Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How not to ask a shaila

Names and some identifying circumstances changed to avoid lashon hara.

One of the skills my wife and I teach in our mentoring of BTs and converts is how to ask a rabbi a question. Here's an excellent example of how not to do so, based on a real life experience.

A pre-convert had been told by his rabbi to read the kitzur shulchan aruch (a big mistake, IMHO, but that is another essay) and when he was done come back and they'd talk about it. In one of the sections on Shabbat he came across a section that claimed it was forbidden to violate Shabbat in order to save the life of a non-Jew, unless failing to do so would arouse hatred against Jews. Of course, this is a legal loophole - at least until Messiah comes it will always be the case that failing to do so would arouse hatred against Jews.

Anyway, our pre-convert was upset by this. He was understandably unhappy with the notion that he might be obligated to stand by and watch his birth parents die if the only way to save them was to violate shabbat. He went to his rabbi on Friday night, immediately after services, and when his turn came to shake the Rabbi's hand and wish him good Shabbas, he asked 'Do people really follow everything that is in the Kitzur?' The Rabbi, mindful of the long line of people waiting, his wife and dinner waiting for him at home, and the sheer vagueness of the question, replied 'Of course they do'.

Undoubtedly a small amount of the fault for the wrong information conveyed in this story falls to the Rabbi. But much more falls to the questioner. He asked the wrong question, in the wrong circumstances, and then did not follow up when the answer seemed to make no sense.

10 comments:

SephardiLady said...

Oy! With advice like read the kitzur, I wonder if the Rabbi is just uninterested in dealing with converts. If so, just refer him/her elsewhere.

Plus, I'm not sure BT's or others, can be expected to know how to ask a sheila so early on. So, it is best for learners to work with someone who can guide them in this area.

Charlie Hall said...

Nice blog. I look forward to more posts.

I was told to read the Kitzur as I was becoming frum. And I was also told by the same rabbi NOT to use it as a halachic authority, because it only represents the halachic opinions that were followed in that time and place. (I've since found one ruling in the Kitzur that contradicts an explicit halachic decision in the gemara.)

Indeed I was warned regarding *all* halachah books that they represent the opinion of the author at the time and place of the writing. Instead, I was told to find out what the halachic rulings and customs were in my own community, and follow them.

ADDeRabbi said...

unfortunately, there's no 'kitzur' on the 5th chelek of shulchan arukh = common sense. this rav would have failed his bechina.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

While the Kitzur is most useful I am continually dismayed at how it is misperceived as synonymous with halakhah, not to mention how often it seems to be recommended to baalei teshuva.

R. Soloveitchik said something important about the midrash that Chava was pushed against the etz ha-daas and thereby shown that she didn't die, even after being warned by the Adam that she would by touching it. He said that this underscores the importance of understanding the mechanics of halakhah, rather than unthinking devotion to it, which leads to all sorts of errors.

Naturally beginner's cannot be faulted for not knowing the mechanics of halakhah. All the more reason not to allow major misperceptions to form by presenting something like the Kitzur to them as a practical guide.

I think it might be a worthwhile endeavor to write a guide to the Kitzur which illustrates the background of many of the "difficult" things in it, whether about the case Larry cited or some of the sexual content in it. This guide by accompany the Kitzur itself when being used as a practical guide (and no I do not mean a text which just says "ignore this ruling, ignore that ruling," but rather one which gets into the mechanics of halakhah)

The back of the hill said...

It is perhaps worthwhile to mention that the "rule" not to save a Goy on shabbes is falt-out contradicted in a number of different places in the Talmud. For a whole variety of reasons.

The Kitzer Shulchan Aruch suffers from the same environment that produced the Tanya. And evidences the same division of mankind into klipot with a spark of light versus klipot which are entirely shadow. A very Calvinist idea.

The back of the hill said...

Note: When I wrote 'falt-out', I meant 'flat-out'. My left and right hands often work at odds with each other.

pop said...

I find you too harsh on the pre convert. He obviously was not familiar with how to go about dealing with such issues. He was not familiar with such social situations. It is up to us to teach him. This situation had an easy remedy - just to ask to wait a few minutes and let the Rabbi talk to him for a few minutes afterwards.

There is a secondary issue. That is that there are many maamari chazal that are disparaging towards goyim. It’s not like the shitah quoted in the kitsur is some daas yochid. We need to admit that on many occasions the torah is not politically correct and places the goyim on a much lower level of importance.

One other thing – if something bothers anyone enough then they are going to hold up the line no matter how many people are waiting.

The back of the hill said...

He was understandably unhappy with the notion that he might be obligated to stand by and watch his birth parents die if the only way to save them was to violate shabbat.

Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land.... or something like that.

Plus 'justice, justice shall you pursue'.

And so forth.

Shammai might not save them. But Hillel would.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>There is a secondary issue. That is that there are many maamari chazal that are disparaging towards goyim. It’s not like the shitah quoted in the kitsur is some daas yochid. We need to admit that on many occasions the torah is not politically correct and places the goyim on a much lower level of importance.

We need to admit that this stream of thought and teaching exists, but also recognize that it is not exclusive.

Malka Esther said...

Interesting reading the comments on this after the discussion I'm having on my LJ on a related issue.

I really need to work on my guide for how to ask questions. I have a fairly good one for kosher kitchen "mistakes".

I think the first thing a rabbi should teach a convert is how to ask a question. Many converts come from backgrounds where questioning things is discouraged and where there is only a "party line" with no accommodation made for real-life situations that might not be the ideal.