Posthumous Retractions

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An intellectually curious and honest person changes his mind over time, certainly on small matters and sometimes on life values and choices. However, absent conclusive proof of a person’s change of heart, we have to assume that he continued his beliefs. Anything else would open the door to outlandish claims of retractions and reversals.

Regarding halakhic matters, we have to follow the rules of the system in order to determine how to act. In two impassioned responsa, R. Shmuel Landau explains the rules while defending the legacy of his famous father, R. Yechezkel Landau, author of the Noda Bi-Yehudah.

R. Yechezkel Landau had ruled leniently regarding a specific kind of fish, placing his position in writing and informing others of his decision. After his passing, a noted rabbi declared that R. Landau had told him that he retracted this lenient ruling. In a responsum (published in Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah no. 29), R. Shmuel Landau denied his father’s retraction because he would certainly have told others of this change of heart.

Additionally, R. Shmuel Landau argued that once a position becomes established it attains a chazakah, a presumption of correctness. A single witness is insufficient to overturn a chazakah. Therefore, this rabbi should remain silent about what he claims to know because, due to halakhic rules, he will not be heard nor believed. R. Landau continues to argue at length regarding fish.

In the subsequent responsum (no. 30), R. Landau replies to his correspondent’s hurt feelings. He first hurts them more by denying in sharp words the rabbi’s claim. He continues, though, by pointing out that we would not even believe Moshe Rabbenu about his brother Aharon. This is not because we think he is a liar but because we have rules and procedures of halakhic testimony.

R. Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah, vol. 1 Kuntres Seder Toras Ha-Limmud, Toras Ha-Hora’ah Ve-Ha-Minhagim, par. 24 ) supports R. Shmuel Landau’s claim from the Gemara in Shabbos (136b). R. Shravia quotes Rava as saying about a specific case that a woman must leave her new husband because she is obligated to perform yibum. Ravina says that Rava retracted this position. R. Shravia replies sarcastically that with this kind of logic, Ravina could also permit an animal’s forbidden fat. While we often find in the Talmud conflicting reports of a scholar’s view, we cannot take seriously a disputed and unsupported claim that a scholar retracted.

R. Braun also quotes Tosafos (Yevamos 42b sv. stam) that we should not assume that R. Yehuda Ha-Nassi, the editor of the Mishnah, changed his mind within the Mishnah until we find explicit evidence of it.

While we know that people change their minds, accepting specific claims of this without sufficient proof allows for chaos. Both accidental and intentional misrepresentations will proliferate and scholars’ legacies will suffer. Rather, as in all other matters, we have to follow the guidance of halakhah in the process of careful evaluations of claims.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief 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 serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also 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.

29 comments

  1. “a specific kind of fish”

    Why not tell your readers the ID of the fish? Tora hee v’lilmod ani tzorech.

    Must the view of one of the 18th century’s leading halachik authorities be suppressed because contemporary Orthodoxy rejects it?

  2. You think R. Shmuel Landau didn’t name the fish in his responsa because he knew 21st century Orthodox wouldn’t follow his father? Since he didn’t mention the name of the fish, I didn’t want to make any assumptions.

  3. You don’t have to make assumptions. It was sturgeon. See Noda Beyehuda Tinyana YD #28. (With credit to S. for the citation.)

  4. I’m not saying he wasn’t talking about sturgeon. I don’t claim any expertise. All I’m saying is that that responsum also doesn’t name the fish.

  5. >R. Yechezkel Landau had ruled leniently regarding a specific kind of fish, placing his position in writing and informing others of his decision. After his passing, a noted rabbi declared that R. Landau had told him that he retracted this lenient ruling. In a responsum (published in Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah no. 29), R. Shmuel Landau denied his father’s retraction because he would certainly have told others of this change of heart.

    You’re glossing over this. The “noted rabbi,” who was not so noted, was lying, and R. Shmuel knew it.

    http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2011/01/rabbi-aron-chorin-pt-1-great-fish.html

  6. R. Shlomo Zalman Braun’s 1st proof is a poor one. In the end(if you look at Shabbos 136b), we accept Ravina’s assertion that Rava retracted lehalacha and reject R Shravia. Thus, the gemara seems to actually accept the concept of posthumous retractions as long as a noted Rabbi attests to the fact that the person retracted.

  7. Well, Artscroll certainly tried this with R’ Zevin (after they were called out on it). His family may have been complicit.

  8. Let me change that to “they claimed his family agreed.”

  9. While we know that people change their minds, accepting specific claims of this without sufficient proof allows for chaos. Both accidental and intentional misrepresentations will proliferate and scholars’ legacies will suffer. Rather, as in all other matters, we have to follow the guidance of halakhah in the process of careful evaluations of claims.
    ===============================================
    so the meta issue once again is are we searching for a single truth or is it the process that must be observed? (and what is the standard of proof – e.g. if 100 non bnai brit testified that they heard rabbi x say he changed his mind lfi tumam)
    KT

  10. “However, absent conclusive proof of a person’s change of heart, we have to assume that he continued his beliefs. Anything else would open the door to outlandish claims of retractions and reversals.”

    Which has not stopped people from doing that with for starters SRH, Rav Kook, and the Rav.
    For the Rav-see a more than decade old classic article by Prof Kaplan on revisionism of the Rav.
    Revisionism is probably most rampant by Talmeidei Chachamim and those who publish books to glorify our Mesorah who try and change inconvenient facts about previous greats which does not fit their perception of Yiddishkeit

  11. S: Thank you for that fascinating historical background.

    Mycroft: Yes, people have made outrageous claims of retractions and they should be ignored.

    Emmanuel: We follow Ravina despite, not because, of his claim that Rava retracted.

  12. Joel: I would say that the process is the best way of arriving at truth in the largest amount of cases.

  13. Hirhurim: I disagree with your analysis of the sugya in Shabbos(136b). If you look at Rebbinu Chananel there he says “And we pasken like Ravina in the name of Rava because Ravina says that Rava retracted his view”
    Thus, it would seem that we actually accept not only Ravina’s halachic analysis, but also we accept the historical truth that Rava agreed with Ravina’s analysis. Furthermore, we only accept Ravina lehalacha unequivically against Rav Shravia because Ravina asserted that Rava retracted.

  14. Sturgeon is kosher?! AWESOME!

  15. More common than posthumous retractions, in my experience, are postumous “would have saids”: Sure, Great Person X held position Y, but if he had lived in today’s changed circumstances, he would have changed his mind.

    The Great Person is not necessarily a rabbi. This happens all the time in the secular world. We all want to have Great People on our side.

  16. “I would say that the process is the best way of arriving at truth in the largest amount of cases.”

    This is the view of the Sefer HaChinuch on the mitzvah of Lo Sasur.

  17. lawrence kaplan

    MyCroft: Thank you for your kind words about my article “Revisionism and the Rav,” but revisionism is a much broader phenomenon than simply claiming without any substantiation that certain great figures retracted certain of their “inconvenient” positions.

    Another famous even more dubious “retraction” is Maimonides’ supposed acceptance of kabbalah late in life and his supposed wish to recall the Guide.

  18. If you are the heirs of the rabbi in question you don’t need to claim a retraction, you just keep publishing new tshuvot posthumously.

  19. lawrence kaplan

    Or you republish and censor their works, e.g., RSZA on Zeraim.

  20. Lawrence Kaplan, can you explain what you are referring to regarding RSZA on zeraim?

  21. It is interesting to note that despite Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l changing his mind about the lumdus behind his heter for a woman to leave less than a tefach of her hair uncovered (see O”C 4:15), since he had already paskened that it was mutar, and many had been relying on this heter, he never issued a retraction.

  22. “my article “Revisionism and the Rav,” but revisionism is a much broader phenomenon than simply claiming without any substantiation that certain great figures retracted certain of their “inconvenient” positions.”

    Agreed-see eg Revisionism and the Rav where if I recall correctly many other examples of Revisionism are given by those both to the “left” and those to the “right” of the Rav.

  23. “MJ on March 24, 2011 at 12:44 pm
    If you are the heirs of the rabbi in question you don’t need to claim a retraction, you just keep publishing new tshuvot posthumously”
    Or you claim special knowledge based on info that only a close family member would have.

  24. Lawrence Kaplan

    Carlos: RSZA ‘s Sefer on Zeraim, Maadanei Aretz (1946) was republished after his death in an “edited” (i.e. censored) version. All positive references to Rav Kook and the heter mechirah were omitted.

  25. It is fascinating that the agreement of RSZA FOR THE HETER MECHIRA REMAINS IN MINCHAT SHLOMO,SIMAN 44.tHEY COULD NOT ERADICATE IT THERE.AlSO Maadanei Aretz was reprinted in full by a non-family source.

  26. Lawrence Kaplan

    daat y: Thanks for the corrections.

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