Category Archives: Special Features

Collection of special posts and series

The Conceits of “Consensus” in Halakhic Rhetoric

Introduction

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.
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Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. In Brisker terms, this would be a distinction between the “heftza” of a position’s content versus the “gavra” of those who accept it.
  3. 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.
  4. Alternative or contradictory opinions may be suggested, but only with the caveat they remain theoretical and are not to be implemented in practice.
Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary. Tagged with , , , , , .

The Halakhic Process – Complete Class / Podcast Series

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialOver the past year and a half I have had fortuitous opportunity to dedicate my Sunday class towards explaining the halakhic process, or to put it more bluntly, how Jewish law works. My intent was to explain not only my own system but to critically analyze the logic, assumptions, and presumptions often made in halakhic arguments. While these classes may be listened to individually, as a unit they explore in great detail the various narratives of authority and their respective justifications.

It is with great thanks to The Stanton Street Shul and all those who attended in person and for whom it is I primarily teach, that I now present links to all previous audio and sources in one convenient post. Note that some classes were previously given as part of another series. I included links to those lectures as opposed to rerecording a repeated class.

Enjoy!
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Posted in The Halakhic Process, YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary.

The Meaning of “Bashert” in Rabbinic Judaism and its Implications

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialIntroduction 1

In colloquial Jewish vernacular, the description “bashert” essentially means “from God” or the consequence of divine intervention. When someone refers to an event as “bashert,” he is asserting that the invisible Hand of God was intimately involved in its fruition. This is usually due to the improbably circumstances surrounding the event, or its heretofore unappreciated fortuitous outcome. Bashert is perhaps most used in the context of dating and marriage, where the divine intervention refers to the finding, or even the preordained selection, of one’s spouse. Thus the word “bashert” has become synonymous with “soul mate,” the person whom one was divinely ordained to marry.

The primary source for the Jewish idea of a soul mate is the statement by R. Yehuda in the name of Rav in B. Sotah 2a:

א”ר שמואל בר רב יצחק: כי הוה פתח ריש לקיש בסוטה, אמר הכי: אין מזווגין לו לאדם אשה אלא לפי מעשיו, שנא’: +תהלים קכה+ כי לא ינוח שבט הרשע על גורל הצדיקים. אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר’ יוחנן: וקשין לזווגן כקריעת ים סוף, שנאמר: +תהלים סח+ אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה מוציא אסירים בכושרות. איני? והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: ארבעים יום קודם יצירת הולד, בת קול יוצאת ואומרת: בת פלוני לפלוני בית פלוני לפלוני שדה פלוני לפלוני! לא קשיא: הא בזוג ראשון, הא בזוג שני.

R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: When Resh Lakish began to expound [the subject of] Sotah, he spoke thus: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds; as it is said: For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Ps. 125:3). Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: It is as difficult to pair them as was the division of the Red Sea; as it is said: God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity (Ps. 68:7)! But it is not so; Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: Forty days before the formation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, The daughter of this person is for that person; the house of this person is for that person; the field of this person is for that person! — There is no contradiction, the latter dictum referring to a first marriage and the former to a second marriage.[Emphasis added]

Although the idea of divinely matched soul mate is certainly romantic, it does pose significant theological problems especially in the aftermath of divorce or abusive relationships. Perhaps the most significant theological challenge to the preordained bashert is the denial of one’s free will. In fact this definition of bashert is explicitly rejected by Maimonides on these very grounds in his Shemoneh Perakim Chapter 8.

שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם פרק ח
אבל הלשון הנמצא לחכמים, והוא אומרם: “הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים” – הרי הוא אמת, ומכוון אל מה שזכרנו, אלא שהרבה יטעו בו בני אדם, ויחשבו בקצת מעשי האדם הבחיריים – שהוא מוכרח עליהם, כגון הזיווג לפלונית, או היות זה הממון בידו. וזה אינו אמת, כי זאת האשה, אם היתה לקיחתה בכתובה וקידושין, והיא מותרת, ונשאה לפריה ורביה – הרי זו מצוה, וה’ לא יגזור בעשיית מצוה; ואם היה בנשואיה פגם – הרי היא עבירה, וה’ לא יגזור בעבירה.

[There is no contradiction to this from the following] statement of our Sages: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” 2 This statement is true and conforms to the conceptual framework that we have explained. Nevertheless, many people err with regard to it and imagine that a person is fated with regard to many of the matters in which he is given free choice: e.g., whether he will marry a particular woman or acquire a sum of money through theft.

This is absolutely not true. For if a person marries a woman, granting her a marriage contract and performing the rites of kiddushin, he is performing a mitzvah, 3 and God does not decree that we will perform any mitzvot. Should the marriage be forbidden, [entering into it] is a sin, and God does not decree that we will perform any sins. 4

Given the theological difficulties inherent in the classical definition of “bashert,” and based on numerous alternative contradictory sources in Rabbinic literature, I will propose a radical reinterpretation of the passage in B. Sotah 2a and redefine the Talmudic approach to bashert. Those who are personally committed to believing in a Jewish concept of a soul mate should minimally interpret this essay as an explanation for Maimonides who does seem to contradict an explicit Talmudic passage. 5 Otherwise, I hope to offer an approach which best represents the myriad of opinions found in the Rabbinic sources, and thus provide a more accurate and defensible portrayal of the compelte Rabbinic tradition.

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Notes:

  1. The following essay was initially prepared and presented in honor of the Auf Ruf of my friend, chavruta, and world-class educator Rabbi Mordy Friedman at the Hotel Paradise (now Leonardo) in Be’er Sheva in June 2002. But this study is also meaningful to me for other personal reasons. One of my greatest resentments in popular Judaism is the pervasive tendency among laity and Rabbis to cite one passage – in or out of context – as the singular opinion on a theological issue, often to the exclusion of all other conflicting sources. Even the specific corpus of Rabbinic literature is so vast that it is rare that one singular text may be honestly presented as exemplary of the entire body of work. Utilizing the academic methodologies I studied under Dr. Yaakov Elman in Revel and inspired by having finished reading Ephraim Urbach’s The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs cover to cover, I began compiling a series of classes in Rabbinic Thought and Theology or Machshevet Hazal. This essay on bashert was my first foray into my endeavor to prove that Torah does not necessitate obedience to a mono-dogmatic religion, while also attempting to dispell a popular, though possibly debilitating, theological myth.

    While I have given this essay as a class on multiple occasions, I had refrained from publishing it in essay form, preferring to wait until the event of my own engagement. Given the uncertainty of when that may actually occur (as an aside, any comments referring to my personal dating status will summarily be deleted) I decided that now would be as good of an alternative occasion as any being part of YUTOPIA’s 10th Anniversary and Tu B’Av.

  2. B. Berachot 32b, B. Megillah 25a, B. Niddah 16b
  3. See Hilkhot Ishut 1:2
  4. Translation by R. Eliyahu Touger p. 48
  5. Although there is no requirement to accept all aggadic statements as literal fact, it is unusual to reject a Talmudic passage so definitively.
Posted in YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

From the YUTOPIA Archives: An Odd Instance of Intellectual Assimilation – Christian Influences on Nachmanides’ Thought

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialOne of the main characters of the movie Footnote is a scholar whose most eminent academic accomplishment was a single complimentary footnote in his teacher’s work. Such recognition indicates that not only has a master in a field read your work, but found your contribution significant enough to disseminate to his larger audience. Aside from earning one’s PhD, this can be the academic equivalent of “getting made.”

The closest I’ve experienced this feeling myself was when I shared a graduate school paper on Ramban / Nachmanides (1194–c. 1270) with my father’s teacher Haham Jose / Yosef Faur in his Netanya house in 2002. In particular, I remember his elated reaction at my discovery that Ramban’s commentary on Deuteronomy 17:11 is nearly identical to the Early Church Father Tertullian’s (c. 160–c. 225 AD) justification of priestly authority. Haham Faur referenced this discovery in his article Anti-Maimonidean Demons p. 28 note 110 in his Horizontal Society (vol 2. p. 188).

I rediscovered the original paper among the same pile of documents as my father’s letter of resignation. I believe I kept the original copy of this paper due to the comments I received from Professor David Berger, which made an indelible impression on me:

This is a very intelligent, well written, vigorously argued but unconvincing, tendentious, one-sided, arbitrary, even biased argument. The suggestion that N.[achmanides] invented a tradition so that he could exercise authority i.e. that he did not believe that there was a Kabbalistic tradition that he had studied is unsupport[ed] and even offensive. I will assign a good grade to this paper because of its stimulating qualities, but what they stimulated in me was a combination of fascination and anger.

Despite Dr. Berger’s personal objections, he gave this paper an A-. There is also much more to be said in comparing Dr. Berger’s affinity towards Ramban and his criticisms of Chabad, but that is for another time. 1

Unsurprisingly, the paper itself could stand to use some editing and a few more revisions. Aside from the typos which should be expected at this point, I can see in hindsight imprecise language if not poor word choices. I suppose one reason to pursue advanced education is precisely to improve such skills. At any rate, for those interested in the subject or Hassidim of Haham Faur who are compelled to collect all related data, I am embedding the paper itself, complete with original typos, mistakes, and comments.

And in case anyone is wondering, despite this being a Revel paper, I did in fact submit the paper on time.
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  1. Haham Faur was a fan of Dr. Berger’s book on Chabad, though in discussing my paper he said, “if he is a fan of Ramban, then his book makes no sense.”
Posted in YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Why Rabbi Dr. Alan J. Yuter Resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly and Left Conservative Judaism

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialWhen my parents made aliyah this past summer I had to clean boxes of papers, articles, and documents I had collected over the years. One of the gems I dug up was the following letter my father wrote Robert Gordis in resigning from the Rabbinical Assembly and leaving Conservative Judaism.

This letter may be of academic interest to a historian, religious sociologist, or even fans of my father. Others may find useful comparisons or contrasts with the current state of liberal Orthodox Judaisms. For myself, it represents a salient moment in the life of the person who has imparted to me most of my Torah and approach to Judaism and life. I would also venture to say that this letter is so indicative of my father’s hadracha that if one keeps the essence of the logical argument while substituting names and institutions, this letter could be reprinted by him today. My father has told me privately that he patterned his letter after Abraham Joshua Heschel’s own letter of resignation.

With my father’s permission I am publishing his letter of resignation from the Rabbinical Assembly and his disaffiliation from Conservative Judaism.

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Posted in YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , .

YUTOPIA’s Greatest Hits Volume 1: 2003-2013

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialTen years is a long time to be blogging, and even with numerous hiatuses (haiatii?) I’ve amassed quite the collection, well over 500 entries. Of course this doesn’t account for quality but truth be told I never anticipated anyone reading this blog let along taking it seriously or building any type of audience or readership.

At any rate, to paraphrase the immortal Strong Bad, my blog posts are like my childrens. I love them all! But if I had to play favorites… Let’s see…
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Posted in YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary.

“For My Thoughts Are Not Your Thoughts, And Your Ways Are Not Mine” – 10 Years of YUTOPIA

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialDear Loyal Readers Followers,
It is with great amazement, appreciation, and gratitude that I share the following factoid: it has been over 10 years since I first started blogging. I actually remember sitting by the computer banks on 5a of Yeshiva University’s library on May, 15 2003 being first introduced to blogger by a friend who will still remain nameless. Since then, YUTOPIA has moved URLs and platforms three times1, gone through several redesigns, and has integrated with social media networks which did not exist when I started.

If the tech nostalgia doesn’t do it for you, consider that when I started blogging Protocols was the major Jewish blog on the web and the source of most of my traffic.

As I’ve said in the past the main reasons for blogging were to provide a platform in which I could publish thoughts in a clear and rational way, and hopefully contribute something to a discussion which would otherwise go ignored. The conscious decision at the time to publish the blog in my own name ensured personal accountability, which in turn forced me to think before posting.2 In fact when I started blogging I was finishing up rabbinical school and the “Rabbi” in the heading was still in quotes.

Eventually YUTOPIA spun off one post to www.JewishGuitarChords.com,3 and eventually providing over 100 classes as podcasts which have been downloaded over 50,000 times 4 The social media component of my web presence has attracted an even greater readership, with some posts receiving media attention, including national news.

Longtime readers might have noticed YUTOPIA has gotten much less personal, with the exception of vague references. This too was an intentional choice especially as the blog gained a larger following and I became more of a public figure in real life. The personal ups and downs over the past 10 years have been vast and numerous, and I have much gratitude for those who have been with me for even part of those journeys.

While I realize the only significance behind 10 years is the big round number theory, it’s a nice time to catch up, dig through some archives of things I have and haven’t published, and work through some current thoughts based on older works. Thus for the next month or so, this blog will be both a retrospective and an expansion of everything I’ve done here over the past decade and applying familiar principles in ways you may not quite expect.

Whether you have just started reading, YUTOPIA been following since the beginning, or joined somewhere in the middle I thank you for your time, patience, and simply for allowing me to be a part of your life in some way.5

It’s certainly been an interesting and eventful 10 years and I hope you stay with me for many more to come.

With many thanks,
Rabbi Josh Yuter

  1. Blogger – remember HaloScan for JavaScript comments?, MovableType on YUCS, and finally WordPress on the current site
  2. As it turned out, this was a necessary skill to develop in the world of Facebook and Twitter.
  3. In some respects I consider this the most useful thing I’ve ever done. According to Google Analytics, JewishGuitarChords.com has amassed 151,442 unique visitors since Aug 4, 2008. While this is paltry compared to web metrics, I see it as having helped a significant number of people learn to connect with the Jewish heritage through song and music. Not bad for an intellectual techie, eh?
  4. 50,552 as of this publishing. I was initially reluctant to record classes out of concern an offhanded remark I’d make would get me in trouble. Fortunately I’m not nearly important enough for people to hang on my everyone word and expound, “why did he make this joke and not that joke” etc.
  5. Even as a 5 minute distraction from that spreadsheet you really ought to be working on.
Posted in YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary.

Devar Torah Workshop

This Sunday I will be starting a new Devar Torah Workshop at Mt. Sinai (187th and Bennett) focusing on organizing and presenting written and spoken Divrei Torah. We will meet Sundays at 10:30 AM in the Multi Purpose Room downstairs, and it is open to men and women. While the workshop is free, anyone interested should register by sending me an e-mail.
I’ll likely blog the core principles at some point, but there’s no substitute for practicing in a supportive environment.

Posted in YUTOPIA's Guides.

YUTOPIA’s Guide to Online Jewish Dating

Given the accurate stereotypes of Jewish dating neuroses, it should not be surprising that JDate started way back in 1997. Since then a few more sites have popped up like Frumster which concentrates more on Orthodox Jews and SawYouAtSinai which combines modern technologies with traditional matchmaking.

Regardless of which site one choses, all dating sites involve somewhat impersonal forms of communication; all dating sites require a profile of some sort and with the exception of SYAS, an initial e-mail or response. Unfortunately, while the profile and e-mail are essential parts of online dating, it is apparent that people have no idea how to use them effectively. Profiles are trite and many initial e-mails are simply worthless.

That’s where we come in. After reading far too many profiles and e-mails from both myself and friends, we’ve decided to provide some simple tips in navigating the online dating world.

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Posted in Jewish Dating, YUTOPIA's Guides.

YUTOPIA’s Hashkafa Wrap-Up

Now that the “personal hashkafa” series is completed, I’m listing the links in one convenient post.

  1. Introduction – What Matters To Me and Why.
  2. Fractured Frumkeit
  3. Popular Practice and the Process of Pesak – The Role of Custom in Jewish Law
  4. Understanding Orthodox Judaism
  5. The Ideology of Shomer Torah

Enjoy!

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Personal Hashkafa Series.