Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Letter to an Imaginary Friend 1

Dear Ploni

I want to thank you for the wide ranging discussions we have been having on women and Orthodoxy. It is good to know two people can passionately disagree and yet retain respect for one another, at least as long as one of them is imaginary.

I was thinking about the argument you made about women taking on optional time bound mitzvot. You suggested it was inappropriate for women who were not yet fully proficient in all the mitzvot they were obligated in. It would be better for their spiritual lives to strengthen their Shabbat observance or take on extra chumrot in kashrut.

I wondered about how this would apply to my own life. I did a chesbon hanefesh to see where my practice was deficient. Presently, I do not daven mincha b'tzibur very often on weekdays, and if I totaled up all my tzedakah it might not reach the required minimum for tzedakah plus ma'aser. So I considered what optional practices I should give up until I corrected these flaws.

Some renunciations would have benefits that fall directly to the bottom line, as it were. By giving up chalav yisrael, pat yisrael, yoshon, and chassidishe and beit yossef glatt shechita I can take my monetary savings and reallocate them to tzedakah. I can't take the time savings from the reduced travel and apply them against mincha, but there is still a clear benefit to renouncing these practices.

I'm less sure of the benefits of smaller practices. For example, it is my custom to read the '6 remembrances' after shacharit. Following the general rule, since this is in no way obligatory I should drop it, even though I don't see it helping me correct my deficiencies. Similarly dropping my custom to leave my tallit in shul until motzei Shabbat seems to have no real benefit. What about peripheral examples of Talmud Torah, such as mussar, kabala or physics? Should I forgo those as well?

It seems to me a better rule is to drop those optional practices that interfere in keeping required ones, although even then I would say that if dropping them doesn't actually result in improved performance of the required mitzvot the situation should be re-evaluated. After all, the performance of an optional mitzvah is still a mitzvah.

Another interesting point you made was that halacha appears to designate separate roles for men and women. You suggested that by systematically searching out the leniencies available people were giving the impression that they disagreed with the underlying assumption of the halacha. You suggested such people might be 'naval b'reshut haTorah' - immoral within the bounds of the Torah.

Once again, I applied the test of applying the general principle to my own life. What things would give the appearance of defying an underlying principle of halacha while simultaneously remaining within its bounds?

One obvious thing (that my wife suggested) was the consumption of kosher l'pesach foodstuffs such as pizza, tacos, cakes, and so forth. While they may use potato starch or other acceptable chametz substitutes, they subvert the goal of having the lack of chametz for this one week impact our lives. Another example is the heter iska. While once again the legal device is perfectly sound, the fact remains we are subverting the Torah's desire for us not to give nor receive interest, despite the fact that legally the money we receive is nothing of the sort. A third, extreme example is the use of community eruvin. Admittedly Chazal legislated both the prohibition on carrying in a carmelit and the exemption to that prohibition, but it seems clear that our implementation of the laws today basically allow us to almost completely ignore the prohibition on carrying.

I'd be interested in feedback from you or other interested observers.

5 comments:

dilbert said...

A number of interesting observations and points of discussion.

1. The issue of navel b'rishut ha'Torah, and what is the 'ultimate goal' of the Torah. What are we accomplishing by using technicalities to 'get around' issurim?

The Torah(Oral and Written together) consists of specific laws, and general concepts. However, the general concepts have halachic weight. Keeping Shabbat has a spirit and a letter to it. The letter of the law- carrying, eruvim, etc. needs to be kept, but so does the spiritual. Using an eruv so that your wife can come to shul with the baby carriage, and daven, or so everyone can go to a kiddush is an action that fits with both the letter and spirit of the law. Using the eruv for a game of tennis among adults may fit within the letter of the law, but not the spirit, and that is just as important. That is not to say that the details of the law are less important, but that the spirit and telos are equally important.

I see absolutely no problem with pizza mix's, taco's, etc on pesach. There is no obligation if innui nefesh with regard to food. On the contrary, it is a chag with an obligation of simchat chag. I see the chametz ban as a technical one, with no significant spiritual overtones(in contradistinction with Shabbat).

For any mitzvah, one must try to see what the telos of the mitzvah is, and then you can have a much better idea if the technical 'outs' are spiritually valid or not.

Also, there is the concept of v'chai bahem, and ain gozrim gezera sh'hatzibbur lo yachol la'amod bo. A recognition that the halacha is not supposed to be an overwhelming burden, and so if there is a technical 'out', maybe Hashem has it there for a reason. This obviously is the thinking behind heter iska.

2. gender defined roles- Obviously there are different roles and obligations for each gender. However, it is impossible to look at the history of psak in this regard and not see that societal milieu has had a significant effect on piskei halacha, and halacha l'maase. Certain halachic red lines are present, but a lot depends on interpretation within halacha. Using 'technicalities' to expand women's opportunities does satisfy some 'meta-halachic' values(see R. Sperber's article in the Edah journal and R. Korn's article in Tradition a few years ago regarding tzelem Elokim). Therefore, it seems to be a legitimate use of 'technicalities,' as it accomplishes a spiritual goal. In contradistinction to say, using heter meah rabbanim to allow someone to avoid divorce problems, or using technicalities to declare kosher some problematic scotch.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Thanks for some interesting comments, and delivered in a wonderfully clear and calm presentation.

I see absolutely no problem with pizza mix's, taco's, etc on pesach. There is no obligation if innui nefesh with regard to food. On the contrary, it is a chag with an obligation of simchat chag. I see the chametz ban as a technical one, with no significant spiritual overtones(in contradistinction with Shabbat).

I guess to me there are spiritual overtones in abstaining from chametz, or why did we work so very hard to clean it from our houses? I think eating tacos and pizza on the chag detract from my simchat chag by making it seem more like an ordinary day. YMMV - I'm not proposing forbidding these products generally, I just think they are a bad thing for me personally to consume.

This raises another point - when you start giving weight to the spirit of the law, who decides what that spirit is? You and I obviously come to different conclusions regarding what is in the spirit of pesach.

Were this another blog we would each go and muster tanaaim, rishonim, and acharonim who shared our personal tastes and cite them for support - or if you prefer, to show that our beliefs are within the mesorah. But I'm going to skip that part, although you are welcome and indeed invited to do so - I can always stand to learn more.

Anonymous said...

>This raises another point - when you start giving weight to the spirit of the law, who decides what that spirit is? You and I obviously come to different conclusions regarding what is in the spirit of pesach.

That is exactly right. I believe that many Mitzvot don't have a reason given to them in the Torah, to allow each one of us to adapt the Mitzvah to his personal need whether to improve self control, reduce greed and apetite or an opportunity to serve God. The same applies to the minute details of how a mitzvah is performed. Some get something out of being machmir others find satisfaction in the spirit rather then the minutea of the act. Talking about pessach Hametz and Matzah are zecher the fast exodus. See how later generations have turned it into Biur Hametz as Yetzer Hara or other such explanation. The reason in turn impacts how strong the Chumra should be. I think that this is as it should be - each one use the Mitzvah to address a personal need.

Unfortunately many of us don't understand that and that is the root of intolerance in our community.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Wow. I've never been able to come up with a good response to the "optional/mandatory" objection. You've gone and done it great!

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking blog. Check out mine on Jewish history sometime. Regards.