Friday, February 28, 2014

Doing What's Right or Doing What You're Told?

These and these are the words of the living God.   
Within that short epigram is a deceptively simple explanation for the idea of machloket.  That is, how is it that from the time Jews began codifying their laws, there was almost never an unanimous consensus on what the law is.  Famously, Hillel and Shammai.  The idea is that at Sinai, Moses was given two laws; the literal law and the oral law.  But over time the oral law got muddled.  Plus, as local traditions made their way in, individuality became inevitable.

And so, how can both Hillel and Shammai be right?  It seems almost paradoxical.  So instead of figuring out which one is right or wrong, the sages speak of which one we follow.  In fact, it is even said that at Sinai, Moses was given all of those opinions.  Which makes little sense.  After all, did Moses not review the entire law with the Israelites before he died?  And they understood everything.  If he was indeed given the entire corpus of the Talmud, it would take him more time than plausible to complete all of it. 

And so, to a certain extent, individual opinions ARE respected even to this day.  Over the years, the rabbis have come up with some pretty ingenious interpretations of the law.  Based on the existing precedent--the Torah, the Talmud, the works of earlier rabbis (Rishonim), the casuistry of the later rabbis (Achronim), etc, they try to figure out what individuals should do.  And if done properly, it is not a cut-and-dry process.  It is quite dynamic!  When reading through the responsa of the great rabbis, one finds that many of the more erudite ones would take into account who was asking the question, the repercussions of each opinion, and even modern understanding of the issues. 

However, there are exceptions.  Most famously, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Modern Orthodoxy.  Plenty of hard-line right wing Jews look with extreme contempt of the liberties they are willing to take with halacha.  And then when you point out that from the time of the second temple (perhaps earlier), rabbis have changed traditions, they start splitting hairs on why what they did was acceptable.

I am reminded of Chaim Potok's The Promise.  The protagonist, Reuven Malter, is studying for his rabbinic ordination.  He is in a school that is very loosely based on Yeshiva University.  Now Reuven's father is a bigshot in a school loosely based on the JTS.  As a result, Malter's method of learning is one that's not approved by tradition.  Now Malter is a bright student and able to keep up with his rabbis.  But not all approve of him.  The highest level shiur is taught by one Rabbi Gershonsen, holocaust survivor with a chip on his shoulder.  He has neither the patience nor the will to indulge Malter.  So Malter asks to transfer into a lower level shiur, one where the Rabbi is more indulgent.

In the end, Malter is taking his ordination exam.  One of the stages is a faher, where he sits in front of three rabbis and is grilled by them.  One of them was Rabbi Gershonsen.  Of course, Rabbi Gershonsen tried to trap Malter.  He presented Malter with a very difficult to understand piece of Talmud, one that makes no sense as it is worded.  He asked Malter how to interpret it.  True to form, Malter does what his father would do and assumes that due to a scribal error, the wording was a mistake and opted to change the wording.  When the Rabbi asked him on what authority he tweaked the words of the Talmud, he quipped back that many Rabbis, from the Tosafists to the Vilna Ga'on did it all the time.  But of course, Gershonsen argued back that there was a difference: when the Tosafists and the Vilna Ga'on did it, they had a text that supported their changed wording...

In the end, Gershonsen actually showed a side of himself that was slightly open-minded.  He agreed to give Malter ordination even though he disagrees with his methodology.  But he did warn Malter that when he gets out there in the world and applies his methodology, Rabbi Gershonsen will vehemently be a thorn in his side.  But at least Gershonsen was willing to ordain Malter.

In recent news, there was word that Yeshiva University was possibly withholding ordination from a student who completed his program of study but was being a bit too brazen for their palates.  He decided to throw a "partnership minyan" in his house, one where a woman is allowed an Aliyah to the torah and then to bentsch gomel.  Because of this one incident, he was no longer welcome in the minyan he usually prayed in, so he started his own private minyan.  He then received a letter from YU asking him, on one foot, if he can agree that when it comes to issues like that he is willing to consult with his superiors first.

But this leads to a problem.  Once you ordain a man, does that not confer upon him the right to decide the law?  Does not the process of ordination mean you think this man is ready to responsibly do his job without needing to consult with his superiors?  And if not, does it not undermine the entire process?

It is irresponsible to assume that the Word is Dead.  After all, if one assumes that there is a living God, then shouldn't one treat his words as the same?  In our ever changing world, there is no room for stagnation.  After all, the people who wrote the sources (Torah and Talmud) were mostly a pastoral society.  Over the years, times have changed.  Still, the Talmud uses plenty of agricultural references because that is what the common people understood back then. So as Jews moved to towns and cities and got into more professions, things had to change.

And so, why the backlash against those who take such drastic steps against tradition?  Why feel so threatened when one comes along and decides to take liberties?  Sure, we are a stiff-necked people.  But it is by being flexible that our people have survived.  Through persecutions we have moved from place to place.  We had to be able to adapt to our new societies.   Why not adapt to the changing times now?

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