Sunday, October 09, 2005

halacha vs mesoret

I've been involved recently in a number of disputes in our shul. I prefer not to get into the details here, but I'll say this: in one issue I wanted to enable an activity that I felt was in the boundaries of halacha, whereas in the other people insisted in doing something I felt was against the normative halacha and the opinion of our local rabbi. In both cases, I more or less lost in my campaign. (And in case anyone reading this is aware of the circumstances, of course I was not the only, or even main, proponent/opponent in either case.)

Someone pointed out the irony that the same people who weren't willing to allow the change that the halacha enables, had no problem going against the rabbi and the halacha about the other issue. I mentioned this to a neighbor I respect, and he pointed out something I hadn't really considered before.

He said there are two types of approaches to Orthodoxy (my words, not his). There are those that look at the halacha and those that look at the mesoret. He claimed that the approach of American rabbis was to look at the books, at the halacha, while the Israeli approach was to look at the mesoret, the tradition.

According to this approach, there wasn't a contradiction in the behavior I mentioned above. In both cases, the parties were interested in what the mesoret was, regardless of the halacha.

When I mentioned that I couldn't help identifying more with the halacha than with (only) the mesoret, he said that made sense. I thought he would say because of my baal teshuva background (I didn't grow up with any signficant traditions to have difficulty breaking with), but he thought it was davka that I went to Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati. He claimed that YKD is known for focusing on halacha over mesoret (although I assume he meant more for kula than for chumra.)

That seemed strange to me, since I've always considered YKD to be the farthest thing from a Baal Teshuva yeshiva. When I first went there, and had difficulty keeping up, I considered switching to Machon Meir, which was (maybe still is) the only real Religious Zionist baal teshuva yeshiva. I ended up sticking it out, and I'm certainly glad I did.

But this got me thinking - why is this the case? Why don't most baalei teshuva become anshei halacha instead of anshei mesoret (to invent a dialectic I'm not sure Rav Soloveitchik would agree with)? I think the answer can be found in Haym Soloveitchik's famous article, RUPTURE AND RECONSTRUCTION ( ). Here he discusses how "mimetic tradition" ends up taking precedence over "the written law." Now he's not only talking about baalei teshuva, but the charedi move to the right in general. He claims that this somewhat recent change came from the break in the chain of tradition with the world of Eastern Europe, by both the encounter with modernity and of course the Shoah. Without a grandfather to follow, the best choice is to take the strictest route. (I highly recommend reading the whole article; my short summary doesn't do it justice.)

When we lived on Kibbutz Yavne, there was an ulpan giyur where potential converts retrieved their pre-conversion training. So I got to know a lot of converts there. I think there's a great similarity between converts and baalei teshuva, especially in their motivation. Many of them are looking for a new family. So they grab on to the traditions, maybe even more than the halacha.

As I've written earlier, I got lucky. I didn't need to do that, I think primarily by attaching myself to rabbis, real talmidei chachamim, instead of other baalei teshuva. So perhaps I'm the exception - a baal teshuva "Ish Halacha".

But still, two things about the approach of the "mesoret" camp bother me. One, I love to argue. I find logic intoxicating, and find few greater pleasures than proving my point. Within the 4 amot of halacha - everything is up for grabs. You bring a source from here - I'll bring a source from there. In the end one side will likely win (unless we're using the Breuer approach to Tanach), but the weapon is logic. Everyone has a fair chance. But how can you argue with mesoret? It doesn't seem fair in general, and as a ba'al teshuva, it puts me at a distinct disadvantage. (Although on a personal level I can get out of many minhagim by saying "I do what my father does..."

And secondly, the anshei mesoret aren't really anshei mesoret. They're rebels as well, although maybe they won't admit to joining Shachal's "HaMered HaKadosh." They don't wear the same clothes or kippas as their great-grandfathers. And probably some of their ancestors objected to Zionism, which was of course a great rebellion. They studied in universities, their daughters and wives study Torah in ways the previous generations never would have, most watch TV and the list goes on and on. So who are they to say that my rebellion against mesoret, especially when it's in the boundaries of halacha, and even motivated by halacha, isn't legitimate?

So how do you have a successful halachic rebellion? That's the $64,000 question. What I've been hearing from friends who know - by education and baby steps. It's hard for a not-so-patient person like me, but I guess there isn't much other choice.

P.S. In the course of a Google search for this post, I came across this article by Rabbi Saul Berman. . Food for thought.