions, but whose specialized knowledge is not so great as to make the opinion of the average person affected by their decisions irrelevant. A third view is that rabbis are members of the community who have influence based on their individual prestige, but that the community as the whole is the ultimate decisor. That may be true for practical purposes - no matter how influential the rabbi, views of his that are not adopted don't have force - at least not until they are adopted, sometime generations later. But that isn't how the system is supposed to work in most cases according to O understandings.

Do other people find this distinction more useful than the Daas Torah vs. local rabbinic authority dichotomy? Am I completely off base? Is there a third perspective?

(*) Originally I wrote politicians here, as I did in the title. But politician is a term that currently carries negative connotations. I think statesmen carries the connotations I want of expertise without inarguable authority. Political scientists might also do.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Cooking for the Generations

For parshat Toldot I traditionally make some kind of lentil dish, preferably using red lentils. This year I made Coconut Lentil soup. The curry powder made the soup turn green, but it was still delicious. Some other notes:

1) The soup was really thick - like a pottage or a thick pea soup rather than a broth.
2) I made it somewhat differently because of Shabbat - I made the main part Thursday night and then mixed in the coconut and 'milk' before heating it again for Shabbat.
3) Soy milk or even regular milk could be substituted for the coconut drink. I think actual coconut milk would be both too strong and too thick.

NGREDIENTS:
1 1/2 cups red lentils
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 inch piece fresh ginger root, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh shredded coconut
3/4 cup milk or milk substitute (I used Silk Coconut Milk)
1 tablespoon curry powder 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS:
1. Place the lentils and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Stir in onion, garlic, and ginger. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender.
2. Place the coconut and milk in a blender, and blend until smooth and thick. Stir into the lentil mixture. Season with curry and pepper. Continue cooking 10 to 15 minutes.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Truth is too good for mere humans

Divre Rmlby1:

While the seal of Hashem is truth, the seal of rabbanus(rabbinical authority) is sheker(lies). It comes in many forms. The sheker b'ahava(lies made out of love) of Aaron HaKohen, who lied to make peace between men and of Hillel, who said one dances before an ugly bride singing praises of her beauty. The Sheker B'Yira (lies based on awe/respect) of the Chatam Sofer, who said to preserve a rabbinic law it was permissible to say it was a biblical law, and of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who did just that with his rulings on Mechitza2. The sheker b'tzimtzum (lies of hiding, removal, omission) of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who said that when writing a psak where one rules based on kavod habriyot(human dignity), one should give a different reason, even a poor one, because the principle of kavod habriyot is so easily misused.

1. Reb Moshe Leib Ben Yaakov

2. This point is argued - there is no reported statement from RMF saying he was doing this.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Emunat Chachamim

Currently, one of my favorite blogs is Out of the Orthodox box. Ruchi Koval, the owner of the blog is a kiruv professional and an excellent one. She has created a site for interested non-observant Jews to learn about Orthodox Jews and their lives. A light but firm touch on moderation (all comments are previewed) keeps the conversation remarkably civil and informative.

As a traditionally observant Jew with a considerably different background and take on Orthodoxy than Ruchi, I often comment and try to provide other perspectives. I really appreciate the way Ruchi and the other posters (hi, sbw!) make me have to think seriously to clarify my perspectives.

One issue which seems to come up repeatedly is our attitudes towards the rabbis, both contemporary and classic. Ruchi asked me to explain my approach. Since this turned out to be a long post, I decided to post it on my blog and link it from hers. This post should be considered to be a work in progress - I retain the right to change it (at least in the comments) based on any feedback I get. With that out of the way:

Emunat Chachim - (trust in the sages). I view this principle as the reason Orthodox Jews more closely resemble Catholics than Protestants in their view of how to interpret scripture. Emunat Chachim is the idea that we trust the mesorah (transmitted tradition, mediated through the rabbis of the past) to tell us what the halacha and the Bible really mean, rather than personally reading the text and interpreting it. Thus. although the text of the Torah says we start counting the Omer on the day after Shabbat on Pesach, we start counting the day after the first day of Pesach itself, since the mesorah says that Shabbat in this case refers to the holiday itself. Similarly, we don't cook a kid in its mother's milk, despite the fact that the Hebrew letters without vowels present in the Torah text could also be read to be the word 'fat' rather than 'milk'.

In the Talmud, there is a story of how someone came to the Tanna Hillel and asked to be converted with the condition the convert would follow the written law, but not the oral law. Hillel started teaching him the first day by teaching him the aleph bet (Hebrew letters). The next day the student returned and Hillel began teaching him the aleph bet again, but this time he called the letters by different names. The student protested, and Hillel said "You have to rely on me even to know the letters, in the same way you have to rely on me about the Oral law.” I think we are all in the same place as that convert.

To me, emunat Chachim does not mean that Chazal were correct about everything they wrote in the Talmud that is not a matter of halacha . The sun does not pass through the dome of the sky at night before going either under the Earth or over the dome and passing back through the next day. The liver is not the seat of intellect. Snake do not habitually inject poison into open beverage containers at night. However, despite the fact that their understanding of the laws of nature was wrong in places, I completely accept their rulings as to at what time Shabbat begins and ends.

For contemporary rabbis the principal of emunat chachim is more limited. Rabbis contradict one another all the time, and there is no universally accepted court of last appeal. (I'm not sure if the following example falls more appropriately under emunat chachamim or daat torah.)

Imagine a local rabbi who knows me well. He is familiar with how I call myself 'mystically tone deaf'. He is aware of my aversion to Kabbalah and my opposition to segulot. Over the years we have discussed numerous halachic questions and I have accepted his guidance. We've discussed theological and philosophical questions as well, although he has never told me what I must believe. So I go to this rabbi and say “I'm having marital problems. I'm fighting with my wife all the time. What can I do to improve matters?” He asks questions, tells a few parables, and offers some suggestions. The last suggestion is “Pay careful attention when you fold your tallit after davening. Be sure to do so neatly.” In spite of the fact I think this is crazy, I would follow that suggestion, at least for a while.

On the other hand imagine the great anav (humble person) and ohavei yisrael (lover of Jews) the Fictionaler Rebbe said 'Any Jew who desires marital harmony should fold his tallis with especial care and kavanah.' Frankly, I'd probably say to myself 'Thanks Fictionaler, you're humble and loveable(*).' and ignore the whole thing. Even though he is far 'greater' than my local rabbi, he doesn't know me, I don't believe in segulot, and emunat chachamim does not require me to obey his instructions when I haven't asked him a question.

(*) This sort of light hearted reaction can be characterized as 'bizayon talmedei chachamim ' being disrespectful to Torah scholars. It can be considered a sin in its own right. I'm not yet at the point where I feel yirat (respect/fear/awe) talmedi chachamim requires me to turn off my sense of humor, even though I am a Yekke.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Posting on Pinchas

I was considering this morning the question of why Pinchas was specifically awarded entry into the kahuna (priesthood) for his action in killing Zimri and Cozbi. One thought that occurred to me was that while Hashem approved of his actions, there was concern that zealotry would become a habit. So he was placed in a position where that desire could be either sublimated or restrained. If he was to become fond of blood and violence, as a Cohen he would be slaughtering animals for the Mishkan (Tabernacle). If he wanted to inspire other people with his zealotry, as Cohen for war his responsibility was to speak to the army and assure them Hashem was with them. Also, as a Cohen he was forbidden contact with the dead. This might have been for his protection (against flashbacks, or other PTSD issues) or alternatively it might have been to serve as an additional reason for him to refrain from murder in the future. (I know that sounds ridiculous, to be willing to murder someone and refrain because it would make you ritually impure, but that strikes me as the sort of detail that has undue weight in the eyes of a fanatic.)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Pluralism and its limits in early Judaism

This past weekend was the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts annual Unity Shabbaton. One of the scholars-in-residence talked about his idea that many of the discussions in Mishna Eduyyot are trying to deal with the aftermath of zealotry on the Jewish community of the second century. Eduyyot consists entirely of rulings on a wide variety of topics where the source of those rulings is 'thus and so directly learned the tradition from Great Rabbi X'. Some historians think it was the first part of the Mishna written down.

The Mishna whose interpretation I found problematic (In Eduyyot 4:8) discusses how Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai had a number of differences of opinion which impacted personal status and ritual purity. These differences were consequential. It mean that there were people who Beit Hillel thought could marry a Cohen, or even marry a regular Jew, who Beit Shammai thought were ineligible and vice versa. The dispute also extended to whether certain utensils were ritually pure or not. Widespread disagreement on this could have theoretically meant that members of Beit Hillel could not have eaten in the houses of followers of Beit Shammai and vice versa.

However, the Mishna concludes "And although these pronounce unfit and these pronounce fit, Beth Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from [the daughters of] Beth Hillel, nor did Beth Hillel refrain from marrying women from [the daughters of] Beth Shammai." (and similarly reagarding utensils).

When I learned this, what I was taught it meant was that if a member of Beit Hillel wanted to marry a daughter of Beit Shammai, he might be told "Although Beit Shammai holds that this woman is fit to marry, by the rules of Beit Hillel she is not." and vice versa. The teacher told me this was the view of the medieval rabbi Ovadiah Mibartenura.

The teacher's view, which I have previously seen ascribed to Judith Hauptman (Masoret Magazine v7n3), is that this meant that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai each accepted the other's definition. Thus if my daughter is acceptable for marriage according to Beit Hillel, a man from Beit Shammai would be willing to marry her.

I have a very hard time accepting this interpretation. There are two ways to look at it, and for each I will provide a source for refuting it. One interpretation is that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai each said "Well, we'll accept the other's ruling." This obviously doesn't work. Now the man from Beit Shammai would say "I will marry you since you are acceptable according to Beit Hillel, but the daughter of Beit Hillel would say 'but I must refuse because I am forbidden to you according to the rules of Beit Shammai." This provides no gain in what is actually permitted and has the further problem that each person think their own decision is the wrong one. This scenario makes me think of the saying in Pirke Avot "One who says - What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine - this is an ignorant man."

The other interpretation is that if either Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai ruled that a woman was fit for marriage then both groups accepted the ruling. But in the Talmud (Chullin 43b - 44a) the Gemara quotes a Beraisa that states, "One who follows the lenient rulings of Beis Shamai and the lenient rulings of Beis Hillel is a Rasha. One who follows the stringent rulings of Beis Shamai and the stringent rulings of Beis Hillel -- of him the verse says, 'The fool walks in darkness' (Koheles 2:14). Rather, one must follow either Beis Shamai consistently, both his lenient and stringent rulings, or Beis Hillel consistently, both his lenient and stringent rulings."

This conflict has consequences in the present as well. The overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews will not accept the validity of the overwhelming majority of conversion conducted under Conservative Jewish auspices. I know people who reason as follows "I follow the halacha as understood by the Conservative movement. By these rules my conversion is valid and I am a Jew. Therefore, when I enter an Orthodox synagogue I can simply tell them I am Jewish, and be counted towards the minyan, lead services if asked, etc." To me, the Mishna in Eduyyot should cause these people to say "Even though I am a Jew according to my rabbis, I am not according to yours and therefore you should not count me towards the minyan."

UPDATE: Rabbi Hauptman's article can be found on the Internet Archive

UPDATE 2: Reading other people's commentary on the article, Meredith Warshaw brings out the point that while a member of Beit Hillel would not marry a woman of Beit Shammai who was prohibited according to BH's understanding, he would marry a woman of Beit Shammai who had no obvious defect. This isn't inevitable - one could imagine someone saying 'Perhaps 4 generations ago this woman's ancestor was a mamzer according to me, but not according to Beit Shammai. How can I take the risk?'

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Selling Bliot

Bliot were described by the person who taught me the laws of kashrut as 'massless particle of taste that nevertheless have volume'. When (for example) you heat milk in a pot, even after you pour the milk out and wash the pot some bliot of milk remain,

I get into an argument each year with my rabbi when I cross off the line about selling the bliot in my pots. The argument point and counterpoint goes:

P) I couldn't deliver the bliot to him even if he wanted them.
C) If he wanted the bliot, he could just boil some water in the pot and he'd get some. If he kashered the pot and somehow kept all the water involved he'd get all of them.

P) Nobody wants the bliot anyway - it isn't anything useful.
C) A manufacturer can package something you want and something you don't want together and your choices are to buy both or neither - you don't get to split the products up.

P) Schmutz is not chametz, and bliot are even less than schmutz.
C) Jews love to be machmir on pesach - it is the custom to be stringent where possible.