Different ways of looking at traditional beliefs.
RABBI JEREMY ROSEN
DO YOU HAVE TO DO WHAT YOUR RABBI TELLS YOU ?Do we really have to do what rabbis tell us? Can't we find out what Jewish law requires for ourselves? Are the rabbis trying to pull the wool over our eyes? Jewish law, like any Legal System, is based upon authority. There is the authority of the source text or the initial revelation or the compilation, whichever way one wants to understand the Torah. And then there is the authority of the interpreters and promulgators. Traditionally the 'Sinai' experience, as transmitted through the text of the Torah, is the source authority for revealing how Jews believe God wants us to behave. So let us assume we can agree that the Torah is the main text. How do we know that anyone is allowed to interpret it? The primary source for the right of later experts to interpret the Torah is sandwiched between the laws of the prophet, the priest and the king in the last book, Deuteronomy. It is the law of the 'Halachic authority' which appears vested both in the priest and in the judge. They are the precursors of the rabbis in that they were the people one turned to for answers on religious issues . However in emphasizing the locale, the specific place where the Temple will be, the Torah hints at the future role of the Sanhedrin sitting in the Lishkat HaGazit, the Hewn Stone Court, which adjoined the Temple. 'If an issue is beyond you in justice between two people, two claimants, two victims, issues of conflict in your gates then you should get up and go up to the place which YHVH your God will select for you. And you will come before the priests, the levites or to the judge whoever he will be at the time and you will inquire and they will tell you what the judgment is. And you will do whatever they tell you from that place which YHVH will choose and you must be careful to do whatever they teach. According to the Torah as they teach you and according to the judgment which they tell you must do, you must not deviate from what they tell you right or left.' Of course there are problems with this text. The implication is that this only applies in cases of uncertainty, in cases that are brought before it and that judgment only applies when given 'from the place'. But in practice this became the basis text for rabbinic authority. This authority vested in whoever the authority might be, the priest, the Levi or the judge (read 'rabbis') was such that it is cited as the reason the rabbis could institute the blessings for Chanukah and Purim using the phrase 'Blessed are You YHVH our God and King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us through His commandments and has commanded us to light the lights of Chanukah (or 'to read the megillah' )'. 'From where do we know that God commanded us?'( since these festivals originated long after the Torah was written ) the Rabbis ask.' From 'And you will do as they teach you'( Deuteronomy 17.8. )' .
2Authority originally was tripartite, the Priests controlled the Temple ceremonies and were the guardians of the law, the Judge combined temporal and religious authority but was then replaced by the King who held political power . And the king had to cope with the prophet who was the moral authority and conscience of the people. During the Second Temple period, after Ezra re-structured Jewish life in Israel, the rabbis, the Sanhedrin, in effect replaced prophecy . And with the destruction of the Temple and political autonomy, we were left with Rabbinic authority as the arbiter of our religious constitution, the Halacha, even 'though there is no clear or obvious connection between the authority the Torah talks about and an individual rabbi. Nevertheless by the time of the medieval Halachists it was accepted that 'The Judge in each generation' could be applied to the rabbi. There is little dispute about the nature of Halachic authority in Judaism amongst those who accept its constitution, in theory. But the question is what precisely is the nature of current Rabbinic authority and where does it come from? The Talmudic idea of 'Semicha', laying on of hands, was the official rabbinic ordination. It originated with Ezra and was handed down by each rabbi to a select group of students who would then be relied upon to carry on the tradition. The attempts of the Romans to stop the handing on of this authority almost succeeded had not Bava Ben Buta sacrificed himself to ensure its continuity. Nevertheless this official process ended with the destruction of rabbinic hegemony in Israel somewhere around the third century ( some argue a little later ). In fact, rabbinic authority has proceeded since then as a convention, with no Biblically approved legal authority ! Leadership has simply been accepted by the community of the committed. So the chain has proceeded via the Tanaim who compiled the Mishna and the Amoraim who compiled the Gemara. On it went through the Geonim who exercised authority in Babylonia during the latter part of the first century and from then on to the Rishonim , the earlier authorities , both Sepharadi and Ashkenazi whose opinions, often differing, were codified in the Tur Shulchan Aruch which in turn was condensed into the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo. The experts who followed were called the Acharonim, the later authorities on whose views current decision making relies very heavily but not exclusively. And so we come to our present state of affairs. Nowadays the rabbinic experts, judged on their scholarship and mastery of the sources, vie with each other via the very public medium of the She'ela utShuva, the written responsum. We as laymen or rabbis ally ourselves to our chosen rabbi or expert and it may depend on the issue as to which expert we may turn to. Some rabbis specialize in medical issues, others in civil law. There are no appointments. Expertise is achieved in a very public and open way based entirely on a person's mastery of the sources. Those rabbis who may have public appointments, as Chiefs or Heads or whatever, have no automatic authority in matters of Jewish Law. On the contrary, they are rarely experts because their involvement in public affairs has often given them little time to specialize. Theirs are often political or diplomatic positions. The greatest of experts rarely have public appointments. Halachic Authority in itself is not an issue for those of us who live our lives according to Halacha in all its facets. The issue is how far this authority extends. Within the Chassidic world and its Lithuanian equivalent there is a new orthodoxy that insists that Rabbinic opinion is absolute. One has to submit ones decisions to superior authority. This authority extends to areas previously considered meta Halachic, areas such as whether to buy a home, to invest, to have an operation or how to deal with personal problems and how to vote in secular elections. This orthodoxy has come, during the past hundred years to be known as Torah Opinion ( Daat Torah ) and appears to be vested in individual rabbis either by affiliation if one is a Hassid or by studying under a rabbi in a particular yeshiva or by general reputation. The actual term 'Daat Torah' first appears in Rabbinic literature in the eighteenth century and simply means 'the Halachic position'. Only recently has it come to mean 'Officially, Rabbinically sanctioned, policy ). Partly, this submission to authority is a result of the influence of Church authority on Medieval Jewry. No opinion could be held in general without church approval, take Gallileo for example. The church did not like his scientific conclusions so they set about trying to silence him. The Jewish communities existed under the model of church authority and in effect were subservient to it. Although medieval examples of Jewish self government were not autocratic, all the models around them were. And in part, this new submission to authority is the result of the way the Chassidic movement developed with its hereditary hierarchy and internal authority. The fact is that this authority is a powerful tool in Israeli and American politics ( and the ambiguity of Church and State separation in the USA still allows for powerful block votes and politicians scrambling to be seen with religious authorities for the votes they bring ). It is also a crucial element of Ultra Orthodox self definition in its current fundamentalist mood ( not confined to Jewish groups but typical of the worldwide trend in religious movements that has already been noted in an earlier chapter ). But the issue that underlies this presentation is that Halachic expertise often appears to be subject to an 'agreed' agenda in areas that range from politics to relations with minorities to attitudes to change. And these agendas do not call on texts ( traditionally the basis of Halachic decision making ) to justify themselves, but rather on an agenda of internally received ideas.
3Although Halacha should in theory cover every aspect of ones life, in the past the obvious assumption was that this was confined to its laws and these were clearly defined. One could study and discover the law for oneself and indeed this was the stated aim of the compiler both of Maimonides's Yad Hachazaka, the first comprehensive code of Jewish Law and Rabbi Joseph Karo's Shulchan Aruch which was set out in sections to be studied by the layman. So how can Halachic authority be said to extend to areas beyond definitive law to matters of faith, politics or commerce? To what extent does it allow or disallow autonomous ideas and opinions to find legitimate expression? In classic Halachic situations there have always been disagreements, some of them fundamental, like Rabbi Yossi HaGlili ( who held that one could eat fowl with milk ). After the decision was taken to include fowl under the general category of 'meat', he ordered his family to follow the new decision. Similarly Akavya Ben Mehallalel who argued with the majority of the rabbis at the time on four important issues and there was even a move made to remove his authority. They begged him to change his opinion and offered him the position of Av Beth Din. But he refused to abandon his principles ' Better I should be called an idiot all my life than that I should be a wicked person for a moment before God because people would then say that I changed my mind in order to benefit'. Yet he too accepted the majority vote. When he was dying he said to his children ' Change your opinion on these issues that you followed my opinion on '. They said 'Why did you not change your opinion?' He replied 'I followed the opinion that I heard from a majority of rabbis and they followed an opinion they heard from a majority, I stood by my tradition and they stood by their tradition. But you now are hearing my opinion as that of a single person against a majority opinion and therefore you have to abandon the opinion of the minority and follow the majority.' Elazar Ben Chanoch argued with his peers about Netilat Yadayim, whether there was an obligation of washing hands before meals or whether it was a recommendation. The issues that separated Hillel and Shammai covered almost the whole range of legal issues. Most well known of all was the conflict between Rabbi Eliezer and the Chachamim over Achinai's oven and what its status was as far as ritual purity was concerned. He was able to call on a range of miracles and finally a Divine Voice to support his position but the rabbis stood firm by the principle derived from the Torah itself that a majority of rabbis decides the law, not miracles or a Divine voice. In all these issues the rabbis agreed to make a decision, to vote on what the law would be from that moment on. Then, even those who disagreed would have to follow the majority decision. In all these cases the use of the Cherem, the ban, as a tool of enforcement is threatened. The two tractates in the Babylonian Talmud, Eduyot and Horyot, deal, primarily with authority, its process and its limitations. In matters of law, a decision is vital. A principle was decided upon that 'A Beth Din cannot overrule the decision of another Beth Din unless it is greater in wisdom and number'. This device has been the single strongest bulwark against change in Halacha. It has also been a major factor in inhibiting reassessments of laws even where the original reasons for the enactments may have fallen away. The classic formulation of this process of halachic debate has been the famous phrase ' Both these views and the other views are the words of the Living God'. This is designed to accord respect for minority views but it does not mean that all views are equal. In the end, a decision, arbitration is required. Once this has happened the ordinary person no longer needs to consult anything or anyone other than the legal text to know what to do.
4No such decision making process seemed to apply to the Theological or the political arena in Talmudic literature. There, an individual has to find his or her own way of understanding, of believing and of enhancing the relationship with God. I have found no source in Rabbinic literature for the use of the cherem, a sort of excommunication, over a theological issue. It is true that a Min, a Heretic is excluded from a range of functions and roles. But in essence this is confined to saying that people who have no commitment to a system should not be allowed to participate in its legal processes. The rabbis seem concerned only with the negative, with the heretic, the rejectionist, with who has no part of the World To Come on the one hand and the person who defies authority publicly and aggressively on the other. 'He who desecrates Shabbat in public acts as though he is rejecting Judaism' is typical of a behavioral exclusion but there does not appear to be any attempt to define in positive terms what exactly is to be believed and how. There is simply a statement of what is the unacceptable position. A fascinating situation that shows how major differences were accommodated is that of the Sadducee High Priests. They were known to disagree with the rabbis on issues such as the After Life and the Oral Law as well as details of Temple procedure. But still their officiation in the Temple was accepted provided they adhered to the Pharisee understanding of how the tradition required the ceremonies to proceed. The Mishna in the first Chapter of Yoma movingly talks about how the Bet Din would prepare the High Priest ( who was often totally ignorant of Judaism and was a political appointment ). They tactfully warn the High Priest not to try any tricks when performing the Day of Atonement ritual in the Temple 'My Lord The High Priest we are the representatives of the Court Of Law and you are the representative of the Court Of Law. We want you to swear by He whose Name dwells in this house that you will not change anything from what we tell you to do' ! And then they would both cry, the Beth Din for suspecting and the High priest for being suspected. The rabbis accepted the correct behavior if not the correct thought. Similarly in the political battle over the fate of Jerusalem, Yochanan Ben Zakai's defected from the zealots and negotiated a compromise with the Romans and saved the tradition. Not everyone agreed with his stance. Similarly Zecharia Ben Avkilas's fateful decision was to risk losing the Temple rather than compromise Halacha. Rabbi Akiva's support of Bar Cochba in the second century was criticized by his contemporaries and he was held up to ridicule. There is plenty of dissension but no indication of there being any need to take a vote. And in the whole of Midrashic literature there is no evidence of needing to decide. Indeed although the phrases 'One does not need to find a reply to matters of interpretation or matters of traditional story' are not found in the Talmud itself but later , they certainly reflect the atmosphere of talmudic discourse which agrees that one does not have to take too precisely or literally comparisons of texts. This does not mean that anyone can say or think whatever he likes and stay within a Jewish format of thought. Midrash does in its own way describe Jewish thinking. But the range is vast and incidentally includes within it a great deal of what is now characterized as Christian thought. 'Turning the other cheek' finds plenty of resonance in Midrashic thought . It is clear that both the Torah and the Rabbis held certain ideas as fundamental to a specifically Jewish outlook such as The Unity of God, Benevolence, Revelation are specified in the Torah and the After Life, Resurrection and Messianism in Rabbinic sources ( though attributed to earlier tradition ). But the framework for defining or articulating these issues was Midrash, not Halacha. And as we know Midrash is a totally different process to Halacha. It is indeed heard in yeshivot nowadays that Midrash too has its authority. But no one has carried out the systematic scheme of priority and precedent that we find in Halacha with a clear cut hierarchy of authority. So whereas halachically there is an elaborate structure of authority. A clear demarcation of hierarchy. A clear statement of what constitutes rebellion against authority, no such clearly defined position exists on what we might call theological issues. Whereas Rambam is accepted as an absolutely crucial voice as a 'Rishon' in the halachic process, any disagreement falls within defined parameters, no such respect is accorded to his Aristotelian Philosophic system. And if his Thirteen Principles have come now to be accepted as a handy guide or menu of Jewish Thinking ( despite the theoretical opposition of giants like Crescas and Albo ), there is no obligation to accept an Aristotelian description of what constitutes a Perfect Unity as opposed to a Platonic or indeed ( anachronistically ) a Wittgenstinian one. In my yeshiva we were explicitly warned not to read Maimonides's philosophical work 'The Guide To The Perplexed'. On the other hand we were expected to study, to master the Halachic authorities and to get to know for ourselves what Jewish law requires of us. We did not think of going to the Rosh Yeshiva to ask something that could be found in black and white in a well known text book.
5The question is how much of an individual choice there is to exercise within the framework of commitment to Halachic Judaism. This varies. The issue is one of degree and personal comfort. Manifestly there is some room for autonomy, even within the strict confines of Halacha simply because of the terminology that often says 'He who wishes to be strict, may he be blessed' ( Of course there is the counter phrase 'He who is strict is questionable!'. There are various options of times to pray and there are degrees of strictness one can opt for over and above the basically approved. Kosher food is a prime example. A clue to the answer of how much choice one has lies in the concept of 'Free Will', freedom to chose. 'Free Will' has, since Ancient Greek times, been a major problem for the philosopher both in general and in Jewish philosophy specifically. If God knows everything if 'Everything is in the hands of God, except for (catching) colds and (falling into ) traps', then what choice do we have, apart from taking care of our health or making sure we do not fall into traps? And yet, as Pirkei Avot has it, 'Everything is foreseen and permission is given'. Maimonides says 'Every person has permission ( freedom to act )'. It has always been an article of Jewish thought both Philosophic and anti Philosophic ( let us call this both Midrashic and Mystical ) that we are free. We may argue as to the degree of freedom. We may argue that we are conditioned and influenced by a myriad different causes and circumstances. But the fact is that we have a system of punishment. Such a system implies a degree of responsibility. We may say that a child has no responsibility. We may even say that someone brought up in a place where there are no standards is 'A child captured and brought up by pagans'. But we still expect a person to exercise various degrees of self control. 'Freedom' does not mean an absence of any influence, rather it means an absence of restraint. If therefore we have a punitive system we must also be held to some degree accountable. And if we are held accountable we have a responsibility to try to understand something about our actions, about ourselves and about why we act the way we do. The authoritarian exhortation to 'Get oneself a rabbi ( mentor )' requires of the individual to make a choice, to take the initiative. It is not a statement of passive acceptance. Now some argue that the punitive system was never meant to be carried out exactly as stated indeed was so hedged about that in many cases it could not. The 'Ben Sorer Umoreh', the rebellious son, described in the Torah for example, is so circumscribed and qualified that according to the Talmud, it could never have happened in practice. But even if this system exists in theory more than in practice, even if it exists to give a scale of values and priority rather than to have causal punitive impact, it exists and it implies choice. You cannot punish someone who has no choice. God's prior knowledge, Omniscience, Rambam argued, does not necessarily imply pre-determination. Now this freedom of choice applies equally to thought as to action. I would argue more so. We are all limited behaviorally one way or another, by our families, by society. It is our freedom to think what we want that is crucial to our independence. The real test of autonomy comes with regard to the major theological principles of Jewish spirituality. If an individual is asked to assent to certain ideas, then by the very nature of idea, as opposed to action, in the absence of defining details describing the idea, one can only conclude that it is up to the individual to reach his or her own conclusions in a manner suited to his own intellect and intellectual tendencies, so long as those conclusions fall within the loose, general, parameters of the tradition. After all it may be true that around the world, 'everyman' and 'everywoman', eats, sleeps performs similar bodily functions. Therefore it is possible to come up with a system of behavioral commands can apply equally to a range of humans of varying intellect and education. But the same cannot be said of the intellect. Both in terms of mental capacity and in terms of cultural training, there is a vast difference between peoples, cultures and individuals on earth. There is no way that one system of thought could possibly be understood or accepted by everyone in the way that legal imperatives can. One need only think of the very deep and important differences between the mystical and the rational in Judaism. Indeed the divide between the rational and the mystical led to several bitter schisms, most notably between the Vilna Gaon and the Besht and Rabbi Yonatan Eybeshutz and Rabbi Yaacov Emden. But the very fact that divergent traditions have continued within the framework of a commitment to Halacha is proof in itself of the permissibility in practice of some differences.
6What then is the nature of the contrasting concept of respect for Rabbinic or saintly opinion, Daat Tora or the earlier expression, Emunat Chachamim, 'Belief in the Wise'? It is clear that asking the wise for advice, accepting that some are on a higher spiritual and intellectual level and should be deferred to or consulted, is an important part of our tradition. We have always revered the 'elder'. Indeed this a Torah law. Is this not what differentiates Orthodoxy from Heterodoxy? A recognized system of authority as opposed to individualized arbitrariness? The issue is not one of respect or willing deferral to greater authority. It is one of obligation. Are we obliged to accept authority and if so to what extent? It is my position that Judaism allows for a modified, limited, low level of autonomy in matters of Halacha. But it allows for a high level of autonomy in the realms of ideas and thought. It is up to the individual how much autonomy in both areas, he or she chooses to exercise. So if we accept Halachic authority, if we accept the superiority of those endowed with a higher level of understanding and learning, what does this entail? Whereas I cannot just try to change Halacha on a personal whim, I do actually make everyday decisions for myself such as when to pray and sometimes even if to pray and with a minyan or without and sitting over the Atlantic or standing? In practice do we not see decisions to move into Chassidism with its myriad variations of custom and even Halacha and then within Chassidism itself? Jews born into Sepharadi homes or Mitnaged homes move into very different manifestations of Jewish religious experience. Certainly the range is limited. Some choose to make it more limited. On the other hand, out of respect for Rabbinic stature ( I will not be negative by calling it a fear of taking responsibility ) many choose to take a whole range of decisions solely on the basis of Rabbinic approval, from buying a house to doing a deal to getting married. This need be no different to asking the expert advice of a doctor, psychiatrist or broker. It may not be my style of behavior but it is a legitimate expression of Jewishness. I have no argument with someone choosing submission. My argument is only with those who insist on this submission as a criterion of Halachic commitment to Judaism. Technically anyone can decide Halachically if he has the information and the skill. Anyone can engage in Halachic discourse and debate. The approach of Halacha is to look at a text, to see the precedent and reach a conclusion. If one cannot, then one consults. Or if one is innovating, then one wants to check one's judgment against the experts. But submitting a view for approval does not mean that one can never make a personal decision. Shulchan Aruch itself was written and divided into handy sections so that individuals could know the law and by going over it regularly not need to consult an expert on every issue. One turns to a rabbi after one has covered the material but may still not have the expertise to reach a conclusion. Indeed expert rabbis themselves consult other experts on difficult issues and nowadays experts may be so in limited areas. A rabbi familiar with technological issues may not be so familiar with financial ones. Everyone has the capacity to study and decide and decisions should be based on textual information and analysis not on whims and preferences. Nevertheless, to use the word again, the constitution, by its nature , restricts and limits the extent of individual freedom precisely because it lays down an overall framework..
7In matters of faith and thought we have a ' high level' of autonomy. Do I not also every day engage in a struggle of faith and reach out to God sometimes more successfully and sometimes less? Do I never wonder how the God I experience and encounter everyday was capable of not intervening when millions of Jewish children met their unspeakable deaths? Am I supposed to blindly accept without thought? That is not Rambam's approach either in the Yad Hachazaka, his Halachic magnum opus or in 'The Guide to the Perplexed' ! Am I an automaton who acts and thinks without consideration? But if I have to blindly accept authority both in action and thought then where is the room for freedom of individual thought? Indeed what is then the meaning of Ani Maamin, I believe, if I am not allowed to wonder if I really do and what exactly it is that I believe in? Or do we say that just as Mitzvot Lav Tsrichot Kavana ( a required action does not require considered intent ) so too thoughts do not require 'kavana', conscious intent? No one says this anywhere in the Talmud otherwise what would be the nature or the value of such a thought if it is not a thought but a mechanical recitation? The first Paragraph of the Shema requires 'kavana', concentration and thought. What is 'kavana' if not an exercise in autonomous thinking? When Moses is faced with Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp ( Numbers 11.29.) his response is 'If only everyone was a prophet and that God 'And two men were left in the camp, one called Eldad and the other called Medad and the spirit of God rested on them and they were amongst the appointed ones ( as judges chosen to assist Moses ) but they had not gone out to the Tabernacle and they prophesied in the camp. And the young man ran and told Moses and said 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp'. And Joshua the assistant of Moses, one of his young men, answered and said 'My master Moses, destroy them'. And Moses said to him 'Are you worried for me? If only all the people of God were prophets. If only God would His spirit to everyone'. The whole nation has the capacity to be a Nation of Priests. It would seem from this that every individual has both the capacity and the right to explore his own spirituality and to converse with The Almighty. Yet when Miriam makes a similar statement in the very next chapter, she is punished and God restates the uniqueness of His relationship with Moses. The reason is that on the other hand there are limitations. There is a typical tension between these two positions. In principle everyone can be special. In practice, only a few are. In the same way that there is in Halacha a tension between a command to kill and a command to protect life, a command to respect the fetus and a command to respect the mother's existent life so too in Halacha we are often faced with a sort of relativism, a situation in which conflicting halachic principles clash. The situation decides in which direction we lean when giving a 'Psak' a halachic decision. Sometimes it is just not possible to say 'This will always be the Halacha regardless of circumstances'. This is the genius of Halacha. This is the brilliance of Revelation. It is the Greek absolutism, only one Truth, that leads to a position of compulsion, of forced conversion. This is contrasted to Jewish acceptance of the varieties of humanity and religious experience that lead us to find room for and to value the Ger Toshav ( the stranger in our midst who is given equal civil rights in return for adherence to a basic set of laws ), the 'Son of Noah' and the 'Chassidei Umot HaOlam', the Pious of the Nations of the World. Another paradigm is 'Dina Di Malchuta', 'The Law of The Land is accepted as law' by Jews in civil matters even if it conflicts with Halacha. Of course a priori we prefer our system of civil law. However we are allowed to accept other systems depending on where we live. This relativism allows and indeed encourages respect both for authority on one hand and individuality on the other. There is, by way of contrast, a lower level of decision making when it comes to Jewish Law precisely because the boundaries have always been more clearly defined. 'Authority' and 'Autonomy' are similarly two imperatives that are important in Judaism and coexist, but coexist in a state of tension. I argue that this is healthy and positive. The danger is of course as always in moving too far in either direction. When people attack a religious position that seeks to reconcile two different positions they forget that it was the great Rambam who said that this is precisely how you get the Shvil HaZahav, the Golden Mean. You lean in the opposite direction further than you might otherwise want to in order to correct an imbalance. This is how to achieve the Golden Mean. The Golden mean is to find a balance between the necessary obedience to a system and yet to preserve ones individuality and the very personal responsibility to answer to God for one's thoughts and one's deeds. Rabbis should be giving guidance. They can point out directions and give sources. They can study and discuss. But in the end the individual has to make up his or her own mind and not the rabbi. 'The words of the Master or the words of the pupil, whose words do we obey ?' . It is obvious and in this context it is God and not the rabbi who is the master.