Thursday, October 13, 2005

Einstein's socks

This might be getting repetitive, but I think I’m going to put up a few more thoughts about the halacha/mesoret issue.

  • While both halacha and mesoret play an important role in our religious life, there is another important actor – values. Judaism is full of values like emet, shalom, hesed, kedusha, din, tzedek and more. Often both halacha and mesoret lead us to fulfillment of those values. But what happens when religious society ignores a value? Who can fix the situation? Mesoret is unlikely to help. While very powerful, it mostly uses the vehicle of inertia. Halacha on the other hand can be used to revolutionize. Sometimes to redeem an ignored value the halacha will make additional stringencies. Sometimes it will pull back, “uprooting” a particular practice for a more important value. The examples of this are endless. The prophets rallied against exclusive focus on sacrifices and ignoring social ills. The rabbis changed laws relating to shmitta, marriage, and others. Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz documents this well in “Not in Heaven”. Of course the halacha is not to be toyed with lightly, but when circumstance warrants it – it does not roll over and play dead.

  • There are two types of halachic approaches, which in many ways are opposed to one another. One is the approach described in Rav Solveitchik’s Halakhic Man. He describes a halacha that is like a satellite in orbit, independent of the realities on the ground. The other approach is one that looks at reality, and what people can handle before taking a stand. They are different, but both approaches can lead to revolutionary change in the face of a tradition they think is deficient. Some rabbis will encourage people to change their behavior so it follows the pure halachic root. Others will suggest abandoning a humra that isn’t fitting with the realities on the ground.

  • I came across an interesting quote from Chovot HaLevavot. He writes: “One of the components of caution is not being overly cautious” and if one was to be afraid, because of caution, not to say anything new, then no one could have ever said anything from the time of the Prophets. This is a critical aspect for understanding the strength of halacha, and as a wise man once said “with great strength comes great responsibility”.

  • One of the wonderful things about halacha as a guide to religious life is its capability to empower a person. And the engine that gives halacha that power is the study of Torah. Everyone can study Torah and everyone can touch the halacha. When I was in yeshiva and asked my Rosh Yeshiva a halachic question, it was his custom to present the various sides to the issue and let the student decide for himself. (From what I’ve read, that was also the custom of his rav, Rav Gustman.) Why is this so important? In principle we shouldn’t need Torah study in order to determine what to do halachically – it’s enough to see what everyone else is doing, or at the most get a simple answer to a question – from a rabbi or a book. However there is something much deeper here. The gemara in Sota 22a states:
    The Tannaim (scholars from the mishnah) destroy the world" Could one truly think they destroy the world? Ravina explains that the above source refers to those who make halakhic decisions based on mishnayot. We also learned this in a Beraita: R. Yehoshua said "Are they destroyers of the world? Do they not build the world....? Rather, we are talking about those that decide halakha straight out of mishnayot."
    Rashi explains that the reason that by only looking at the mishna, the person will end up making mistakes. But the Maharal in Netivot HaTorah (15) says that the gemara is not referring to a case where the person will err. Rather the gemara is talking about a case where the halacha might technically be correct, but the person avoided studying the Torah sources in order to determine what to do. Since the entire world exists for Torah study, by taking a quick fix – the “tannaim are destroying the world.” The Maharal even goes so far as to say that it is better to err in judgment than to come to a decision by not studying deeply! That is the empowerment that the halacha gives. Mesoret – with all its significance – can’t come close.

  • One last anecdote: In Abba Eban’s autobiography (which I’m reading now, but that’s for another post), he describes meeting Albert Einstein at a banquet, and noticing that despite wearing “immaculate evening dress” he wasn’t wearing socks. I’ve found a number of quotes on the internet from Einstein about wearing socks, but what he told Eban fits my line of thought perfectly:
    “In conversation he explained to me that ... [he] knew perfectly well what he was doing. He was quite simply devoted to rationality. He did not like doing things which had no empirical or logical explanation. There was no scientific way of proving that it was necessary or useful to wear both socks and shoes. One of these acts could be justified by the need to cover the feet; two of them seemed redundant. If I could refute what he had said, he would consider changing his habitual conduct.”
    This leads me to thinking about the Nobel Prize given to Prof Aumann of the "Center for Rationality" at Hebrew University, but I think that also will be for another post.