Arguments over women dancing with a Sefer Torah on Simhat Torah are by no means new. I had one memorable exchange way back in 2002 when I was doing my…
Category: Jewish Law / Halakha
Compared to Judaism’s regular dietary laws, the rules for being Kosher for Passover are decidedly stricter. Not only is the punishment for consuming chametz the more severe karet (Ex. 12:15, 12:19), but the chametz is prohibited even in trace amounts (B. Pesachim 30a). Considering how strict the Jewish community is regarding keeping a kosher kitchen, it should not be surprising to find even more stringencies when it comes to the laws of Passover.
One problem we find with stringencies in Jewish Law is the tendency to confuse the additions with the actual to the point where being confronted with halakhic sources can be jarring to people who might not know any better. I wrote about one such example several years ago, and I recently came across another misconception common enough to be worthy of discussion.
Rabbi Jeffrey Fox recently published a teshuvah regarding the presence of the male Beit Din at the mikvah immersion of a female convert. My response came out to over 20…
Religious Jews often talk about halakhah, and by their self-identification will attempt to frame their practices within a halakhic framework, but few if any can offer a logically coherent or consistent system to describe how halakhah is supposed to work. For example, one of the recurring issues in the Jewish community is what are the rules of halakhic adaptation, how does Jewish Law change, and how do we determine which changes are legitimate or flawed.
This is a subject about which I have discussed extensively on this site and even devoted a 30 part series dedicated to describing The Halakhic Process. However, it appears that for many people on the internet it is too much trouble to listen to classes, consult primary sources necessary for an argument, read long posts with a critical eye towards comprehension, let alone suffer the inconvenience of having to substantiate their own opinions with any semblance of rigor. 1
Thus, as a quasi-public service, today I am going to illustrate fundamental differences in approaches to halakhah by actually providing illustrations.
Regular readers of halakhic literature will inevitably encounter appeals to “consensus,” either of a select sample of halakhic decisiors, frequently using the Hebrew idiom “rov poskim,” or of a community’s popular perceptions. 1 The distinguishing characteristic of these appeals to consensus is that the legitimacy or rejection of an opinion is not determined by intrinsic, objective, qualifiable criteria or its merits, but by its adoption by certain people. 2 The primary premise of such arguments is that unanimity or a plurality of agreement among a given collective is halakhically binding on the Jewish population 3 and cannot be further contested or subject to review. 4
Appeals to consensus are common and relatively simply to assert, but those who rely on consensus rarely if ever acknowledge, address, or defend, the assumptions inherent with the invoking of consensus as a source – if not the determinant – of practical Jewish law. As I will demonstrate, appeals to consensus are laden with problematic logical and halakhic assumptions such that while “consensus” may constitute one factor in determining a specific psak, it is not nearly the definitive halakhic criterion its proponents would like to believe.
- While in this essay I am focusing on halakhah, similar appeals to consensus are found in discussions of Jewish thought, in particular regarding the status of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. ↩
- In Brisker terms, this would be a distinction between the “heftza” of a position’s content versus the “gavra” of those who accept it. ↩
- This is not to be confused with the use of consensus as a form of colloquial rhetorical flourish. For example, The Talmud records hundreds of claims of “kulei ‘alma,” literally meaning “the whole world” agrees to a particular position. Given the certitude that one can produce a single lone dissenter on the planet to falsify this claim, it seems reasonable to assume that Talmudic sages were conscious of their hyperbole. But even in the Talmudic vernacular, an appeal to “kulei ‘alma” was most often employed to define a point of agreement between specific parties in order to better understand the true point of halakhic contention. See B. Berachot 23a for just one example. These appeals to “the whole world” are not the basis of a halakhic argument – which must be defended on its merits – but instead are descriptive of a certain context, albeit exaggerated, with the intent of advancing a specific point in the discussion. ↩
- Alternative or contradictory opinions may be suggested, but only with the caveat they remain theoretical and are not to be implemented in practice. ↩
My recent post Women, Tefillin, and the Rise of the Rav seems to have struck a nerve in the Orthodox community. By far, it has elicited the greatest response, and divisiveness, than anything else I have written to this point. For those who have not been following, a quick recap is in order. In response to R. Tully Harcsztark recent decision permitting two female students to wear tefillin during school services, R. Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University wrote a scathing critique not only of the decision itself, but of how it was made, equating intellectual independence with Korach’s rebellion. My own response to R. Schachter linked above elicited extreme contrasting reactions. As to be expected with any controversy, there is bound to be some degree of partisanship with people being predisposed towards one side or another.
The astute reader noticed that while the subject of women wearing tefillin was the impetus, my main point dealt with the broader question of rabbinic authority, and it was this issue which prompted the most passionate responses. In particular, many readers took specific exception to my tone, which was characterized in various forms of “flippant,” “disrespectful,” or simply not deferential enough in that I treated R. Schachter as a peer rather than a superior. Many others had no such objections to my tone and found well within the bounds of propriety. 1 In truth, the question of “respect” and how a Torah scholar ought to communicate was, in my opinion, a distraction from the more central question of authentic Rabbinic authority. After all, if one’s status as a Torah scholar is measured by the tone of one’s discourse, then it would seem that R. Schachter would have crossed that line in his initial letter. 2 My critics contended that my post and R. Schachter’s letter are not valid subjects for equal comparison because the authors of these respective writings are not of the same “stature.” The argument may be summarized that as a more prominent rabbinic authority, R. Schachter is not only unconstrained by the rules or halakhot of proper discourse, but he is beyond reproach and not subject to any form of criticism by lesser rabbis. According to this perception of Jewish law, there are different rules for different roles. 3 Furthermore, some argued that by not giving proper deference to R. Schachter, I was essentially challenging the entire chain of Jewish halakhot tradition, very similar to the argument of R. Schachter himself.
But herein lies the point of contention; I have received a very different tradition than what is currently disseminated in the Orthodox world. While I attended and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, but I do not count R. Schachter among my primary teachers nor would most of my teachers consider themselves followers of his tradition. In fact, the three Rabbis from whom I have learned the most, my father, his teacher Haham Yosef Faur, and R. Moshe Tendler, have all been vocal critics of R. Schachter at one point or another. The latter two I even cited in my earlier post since both differentiated between the positions of Rav and Rosh Yeshiva. While I have previously addressed the logical flaws in appealing to a “gadol’s” authority, today I wish to demonstrate how, despite any assumptions to the contrary, I have been following the tradition of my own teachers.
- One Rabbi (not my father) actually thought I was too respectful. ↩
- Assuming he had not done so long ago. ↩
- I resisted the temptation to respond to certain individuals by arguing that according to this logic, no non-rabbi would have any right to argue with me on the grounds that my having rabbinic ordination would make me superior to all those who do not. While this argument is logically sound, it would have been impossible for me to make without giving the pretense of pretentiousness. There are limits to the extent that I argue with others on their terms. ↩
It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” (Deut. 30:12-13)
My previous post publicized a recent letter (PDF) authored by Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University. At the time of posting I did not have time for a thorough analysis, but several people took offense at my initial glib reactions on social media, calling it various forms of “disrespectful” or “not nice.” While I found these responses to be somewhat ironic given that R. Schachter himself used his letter to delegitimize those with whom he disagrees by comparing them to Korach and stating that they violate yehareg ve’al ya’avor, the rebuke is nevertheless well taken. Given his perceived stature in the Orthodox community, R. Schachter’s letter deserves a thorough analysis, as I’ve done before regarding his approach to Jewish law, especially as it pertains to the imposition of select religious authority.
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