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.