Sunday, July 23, 2006

Just Who In The World Do We Think We Are? II

(continued from here)

III. Ideology and Halakhah

The second answer to our initial question is both more obvious and more difficult. As uncomfortable as it may be to admit it, while the entire Orthodox community agrees on a broad array of theological and practical subjects, there are still ideological issues of dispute between the different sub-communities within Orthodox Judaism. And when it comes to such issues, we need to seek guidance from the authorities within our own communities. Thus, for example, a soldier in a Hesder unit in the Israeli army will not be going to Rav Chaim Kanievsky to ask about whether to follow orders to evacuate a Jewish settlement. He will go to a rabbinic authority within his community who shares his values regarding the state of Israel and army service, such as Rav Avraham Shapira, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein or Rav Shlomo Aviner. A Satmar father with questions about the education of his daughter will not go to a moderate Charedi authority like Rav Yisroel Belsky or Rav David Cohen. He will go to the many talented Satmar dayanim. And a student finishing his third year of post-high school yeshiva, who has to decide whether to enter college in the upcoming year or delay it further, will go to an authority who shares his appreciation of secular studies and accepts the validity of attending college. Ideology sometimes impacts halakhah and, when that happens, we are wise to seek guidance from the leaders of our community who share our values.

Click here to read moreLet’s be honest: the issues underlying this ban are ideological and have a lot to do with the acceptance of science and secular studies. If you would not go to Rav Elyashiv for guidance about your secular education then you probably should not be going to him about these books. This is not to say that the authorities within your own community will automatically say that the books are permissible. They may not. But at least they will be making that decision based on the values that your rebbeim taught you and that have formed your outlook on Judaism and the world.

But is this intellectually honest? Shouldn’t you be going to the most qualified rabbi available and not just one whose views appeal to you? Rav Aharon Lichtenstein addressed this in a presentation to the Orthodox Forum that has since been published in the second volume of his Leaves of Faith. His answer is that this is perfectly legitimate. As a member of an ideological community, regardless of physical location, your rebbeim are the leaders of that community and every student should seek guidance from his own mentors. Sometimes these mentors are not even alive but one is certainly still allowed to follow the example and approach set by one’s rebbe when he was alive. Rav Lichtenstein deduces from a teshuvah of the Rashba that this even applies very long after an authority’s death, so the views of Rav Soloveitchik, the Seridei Esh, Rav Kook, Rav Herzog, Rav Hutner — and I can go on for a long time with more names — are still very relevant. And certainly the views of today’s leaders of our community are relevant.

In summary: this issue is dependent on ideological issues and I do not consider myself part of the ideological community of those who banned the books. The rabbinic authorities of my ideological community, and I suspect of the ideological community of everyone sitting here, see this mater quite differently from those who signed the ban. They might even go so far as to say that there is a great need for a book like this, much like Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s books have received great acclaim in some communities.

IV. Local Concerns

The third answer to the question we raised at the beginning is a matter that I think has become increasingly unpopular over the past few decades but deserves to be strengthened. That is the prerogative of the mara d’asra, the local rabbinic authority. In times past, when communities were clearly local and had organized structures, the community rabbi was the single halakhic authority over the area. When people had halakhic questions, he was the one deciding. He ruled whether chickens were kosher, what vegetables they were not allowed to eat because of bugs, and so on. Halakhic declarations published in newspapers or on billboards were irrelevant because it was the local rabbi who was the final authority in that community. And with good reason. He understood the needs of the community; he knew in what areas they needed to be extra strict and in what areas they needed leniency. He was also aware of the local market and the impact of various rulings on the community. This is no longer the case in most communities today, although there are a number of exceptions. Generally, halakhah today comes from global organizations like the OU, from newspapers and the internet, from distant roshei yeshiva and rebbes, and of course from the guy in the back of the shul who knows the inside scoop on everything. I believe this is to be lamented, but I could be wrong. It is possible that this is just an organic change of our communal structures due to global sociological changes, and that there are hidden benefits that outweigh the negatives I see. Regardless, this is just about plain halakhah, if there is such a thing. Regarding issues that impact faith, the negatives are overwhelming.

Let me give an example that I think will clarify my point. In 1876-77, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch sought to demand that the Orthodox residents of Frankfurt secede from the general Jewish community and create a separate Orthodox Jewish community. One of these Orthodox residents was a huge talmid chakham who disagreed with Rav Hirsch’s position, and he found support from one of the leading rabbinic authorities in Germany at that time, Rav Seligmann Baer Bamberger, the Wurzburger Rav, who ruled that the Orthodox in Frankfurt need not secede from the general Jewish community. This led to an open debate in the media between Rav Hirsch and Rav Bamberger on the halakhic issues involved. I won’t go into the details here but those interested can find the relevant material translated into English in volume 6 of the Collected Writings of Rav Hirsch. Almost 40 years later, those Orthodox in Frankfurt who had not seceded sent a question to Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the great posek in Vilna, asking whether the times have changed and they are now obligated to secede. Rav Chaim Ozer’s response can be found in the second volume of his collected letters and is very relevant to our topic. Let me read an excerpt for you:

Honestly, the foundation of the answer to this fundamental question is not, in my opinion, like all other rulings of ritual law, or even of the most serious questions of abandoned women, whose source is open in the Talmud and later authorities, and the respondent need only attend to explaining the views of the early and late authorities and decide between them according to the rules of decision-making in order to find the answer to his complex question.

Not so, the answer to this question. Its specific foundation is in the complete recognition and clear foresight, the knowledge of what is the proper path to mend the fence and close the breech in order to strengthen the religion. There is no doubt in my eyes that the righteous rabbis, Rav Hirsch and Rav Bamberger, did not disagree on rulings and laws. Rather, their foresights were different, each one according to his path in holiness and for the sake of Heaven. And in that this foresight shines brightest to a scholar who understands his place, who lives in that region and community, who knows the characteristics and details of the people of his congregation, who is connected to them with all the lines of connection, who attends to their needs, he has a distinguishing eye to attend with extreme care to the questions of religion, and can see what will arise in the next generation.

It seems that this is the reason that this serious question was not asked [at the time] to the great Gedolim — the Malbim, Rav Yisrael Salanter, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin and R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor. This question could not have been answered based on sources in the Talmud and later authorities, but only on upright thought and proper foresight. And due to their distance they could not get involved with this and could not find sufficiently strong foresight to decide…
Rav Chaim Ozer, the Posek Ha-Dor of his generation, tells us something very important in this letter. Questions of religious danger are of local concern. Only someone who knows a community extremely well, who can anticipate their reactions and look a few steps and a few years ahead, only someone like that should be ruling on issues of faith in a community. Thus, to answer our original question, even if hypothetically speaking these books were heretical, only a local authority should be deciding whether banning the books is the appropriate step for any given community. And if the books aren’t heretical, then only a local authority should be deciding whether they are dangerous. Regarding Rabbi Slifkin’s books, I think both he and I will agree that there are communities for which the books are dangerous and there are communities for which the ban on the books is dangerous. As Rav Chaim Ozer made so clear, this is a matter that must be left for each community’s leaders.

V. Conclusion

To sum up, I offered three reasons for why we I am here despite the ban: 1) there are authorities who disagree with the ban; 2) the authorities who issued the ban do not lead my ideological community; and 3) this is a local matter that cannot be decided from afar. I hope this is why those of you in the audience are here also, although I suspect some are here just for the fight. Regardless, I’ve been saying since the beginning that everyone should be discussing this with his rabbi or rosh yeshiva and not rely on halakhic rulings he reads in the newspaper or on the internet, or hears from some young nobody at a book launch. I thank you all for coming and hope that this latest book will serve as a source for greater Yiras Shamayim and Emunah Tehorah, fear of the Lord and pure faith.

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