Friday, March 12, 2010

Uncle Why Leaves the Jews "Open to Interpretation"



Hi, boys and girls.



It seems like a lot of people have been confusing me with my "cousin" in Cincinatti, Uncle Jay. But I can assure you that we only look alike.

Looks like we've been having our fill of natural disasters, boys and girls. More earthquakes in Chile, Alaska, Turkey, and Avigdor Lieberman's office. And snowstorms on the east coast are knocking down all the eruvs! Vice President Biden was visiting and he refused to daven in my shul for Shabbos (and I don't live in Ramat Shlomo). But it looks like we may have avoided one natural(ization) disaster... the Knesset voted down the latest conversion bill.

And that brings me to Uncle Why's Jews word for this week:

HALACHA

Halacha literally means "way to go" and it is just that. It basically refers to all the rules we have to follow in order to be proper Jews.

Now, the term as we use it goes all the way back to Talmudic times where the word הלכה appears about 14 times in the Mishna and its Aramaic counterpart הלכתא appears about 825 times in the Babylonian Talmud. As such, it has come to mean "the way to go in accordance to the tenets of the Talmud".

This does not mean that the term originated then. It is safe to assume that the term was taken from the Torah itself. Not only do we find this terminology openly expressed by the prototype convert Yisro in Shmos 18:20: 
כ וְהִזְהַרְתָּה אֶתְהֶם אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַתּוֹרת וְהוֹדַעְתָּ לָהֶם אֶת-הַדֶּרֶךְ יֵלְכוּ בָהּ וְאֶת-הַמַּעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּן:

And by Moshe Rabbenu in Devarim 28:9 and, of course, by HKBH Himself in my all time favorite pasuk (Vayikra 26:3): אִם-בְּחֻקּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת-מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אתָם :

But it is craftily encoded in this pasuk (Devarim 6:24):

וַיְצַוֵּנוּ ה' לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה' אלקנו לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל-הַיָּמִים לְחַיּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה

Notice how all three of the pasukim that I displayed are discussing the חקים - the laws.

Now, I don't think that I really need to explain to you what HALACHA is, boys and girls, because since you are all on the Internet (which many people hold is against HALACHA) you are all probably familiar with a nifty little site call Wikipedia which has a reasonably accurate entry all about it.

Only it likes to spell it: HALAKHA.
Now, this entry tells us that today there are two different approaches to HALACHA: Orthodox and Non-Orthodox (the article calls it "Conservative" but what's the difference?)
Here is how it explains the Orthodox approach:
Orthodox Jews believe that halakha is a religious system, whose core represents the revealed will of God. Although Orthodox Judaism acknowledges that rabbis made many additions and interpretations of Jewish Law, they did so only in accordance with regulations they believe were given to them by Moses on Mount Sinai (see Deuteronomy 5:8-13). These regulations were transmitted orally until shortly after the destruction of the second temple. They were then recorded in the Mishnah, and explained in the Talmud and commentaries throughout history, including today.

Orthodox Judaism believes that subsequent interpretations have been derived with the utmost accuracy and care. The most widely accepted code of Jewish law is known as the
Shulchan Aruch. As such, no rabbi has the right to change Jewish law unless they clearly understand how it coincides with the precepts of the Shulchan Aruch. Later commentaries were accepted by many rabbis as final rule, however, other rabbis may disagree.

What these paragraphs allude to is Uncle Why's second Jews word for this week:

MESORA

This refers to a hierarchical chain of Halachic process that was introduced to us in the first Mishna of Pirkei Avot. What it says is that we have a chain of tradition of Halachic process that can be categorized into Halachic eras. Those being as follows:
The Torah itself (G-d or "Sinai") > Moshe > Joshua > Elders > Prophets > Anshei Knesset HaGedola > Zugot > Tanaim > Amoraim > Savoraim > Geonim > Rishonim > Achronim > Uncle Why.

Our MESORA is that once something was interpreted or established in any given era, it becomes inviolable. The only thing that is left "open to interpretation" are the "loose ends" or fine details that may not yet have been interpreted.

For example, the Torah clearly tells us that we must "recite these words" (i.e., the Shema) at the time of our rising. There is nothing left open to interpretation about the fact that we must recite these words. That is the Halacha from the Torah itself. From the "Sinai Era". Nevertheless, we do not yet know how to define the "time of rising". So this "detail" does remain open for interpretation for the time being. This detail in fact had to wait until the era of the Tanaim. There, we had two valid opinions: Rabi Eliezer who said that it ends at sunrise and Rabi Yehoshua who said that it ends at "the third hour". Perhaps before that era there were other sages with other opinions, but from that point on, there were no other opinions expressed. Thus, we consider it audacious for someone from a later era to say, "Hey, since these Tanaim argued about it, we see that it is open to interpretation, so lets find new ways to interpret it."

Not only are these now the only two valid opinions, but we apply our rules of psak (in this case that we generally do not rule like Rabi Eliezer due to his status as a "shamuti") to determine that the Halacha is like Rabi Yehoshua. So now we know that (1) we must recite Shema and (2) the we must do it before the third hour. Finito. Nothing left to talk about.

Almost.

We still do not know how exactly we count an Halachic hour to know when the third hour actually arrives. This was indeed "open to interpretation" until the era of the early Achronim when the matter was clarified into two valid opinions - sunrise to sunset (Gra) or alos hashachar to dusk (Magen Avrohom). Though in this case there is no primacy so both opinions are valid, the matter is no longer considered "open to interpretation" to allow for a new opinion (Belz?).

So now we can even look at a calendar and know that (1) we must recite Shema (Sinai) (2) we must complete it before the third hour (Mishna/Tanaim) and (3) today this means either 8:13 or 8:49 (Achronim).
Now, let's have a quick look at the Non-Orthodox approach:

The view held by Conservative Judaism is that while God is real, the Torah is not the word of God in a literal sense.

Get that? G-d is real but the Torah is not literally His word.

I wonder - who wrote this? I must admit that this is even beyond the capabilities of Uncle Why to explain! If G-d literally gave us the Torah (Rambam Principle #8), then it must be literally the word of G-d. And if it is not literally the word of G-d, it can only mean that they believe that G-d did not dictate the Torah. In short, they believe the Torah is man-made.

Let's go on.

However, in this view the Torah is still held as mankind's record of its understanding of God's revelation, and thus still has divine authority.

What exactly did G-d do at his revelation if He did not dictate the Torah? Why do they believe there (literally?) was a revelation if all the other parts of the revelation story are not literally true?


In any case, let us take a tally. This "viewpoint" seems to believe in Rambam's principles 1, 2, and 3 that G-d is real. Maybe they also believe in 4 and 5. But they do not believe in #8 that our Torah was given to Moshe from HKBH. And, if so, they cannot believe in #9 that He won't change it. Why not change it? He never gave it! Consequently they cannot go with #6 and #7 for if the Torah is not "true", then the words of the prophets can't be any truer. #10 may stand that HKBH knows all of our actions but reward and punishment (#11) must be out because if there are no G-d-given commandments, there cannot be G-dly repercussions. Finally #12 and 13 are discussed in the Talmud as directly derived from the Torah. But if the Torah is not the literal "word of G-d" there is nothing to derive.

Final score - maximum 6 principles in and at least 7 principles out.

In this view, traditional Jewish law is still seen as binding. Jews who hold by this view generally try to use modern methods of historical study to learn how Jewish law has changed over time, and are in some cases more willing to change Jewish law in the present.

You mean to change traditional Jewish law? I thought it was binding?

A key practical difference between Conservative and Orthodox approaches is that Conservative Judaism holds that its Rabbinical body's powers are not limited to reconsidering later precedents based on earlier sources, but the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is empowered to override Biblical and Taanitic prohibitions by takkanah (decree) when perceived to be inconsistent with modern requirements and/or views of ethics.

In other words, if it doesn't work for you, change it. And if you can change some of it, you can change all of it. What does G-d care? He never gave us any of it anyway. He just "revealed' Himself.

And this must be why there are so very few Conservative Jews who recite the Shema every day upon rising (and when they lay down). It must be inconsistent with modern requirements and/or views of ethics.

Bottom line is that there is a view point in Halacha that says that G-d is real, He revealed Himself to us and inspired us to write a Torah on our own that will be adjustable to suit every modern whim.

How enlightened! I must tell you that I would find it easier to believe in a virgin birth.

מִי חָכָם וְיָבֵן אֵלֶּה נָבוֹן וְיֵדָעֵם כִּי-יְשָׁרִים דַּרְכֵי ה' וְצַדִּקִים יֵלְכוּ בָם וּפשְׁעִים יִכָּשְׁלוּ בָם:

And now it's time...

...for one of your Jews questions. Actually the one that inspired this post.

However, this post is much too long as it is and the question will have to wait for a future post.

So...so long for this week, boys and girls. Tune in whenever I am ready to answer more of your Jews questions and remember...

Great Halachic Men make great Jews!!

7 comments:

joshwaxman said...

"We still do not know how exactly we count an Halachic hour to know when the third hour actually arrives. This was indeed "open to interpretation" until the era of the early Achronim when the matter was clarified into two valid opinions - sunrise to sunset (Gra) or alos hashachar to dusk (Magen Avrohom). "

do you really think that the Tannaim and Amoraim did not know how to count a halachic hour?! what evidence do you have that Tannaim and Amoraim held by different shitos in this? this is a machlokes rooted in how to understand the gemara, but surely, in many, many instances, it was absolutely clear to earlier generations what it meant, not "open to interpretation".

also, it is a matter of modern Orthodox dispute whether Acharonim can argue with Rishonim and Gaonim. And the Rambam argued on all the Geonim on a matter of modeh bemiktzas because he found a 500 year old gemara which lent new insight.

you write:
"Thus, we consider it audacious for someone from a later era to say, "Hey, since these Tanaim argued about it, we see that it is open to interpretation, so lets find new ways to interpret it.""
and yet, this is precisely what Gra and Shaages Aryeh do all the time -- argue on the Rishonim, on the basis of their own understanding of the gemara. were they going against Masorah? (well, yes, against the *new* consensus of what the masorah is.)

roughly, what you write is true, in many cases. but i think you are overstating it, quite a lot.

kol tuv,
josh

joshwaxman said...

scratch that (deleted comment). gra has rishonim and geonim to rely upon for this particular case.

despite this, i don't believe that the Tannaim and Amoraim disputed what an hour was. rather, it was a dispute rooted on what the gemara itself means.

kol tuv,
josh

Yechezkel said...

>>do you really think that the Tannaim and Amoraim did not know how to count a halachic hour?! what evidence do you have that Tannaim and Amoraim held by different shitos in this? this is a machlokes rooted in how to understand the gemara, but surely, in many, many instances, it was absolutely clear to earlier generations what it meant, not "open to interpretation".


Of course the Tanaim and Amoraim knew how to figure an Halachic hour. They also knew the proper arrangements for the parshios in the tefillin. Unfortunately they did not divulge this information to us. And that is my entire point: It is not out of bounds for a later generation to squabble about things that an earlier era was not koveah for us. It doesn't mean they didn't know it for themselves.

>>also, it is a matter of modern Orthodox dispute whether Acharonim can argue with Rishonim and Gaonim...and yet, this is precisely what Gra and Shaages Aryeh do all the time -- argue on the Rishonim...

I have no problem with this. From after the Talmudic era, the lines and rules do get a bit blurred. Keep in mind that today we walk into our cheders and see nicely laid out charts about when the tekufas of Geonim, Rishonim, Achronim began and ended (or we read books from Rabbi Wein). I would assume the Shaagas Aryeh's cheder did not have such clear cut charts (and I am cetain he had no books from Rabbi Wein). So it wasn't so clear cut to the Shaagas Aryeh that he wasn't a Rishon.

joshwaxman said...

"So it wasn't so clear cut to the Shaagas Aryeh that he wasn't a Rishon."
oy, nebach on the Shaages Aryeh and the Gra, who were so ignorant didn't know this. no, this was not it at all. what a corruption of the Shaages Aryeh and Gra! (and there are others, into this day, who maintain the same position -- namely that Ravina and Rav Ashi are sof horaah, but other than that, while these distinctions did show levels of interpretation, with Acharonim discussing Rishonim, etc., that is not what a posek is obligated to do. rather, a (major) posek must even argue with Rishonim if he believes that he has the correct interpretation of the gemara.) but by all means, reinvent the Vilna Gaon and Shaages Aryeh so that they would subscribe to contemporary chareidi beliefs.

"that an earlier era was not koveah for us"
but they *were* koveah it for us. just because of our inability to understand the gemara correctly, machlokes crept in. but you seemed to be casting it as that from the time of Mattan Torah until it was determined by Acharonim, it was up in the air and anything was acceptable.

kt,
josh

joshwaxman said...

"They also knew the proper arrangements for the parshios in the tefillin."

not necessarily. in the Qumran caves, both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam tefillin were found. so perhaps that particular machlokes goes way back...

kt,
josh

Yechezkel said...

>>oy, nebach on the Shaages Aryeh and the Gra, who were so ignorant didn't know this...but by all means, reinvent the Vilna Gaon and Shaages Aryeh so that they would subscribe to contemporary chareidi beliefs.

I am at a total loss to figure out what's bothering you.

>>but they *were* koveah it for us. just because of our inability to understand the gemara correctly, machlokes crept in.

You mean like Rashi says in Temura 16a (top of the page) and Sota 47a (s.v. Eshkolos)? Yes, indeed, this is exactly what I meant as well (I don't argue much with Rashi!).

>>but you seemed to be casting it as that from the time of Mattan Torah until it was determined by Acharonim, it was up in the air and anything was acceptable.

No, I mean exactly like Rashi (referenced above) writes. Perhaps I wasn't sufficiently clear. But even if this is the case, you are obviously reading me the way you want to read me (evidently you have to convince yourself that there is some point of contention in our viewpoints for some inexplicable reason)as opposed to assuming that I hold by the conventional viewpoint (a la Rashi).

>>not necessarily. in the Qumran caves, both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam tefillin were found. so perhaps that particular machlokes goes way back...

Here you definitely misunderstood me. (I guess I definitely wasn't clear). That particular machlokes definitely goes way back. It is all but impossible to maintain that Klal Yisroel for generations wore their tefillin only one way and along comes Rabenu Tam to give a new 12th century opinion and - voila - now we have a second option. This machlokes was alive and well way before Rashi/RT and the shaos zmanios was alive way before the GRA and MA (as you duly noted). It was only during ther period of Rashi that two prominent gedolim were koveah their shitos in writing and we use their names to refer to the 2 tzdaddim. Same with GRA and MA (although it is known that MA is actually Tosafos).

The point of my post is that the origin of a halachic uncertainty is not so important. What is important is when it was "ironed out". Some parts were settled in the Torah. Other parts were settled by chazal and other parts were settled later.

Having said all this, I do not think that we are arguing over anything of substance.

joshwaxman said...

"I am at a total loss to figure out what's bothering you."

it is a major point. see this link:
http://js-kit.com/api/static/pop_comments?ref=http://hirhurim.blogspot.com&path=/114988152366495959

and scroll down to the first comment by lamedzayin, where he (accurately) summarizes rav herschel schachter's position on this. other contemporary rabbis would almost certainly argue with rav schachter on this, but that is the point i am trying to make.

kol tuv,
josh