Just Who In The World Do We Think We Are?

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Below is the first installment of my remarks at the launch of R. Natan Slifkin’s new book, The Challenge of Creation. Yes, I know it went long. When I speak from notes I speak very quickly. This was the first time I ever spoke from a written text and I went way too slowly and couldn’t skip.

I. The Question

Recently, one of the editors of the journal Yeshurun was kind enough to give me a copy of the latest issue and I found in it, among many other interesting things, some decades-old teshuvos on some of the most complex halakhic topics by a well-known rabbi. That posek, that authority, is named Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. The knowledge and ability Rav Elyashiv displayed in those teshuvos decades ago demonstrates a level of Torah expertise that I will never reach in my life. Never. This clear reality, this simple and unquestionable fact, raises an obvious question: What in the world am I doing here tonight? Almost two years ago, Rav Elyashiv signed a ban against three of Rabbi Slifkin’s books, including The Science of Torah, and the book we are launching tonight, while having very substantial changes and expansions, is still a revision of The Science of Torah. So why am I here in defiance of Rav Elyashiv’s ruling? Aryeh sha’ag mi lo yira — a lion has roared, who will not fear? Who in the world do we think we are?

Click here to read moreII. Chakham She-Hitir

I think there are three main answers to this question which, while overlapping, make separate points. The first is very simple: I am not qualified to disagree with Rav Elyashiv nor am I remotely worthy of having my name mentioned in the same sentence as his. But others are. Every posek routinely finds his rulings being disputed by his colleagues and Rav Elyashiv is no exception to this phenomenon. One can simply open the Sefer Piskei Teshuvos to find examples where great posekim of recent times have disagreed with Rav Elyashiv: Can sechach mats be made in such a way as to be kosher for a sukkah covering? Rav Elyashiv holds no while others hold yes. Can a get be issued via a teleconference with the husband? Rav Elyashiv holds no while other hold yes. If other posekim, who routinely rule on matters of life and death, of lineage and divorce, of personal and communal issues, disagree with this ban, then of course the ban is not universally binding. What I’ve said up to now should not be in any way controversial. If there are giants of Torah, experts in halakhah, who disagree with this ban, then it is not universally binding. What to do then, we’ll discuss shortly, but first it should be clear that posekim have the right to disagree and, if they do, people have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to follow this dissenting view.

The question we then have to address is whether in our case there are any dissenting views. To do this, we need to divide this issue into two parts — 1) do these books that were banned contain heresy, as the text of the ban states, and 2) even if they do not contain heresy, are they theologically dangerous? There are some who will dismiss this concept of a theological danger but I don’t think we should minimize it, so lt us leave this second isue of potential danger for later and address right now whether the books contain heresy.

When the ban on the books came out, a prominent rabbi told me that he doesn’t think the ban is prohibited and I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. What prohibition did he think might apply to the ban, that he declared did not? What was his hava amina? I should have asked him but guessing is more fun. This is what I think he meant. The Gemara in Niddah (20b) states that “chakham she-assar, ein chakham acher rashai le-hatiro”: when a rabbi issues a strict ruling — let’s say that Mrs. Schwartz brings a recently slaughtered chicken to Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Cohen rules that the chicken is not kosher — another rabbi cannot then rule permissively — Rabbi Levy, who bumps into Mrs. Schwartz later that day, cannot look at the chicken and rule that it is kosher. Once a rabbi issues a strict ruling no one else can rule to the contrary. The rishonim disagree over the reason for this rule: according to Rashi it is out of respect for the first rabbi. Once he rules one way, it is a slap in his face for a colleague of his to rule to the contrary. According to the Ra’avad, however, it is for a different reason entirely: shavya nafsheih chatikhah de-issura — he has made this item under question into a prohibited object. The Nimukei Yosef explains this second view as follows: when a questioner asks a rabbi for his ruling, he is essentially accepting the rabbi’s ruling as authoritative and the rabbi’s conclusion has the status of a neder, a vow. When the rabbi rules strictly, it is as if the questioner takes a vow prohibiting the object. Therefore, if the rabbi rules the chicken to be non-kosher, Mrs. Schwartz has essentially taken a vow to consider the chicken non-kosher. So this rule, that once a rabbi rules that a chicken is non-kosher another rabbi cannot rule that it is kosher, is either out of respect for the first rabbi or because the questioner has a vow-equivalent to follow the first rabbi.

The Shiltei Gibborim applies this reasoning to another dispute: does the rule work the other way, if a rabbi rules leniently is another rabbi prohibited from ruling strictly? Some rishonim rule that this is the case while others dispute that such a rule exists. The Shiltei Gibborim explains that those who hold that the rule of chakham she-assar is out of respect for the first rabbi would also reverse the rule and say that a rabbi cannot overrule a colleague who decides leniently because that is also a slight to the first rabbi’s respect. However, those who explain it based on shavya chatikhah de-issura would say that a neder permitting an object doesn’t exist. Therefore, according to this view, even if Rabbi Cohen permits a chicken, Rabbi Levy can still rule that it is nonkosher. Regardless of the lomdus behind the rulings, and it gets complex when you start taking into account the various nuances of different views, the Rema in Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 242:31) ruled like the first view, that once a rabbi rules leniently on a very specific case, another rabbi cannot rule strictly on that same case. Chakham she-hitir, ein chakham acher rashai le-ossro.

In our case, each copy of the banned books was printed with haskamos, rabbinic approbations, declaring the books to be not only permissible but praiseworthy. The books are essentially chickens on which Rabbi Cohen has ruled that each one is kosher. And I apologize for calling Rabbi Slifkin a chicken because his stance in this whole matter has surely shown that he is nothing of the kind. Anyway, once Rabbi Cohen has ruled that the books are kosher, can Rabbi Levy now come along and rule that they are not kosher? Is this not the case we just discussed? I think there are two reasons why it is not. First, while the Rema ruled like the first view, that another rabbi cannot rule strictly after a rabbi rules leniently, the Shakh ruled like the second view. According to the Shakh, a rabbi is allowed to disagree with a lenient colleague. Therefore, even though these books were initially ruled upon as being kosher, another rabbi is not prohibited from coming along and ruling that the
y are not kosher. Furthermore, the Shakh is of the view that there is an exception to this entire rule for someone who is qualitatively greater than the first rabbi. Thus, if one rabbi rules a chicken or a book to be kosher and an older and wiser rabbi rules that it is not kosker, he is allowed to do so. So applying this to our case, there are two reasons why the ban is not prohibited: either we don’t hold of the rule that after one rabbi is lenient another cannot be strict, so the rabbis who issued the ban were entirely within their rights to disagree; or this rule does not apply when the second rabbi is older and wiser, which can plausibly be said about Rav Elyashiv.

But my point here is that there is a chakham she-hitir, there are chakhamim she-hitiru. You can even ask them whether they ruled that the books are permissible and they will answer yes. And there are many others who agree with them. Are there other authorities who disagree? Yes, and they are allowed to do so. But there are different views on this subject. The answer to the question we asked a few minutes ago, whether these books contain heresy, is that it is at most a machlokes, a matter of debate. Even if some great Torah scholars consider the views in this book to be heretical, there are giants of Torah who have disagreed. Rav Elyashiv’s own rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Herzog, is among such great rabbis. I won’t go into this is in more detail because we would end up being here all night but I’ve spent a good deal of time on this on my blog. That being the case, one answer to why we are here tonight is that we are relying on different halakhic authorities. We are following the chakhamim she-hitiru, the rabbis who ruled permissively, and all those who explicitly or implicitly agree with them. I personally had my own posek approve this new publication and he pulled in another posek, all in addition to Rabbi Slifkin’s own rabbinic authorities. Significantly, many of these rabbis have specific expertise in the issues of Torah and science, have a full grasp of the science involved, and are aware of some of the relevant but obscure Torah discussions. The importance of this expertise in rendering an informed judgment should not be minimized.

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About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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