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.


Anonymous said...

Ah. So light moderation here as well :) Thanks for your very kind words and especially for your thoughtful response. I am in line with your way of thinking in all areas except for Chazal. I believe there is eternal truth in everything Chazal had to say - sometimes it's literal, and sometimes allegorical. Since I am NOT a Talmud scholar, I probably can't elaborate much. I did do some Midrash study with the commentary of the Maharal and found it amazingly elucidating in this regard.

As far as segulos, in my rather "right-wing" seminary (BJJ) we were discouraged from latching onto segulos and were told rather strongly that aside from hishtadlus (normal effort in the physical world) the best "segulah" is prayer and good deeds.

Should be working said...

Hi! Thanks for giving me the link!

Are ignoramus questions ok on this blog or do you prefer higher-level dialogue?

Larry: (I'm not sure if the following example falls more appropriately under emunat chachamim or daat torah.)

Me: What is the difference? And Chazal is a singular name referring to the plural sages? Of the Talmud? I could go look this up myself, of course, but you may have a particular interp in mind that I should know. And I am sometimes lazy.

Larger question: So then you submit to Torah but not necessarily to Chazal, and how do you judge the difference? Is it by way of the Rabbi you trust?

What's the difference?

zach said...

Fix the link. It is outoftheorthobox, not outoftheorthodoxbox

Larry Lennhoff said...

When we studied the part of the Rambam that contains prohibition about drink beverages that had been left uncovered overnight, I suggested to a rabbi that perhaps that was meant allegorically. I tried to come up with a mashal (allegory) equating the Torah to water and the snake to outside influences.

The rabbi told me to look at the passage in context. Rambam was listing actions that the Talmud was prohibiting certain actions because they posed a threat to peoples health or safety. He asked "Do you think they meant the danger of putting coins that had been dropped on the floor in your mouth allegorically? You can't just say 'well, they meant the things that made sense literally, and the things that don't allegorically'. If you do, you're substituting what you believe for what they believed."

Rabbi Slifkin talks about the fact that the idea that the sun passes through the sky was taken literally by Jewish commentators until the time that 'common knowledge' was that that wasn't the case. The Maharal lived around that time too.

Larry Lennhoff said...


1) Yes, chazal generally refers to the Tanaim (Mishnaic era rabbis) and Amoraim (Gemara era rabbis) whose works collectively make up the Talmud.

2) The fact that the border between trust in the wise ones (emunat chachamim) and deep knowledge of torah (daat torah) is unclear is why I said I wasn't sure which category my example fell under.

3) I submit to Chazal's mastery of halacha, but not to their opinions about the nature of the physical world. There is an important question about what to do when they seem to have made halachic rulings based on their knowledge. For example, while killing flies or bees on Shabbat is prohibited it under ordinary conditions it is permitted to routinely kill lice, because the rabbis of the Talmud said lice spontaneously generated from rotting meat and so they didn't count as 'alive' for purposes of the prohibition. So what do we today:
1) Prohibit killing lice on Shabbat, because Chazal's reasoning was incorrect.

2) Permit it because we abide by the halacha even though the given reason is invalid. Since what we have is the written down version of an oral tradition, we cannot assume that the reason given is the only reason, so the ruling should be presumed to be valid even though the ruling isn't.

3) Permit it because when Chazal said lice spontaneously generated, they didn't mean that literally. Rather, since the eggs of lice are too small to be seen, we say that lice are treated as if they spontaneously generated. This also helps explain why there is no problem with killing bacteria on Shabbat. now that we know they exist. What can't be seen has no halachic existence.

4) Prohibit it because lice actually spontaneously generate, no matter what the scientists claim.

5) Prohibit it because even though lice spontaneously generated during the time of Chazal, they don't any more. Since nature has changed, the rulings must change to match.

So how would you rule?

Larry Lennhoff said...

Done Zach. Thanks for pointing that out.

Anonymous said...

Larry, other than lice and the sun, are there many other examples that these are just representational of?

Anonymous said...

Larry, are the lice and sun examples representational of many other such examples? Or are these basically it?

Larry Lennhoff said...

I assume you are talking about conflicts between chazal's knowledge of nature and our contemporary knowledge.

Lice and solar motion are examples of the conflict. Some other topics - female anatomy as described in tractate Niddah is wrong (not surprising in a culture which forbids autopsies), the kidneys are regarded as the seat of the intellect, gestation periods for many animals are off by factors of 3 or more.

This is in addition to places where I have more difficulty with the text than you might - the lectures about the nature and habits of demons, the prohibition against drinking an even number of cups of beverages, etc.

Lost and Found said...

May I contend that there is no way that you could know if the liver is the seat of intellect? What does that even mean?

Do we live in the time that this was written that you can aver that snakes do not habitually inject poison into open beverage containers at night? By the way, my memory (which is far from perfect) tells me that the halacha applies both during the night and the day.

I agree that emunas chachamim in today's times is difficult to wrap one's head around. To begin with, you have to answer for yourself which sect of Judaism you subscribe to. Then, to complicate matters, there are variations of that sect within the sect. Baffling, to say the least.

I'm not sure I understand your point with regards to the emunas chachamim of old. Have you decided on your own what to 'believe' the chachamim on? Halacha yes, other matters no?