Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ah, But How White are His Teeth!

Am I the only one who noticed that there seems to be some differences of opinion between 2 very renowned Roshei Yeshiva - Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Shlita and Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Shlita?

Yes, it's a rhetorical question.

Now, I am certainly not worthy of weighing in any opinion of significance between these 2 great Princes of Torah. Especially since I have never gone sledding in my life. (Yes, there was plenty of snow where I come from but there was an acute shortage of hills.) Yet, in the simple-minded capacity of the child in The Emperor's New Clothes, I feel I can naively express that which I can plainly observe.

Owing that I have already discussed my impressions on Rabbi Feldman's book in a previous post, it remains for me to comment on the articulate remarks of Rabbi Lichtenstein. Let me declare that, aside from having read Rabbi Feldman's book in its entirety, I likewise have thoroughly read Rabbi Lichtenstein's essay, more than once. Nevertheless, after these repeated readings of Rabbi Lichtenstein's essay, I have one word to describe my feelings.


There is so much that I do not understand (child that I am) and perhaps a bit of "pilpul chaveirim" can clear the air for me.

First, let us review some basics. Rabbi Aharon Feldman has published a book whose purpose is "an attempt to present an authentic Jewish perspective on various issues regarding which many in the observant Jewish public are confused, because of the lack of understanding about how the Torah retlates to them." In other words he wants to explain the Torah community's (i.e., Yeshivish/Chassidish/Chareidi) perspective to those observant Jews who are confused (don't get it) and wish to be enlightened.

That's cool. I did the same thing.

Said book comprises a collection of essays from recent years on "raging issues". He groups the essays into 5 categories:

  • Zionism - Where he discusses our rejection of secularism

  • Feminism - Where he discusses our rejection of liberal trends

  • Books and Persons - Where he discusses (pro and con) the works of other observant Jews

  • Matters of Belief - Where he discusses Messianism and RabbinicAuthority

  • Matters of Behavior - Where he discusses criminality and homosexuality
And now we discuss Rabbi Lichtenstein. My first challenge was that, since I never attended Harvard, I was quite befuddled by some of those ten-dollar words that he employed. Undaunted, I was able to navigate this minefield thanks to the handy-dandy online dictionary that I have linked in my Favorites folder. I am, after all, a technical writer. But I was still befuddled by his choice of words. As a friend (from Baltimore, no less) told me in the Imrei Shefer mikveh, "He used terminology that you won't find in the New York Times."

It is certainly Harvard level vocabulary, not Jewish Action. And so the question nags at me: Who was he writing this for? Was it only for people with Harvard level education or for people who may be interested in Rabbi Feldman's book? And if the latter, why make it so taxing to try to understand what he is trying to say?

Perhaps it was meant to keep simple-minded children like me from being able to formulate a response. Almost worked.

After conquering the lexicon, the next befuddling issue was his use of a very simple and common word: anger.

I took the liberty of even looking up this word in my online dictionary to see what kind of aberrant connotation may be intimated by a Harvardian. There were so many definitions available there as to render his intent a matter of guesswork. But there was one dominant definition: a strong feeling of hostility.

And now I am triply befuddled.

Firstly, as one commenter in the OU.Org web site (one Mike Rose) points out: "I read the Eye of the Storm, and I did not detect any anger." Likewise, I also read the entire book and I fail to see what can be construed as hostility or "anger". It looks as if Rabbi Lichtenstein qualifies this assertion by quoting some perfectly relevant statements from the "Introduction" and comes to the conclusion that: "hence, the predominant polemical thrust of The Eye of the Storm." It is as if he is taken aback by a "polemical thrust".

But, please. Let's wake up and smell the coffee. The chareidi (or Torah or "authentic") community is indeed somewhat rejectionist. It rejects secularism, liberal trends, messianism, homosexuality, and the like. The purpose of this book is to politely, respectfully, and rationally explain WHY our community rejects these ideas. Such a book is inherently going to have a polemic thrust. It is unavoidable as it is its purpose. But it need not be hostile (angry).

And it isn't.
(Indeed, I need to point out that Rabbi Lichtenstein's unfettered use of the term "anger" inspired a very popular blogger to accuse Rabbi Feldman of "inspiring hatred" based solely on Rabbi Lichtenstein's characterization. I hereby submit my macha'ah to Rabbi Lichtenstein for being responsible for this chain of events.)

And a second thought befuddles me: What has Rabbi Lichtenstein achieved by characterizing this work as a work of anger?

I will tell you what he has achieved. And it is a nifty trick. To say that a work is motivated by anger is to say that the work is not purely a work of rational debate. In other words, the rationale of the party in question is at least partly impaired by whatever level of emotion (anger, passion... whatever you want to call it) that is present. As such, this serves as a preamble to the rebuttals that follow as if to explain or excuse the perceived flaws of the author as a result of "anger".

And, thirdly, even if we are to agree with Rabbi Lichtenstein that Rabbi Feldman's critques, despite his respectful and eloquent presentation, can be characterized as "anger", I fail to see how Rabbi Lichtenstein's critiques, despite his respectful and eloquent presentation, can be characterized any less as "anger". (And I am certain that, in this vein, some readers will feel justified in characterizing my critique as "anger".) And thus, Rabbi Lichtenstein has succeeded in opening a Pandora's box that, in my humble opinion, was best to have been left undisturbed. I question the wisdom of Rabbi Lichtenstein in introducing this assertion and I submit that for the rebuttals that he is soon to present, it does not serve his case well by any means.

Now, let us discuss these rebuttals. Rabbi Lichtenstein chooses to focus his attention on the first 2 sections of the book: Zionism and Feminism.

First things first - Zionism. Rabbi Feldman presents a collection of essays in an effort to follow the mission of his book: to help the "confused" understand why the world of "authentic Judaism"is at odds with the secular ideologies of the "Jewish" State. In general they focus on the "vacuity" of a secular based ideal and how it can be shown to have contributed to a very noticable breakdown in society.

On this, Rabbi Lichtenstein doesn't seem to offer a more potent response than to "play down" severity of this decadence by writing: "Must we, may we, be so radically judgmental as we deplore certain lapses in religious motivation and result?"

This is actually one of the "4 kushyos" that Rabbi Lichtenstein presents in the main rebuttal paragraph and the only one in which he addresses, in general terms, what Rabbi Feldman wrote. The other 3 "kushyos" address what Rabbi Feldman did not write. They are:

    1. At one end of the spectrum, is it indeed desirable– or even possible–to engage in a foray of utter denial of Jewish worth to what the Zionist enterprise, albeit regarded as a monolithic behemoth, hath wrought?

    2. Is the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael, accompanied by gradual progress towards rov yoshvehah alehah, Jewishly neutral?

    3. Can we blandly overlook the infant country’s commitment to kelitah, arguably the most monumental initiative of post- Biblical chesed, as if only atheists and Christians valued caritas?

In general, Rabbi Lichtenstein is asking: Is there nothing positive that we can say about the Zionist enterprise?

I don't want to get bogged down in specific refutations here, but I would (to be very brief) say the following (note- I am not speaking for Rabbi Feldman): For question 1 - nobody has denied that there are some positive aspects to appreciate BUT - for questions 2 and 3 - these 2 "achievements" (if they are indeed 2) have not been absolute virtues. The Zionist enterprise has seen to it that they have come at a heavy price to the spiritual well being of the population. The argument can certainly be made that to the extent that the Jewsih character of the state is vibrant is in spite of it and not because of it.

I am not certain when Rabbi Feldman wrote the included essays, but they were not all written yesterday. I mentioned that they focus on the "vacuity" of a secular based ideal and how it can be shown to have contributed to a very noticable breakdown in society. Current events show us that this is only "the beginning". Rabbi Feldman's essays evidently pre-dated a society which, on the one hand, can expel a Hesder Torah institution because it did not retroactively want to condemn those who protested throwing Jews from their homes and, on the other hand, an ex-soldier passes more than 2000 highly sensitive security documents into the hands of hostile media sharks. Our enemies can shoot rockets at us with impiunity and we can barely respond and our government bows to foreign rulers to halt all construction in much of our land. "We are still subservient to Achashverosh!" (TB Megilah 14a) Consequently, one thing Rabbi Feldman did not emphasize, is that the vacuity of Zionism has currently not only perpetrated a breakdown of society at large, but we are experiencing what is being called a post-Zionist era. In other words, secular Zionism has destroyed itself!

Rabbi Lichtenstein, whose essay is much more current, doesn't seem to acknowledge this new reality and the dangers that it poses. He merely decries that Rabbi Feldman does not acknowledge the "modicum" of benefits.

And when I read this "criticism" in his essay, I could not chase away from my mind a legend that is brought in Chovos HaLevavos (Shaar Kniah 6):

There was an incident of a certain pious man who was strolling with his students and they chanced upon the putrid carcass of a dog. The students exclaimed, "Oh, how putrid is this carcass!" And the pious one retorted, "Ah, but how white are his teeth!"

Now, it is clear that the pious Jew in no way negated the observation of his students. He merely was trying to teach them to see the good side in everything. But this is merely a philosophical lesson, not an excuse for folly. I would tend to doubt that the pious man was ready to pick up the dog's carcass and bring it home to his wife and when she says: "Don't you walk in here with that putrid carcass", he will say, "But, look how white are his teeth!"

And so, by "exposing the vacuity of secular Zionism", I hear Rabbi Feldman saying the obvious: "How putrid is this carcass!" And now I hear Rabbi Lichtenstein, not negating the observation of Rabbi Feldman, but assuming the role of the pious Jew and telling us: "Ah, but how white are his teeth!"

And, now we discuss the second section: Feminism.

By way of summary, I would like to submit that perhaps this section of the book was not aptly titled. It could more aptly be called "Liberal Orthodoxy" because that is the underlying catalyst of Orthodox feminism. Feminism is the effect but liberal mindedness is the cause. Accordingly, Rabbi Feldman devotes 3 chapters to this issue. All of which, essays written at different times for different audiences, point out the inconsistencies in the feminist approach to mitzvos which serve to cast aspersions on the true sincerity and spiritual altruism that the protagonists lay claim to.

The middle essay (Halachic Feminism or Feminist Halachah?) is a protracted one which reviews the Halachic essays titled Jewish Legal Writings by Women and asserts that they are politically motivated works whose writers seek to manipulate the Halacha to fit the feminist agenda. This is accomplished using Halachic sleight-of-hand (now you see this authority-now you don't or "watch me pull a Rishon out of a snood") and reverse osmosis (deliver the verdict first and call the witnesses later). A major segment is a critical analysis of an article penned by Ms. Aliza Berger that discusses the permissibility (or advisability) for women to don tefillin. One of Rabbi Feldman's trump points is that the author simply ignores that virtually all authorities from the time of the codifiers (he mentions: Beis Yosef, Rema, Magen Avraham, Peri Megadim, Aruch HaShulchan and Mishna Berura) who discuss this issue maintain that women are proscribed from donning tefillin.

Here again we get from Rabbi Lichtenstein the "How putrid is this carcass"/"Ah, but how white are his teeth" treatment as he totally sidesteps any debate on Rabbi Feldman's main point of an agenda based movement and contents himself with seeking out the "flaws in the context of Halachic discourse". As this entire criticism does not directly relate to the theme of the book or Rabbi Feldman's prevailing points about feminism, only on Halachic discourse, I could claim there is no need for rebuttal. Still, Rabbi Lichtenstein's points do have merit and deserve to be addressed.

Rabbi Lichtenstein criticizes on 2 levels - general theory and detailed application. In the general theory department, he quotes an excerpt from the chapter:
Thus, an opinion of the Rishonim, when codified by the major later authorities, is inviolable.

Rabbi Lichtenstein goes on to present numerous legitimate opinions that, under the proper circumstances, scholars of a later era (Achronim) can argue with those of a previous one (Rishonim). A case in point is the well known demeanor of the Shaagas Aryeh. Interestingly, I discussed this very issue in a very recent post that I wrote about Halachic process. I presented Rabbi Feldman's position as a rule of thumb. One commenter challenged me with similar sources as well as a mention of the Shaagas Aryeh. My response was that I concede to him that this is not an iron clad rule without exception, but I also noted that the Shaagas Aryeh - a 17-18th century sage - was not nearly as chronologically removed from the Rishonim as we are.

Thus, though I cannot speak for Rabbi Feldman, I think that perhaps the statement quoted by Rabbi Lichtenstein was also not meant to be an absolute rule without exception and we can accept the assertion of Rabbi Lichtenstein that people with the stature and "broad shoulders" of the Shaagas Aryeh are qualified to debate with Rishonim. Perhaps there are some such giants in each generation, even ours. Perhaps Rav Elyashiv, Shlita, perhaps Rav Ovadia Yosef Shlita, perhaps Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, shlita. Nevertheless, for the average - or even above average - rav, avreich or Rosh Yeshiva of today, and certainly of Ms. Aliza Berger, I would tend to doubt that any exceptions are in order.

But, perhaps, Rabbi Lichtenstein is misreading this statement to begin with. It looks to me like he is reading the statement: Thus, an opinion of the Rishonim, when codified by the major later authorities, is inviolable.- with the accent on the Rishonim; but the proper reading is: Thus, an opinion of the Rishonim, when codified by the major later authorities, is inviolable - with the accent on the codifiers and later authorities. And he means to say that when the consensus is so persistently unanimous (even if not completely), then the Halacha is inviolable. I will get back to this point shortly.

Now, let's discuss the detailed application. Here is where I was more befuddled than ever. When I first read the essay, I initially caught the impression that Rabbi Lichtenstein is championing the cause for Orthodox women to don tefillin. And I was flabbergasted. How could this be? Is not Rabbi Lichtenstein the star disciple and son-in-law of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitcik Z"L? And is not the tale that Rabbi Feldman himself relates in his book (pages 74-5) concerning Rabbi Soloveitchik and the woman who wanted to wear a tallis of legendary renown?

But, when I reviewed the piece more thoroughly, I noted that after the argument on Halachic discourse is duly registered, Rabbi Lichtenstein does indeed offer a minor concession to Rabbi Feldman that "traditional prevalent practice should be sustained". Just not on the basis of Rabbi Feldman's position; in line with the Talmudic adage of "Halacha kimoso v'lo mitaamei". (The source reference should read Kesuvos 83b-84a, not 83a-84b). My concern for Rabbi Lichtenstein is that many readers who are not as meticulous will likely also catch the impression that he is championing the cause for women to don tefillin and will not notice his conclusion. Here again I wonder if instilling this sort of impression upon these readers serves his best interests.

That said, the final thing left for us to do is to examine his argument and determine if it is valid. Rabbi Lichtenstein opens by taking Rabbi Feldman to task for calling the poskim "unanimous" in 2 places and "nearly unanimous" in a third. I agree that Rabbi Feldman should be more consistent. Nevertheless, in terms of Rabbi Feldman's list of poskim, it does seem to be unanimous or "nearly so" and Rabbi Lichtenstein does not offer us a single authority of the "post-codifier" era with a dissenting opinion.

However, Rabbi Lichtenstein continues:

Strictly speaking, of course, if we use Rishonim as a yardstick, neither statement is accurate. A practice which was regarded as open to acceptance by the Rashba, the Ritva, the Meiri and less prominent Rishonim....

This is a fatal flaw in Rabbi Lichtenstein's argument. It is what I have learned in the blog world is known as a "straw man" argument. And the straw man is in these words: If we use the Rishonim as a yardstick...

If we use the Rishonim as a yardstick, then Rabbi Lichtenstein is absolutely correct. But Rabbi Feldman does not use the Rishonim as a yardstick. He uses the poskim. In fact, Rabbi Feldman himself concedes fully on page 95 that by the Rishonim, the issue is not unanimous. He writes: "Nevertheless, Aliza Berger...prefers the opinion which emerges from some other Rishonim..." The issue is only "unanimous" in the poskim. And Rabbi Feldman distinguishes between the poskim and the Rishonim.

Let us understand Rabbi Feldman's position (the way I see it, at least).

Rabbi Feldman, along with the core chareidi/Yeshivish world, maintains that while the Rishonim were the primary analysts of the Talmud and their opinions are all authoritative, it is left to the codifiers and the poskim that came after them to guide us through the various opinions of the Rishonim and direct us how to go"Halacha l'maaseh". Thus it is the major consensus of the poskim and codifiers that we must listen to and not to seek "Halacha l'maaseh" from the early Rishonim. Similar to a low level employee who takes his instructions from a foreman even though it is clear that the foreman himself gets his instuctions from the "higher-ups". The employee himself is not authorized to go "over the head" of the foreman to the source.

Similarly when we have a general consensus on an Halachic issue from the poskim - those being the authorities on Rabbi Feldman's list and their peers (Beis Yosef, Rema, Magen Avraham, and onward to Mishna Berura) - we bow to them and assume that they were as aware as we are on the gamut of opinions in the Rishonim and they knew which opinions it is best to accept and which to reject. Thus, according to Rabbi Feldman, the primacy is in the hands of the later poskim and not the Rishonim even though the Rishonim were undeniably greater.

Thus, as I said, the Rishonim are not our yardstick. At the Rishonim level, Rabbi Feldman concedes there are various opinions and at the poskim level, Rabbi Lichtenstein does not prove that it is not unanimous. As such, when Rabbi Lichtenstein concludes his paragraph: Are not the giants here cited “classical authorities?” the answer is: No! These giants are not the classical authorities that Rabbi Feldman consults for our consensus. They are the precursors of the classical authorities. They are greater than the classical authorities, but for our purpose, we look to the Achronim as the classical authorities. And, from this group, on this issue, we do not have any dissenters.

So, to summarize, Rabbi Feldman's complaint on Ms. Berger is that she ignores the consensus of the poskim which is unanimous or nearly unanimous and goes over their heads to the era of the Rishonim where she can find support. His position is that even though there may be some prominent Rishonim who allow a woman to wear tefillin, the general consensus in the poskim is that they must not. Comes Rabbi Lichtenstein and responds that even though the consensus in the poskim is that they must not, there are still prominent Rishonim that allow it.

We call this: טענו בחטים וכפרו בשעורים He claims from his neighbor 2 bushels of wheat and his neighbor says, "I do not owe you 2 bushels of barley".

I would like to conclude on a personal note - I wish to note that I do not know Rabbi Lichtenstein personally. And for the most part, I do not know Rabbi Feldman, either, except that I am a friend and neighbor of his son Rav Eliyahu and Rabbi Feldman was in Har Nof over Chol Hamoed Pesach. I took this opportunity to introduce myself to him and to present him with a copy of my book.

And as I do not know either of these 2 great Roshei Yeshiva personally, I do not wish them to take any of my comments or rebuttals personally. Obviously, my hashkafic bias is evident but I have done my best to present Rav Feldman's case from logical debate.

And, as for me--will I ever sled for the very first time?

Sure I will...when Har Nof freezes over.


S. said...

>the Shaagas Aryeh - a 17th century sage - was not nearly as chronologically removed from the Rishonim as we are.

1695-1785. I'm not saying that you're point is severely undermined, since I suppose you'd argue it if he was an 18th century sage, which he was, rather than a 17th century one. Still, a century is a century.

tzvee said...

you come across as a learned man and an erudite writer. but you also come across as the spokesman of the brand of orthodoxy that upholds the no we cannot attitude to so much, to wit you admit the rwo, "rejects secularism, liberal trends, messianism, homosexuality, and the like." your judaism is an echo of the republican tea party of no we can't. you define your existence by what you oppose, what you see as evil in the world and stand up and reject.

my sympathies to you -- for you have chosen to live a life filled with negativity. that is not the judaism that moshe rabbenu brought to the world. we have a rich religion of great positive contributions, ideas and values. too bad but it seems to this reader you cannot even think of one of them. please do prove me wrong.

Yechezkel said...

To S. -

Your point is registered. I made a slight modification to reflect it.

To Tzvee -

>>my sympathies to you -- for you have chosen to live a life filled with negativity.

What can I do? The Torah has 248 positive commandments and 365 negative ones. That's about a 3:2 ratio in favor of the negatives. And since I like to do as many mitzvos as I can, there will be a whole lot of negativity.

Incidentally, you don't have to sympathize. I can tell from your post that I do a lot more laughing than you do.

Kol Tuv,


Anonymous said...

I liked this post.
And good snub on HM - as if that was neccesary

I also question your "macha'ah" of RAL because of what people might say based on his line of thought and his writings. Theequivalent would be for any random blogger to be moche that which RYSE paskins. It happens, but you dont really think thats a legitimate protest.

I dont see why this is different. He is entitled to his position, and if hes correct, then the macha'ah should be focused on RAF who really started the chain of events, since he caused RAL to write it which caused the bloggers to repeat it .... etc etc

Baruch said...

I wrote a letter to the editor; you can see the long version on hirhurim's comments, but I've since shortened it.

Ari said...

It's specious to imply that only R. Lichtenstein's worldview, and not R. Feldman's as well, performs "reverse osmosis" (calling witnesses to fit a pre-ordained verdict). Both do it. Dogma depends on it. However, I prefer dogma that is, well, less dogmatic.

Also: When you suggest that R. Lichtenstein and his type are being as silly and Pollyanna-ish as the fellow who only sees the dead dog's white teeth, you may be missing the point of the parable and of R. Lichtenstein's argument.

R. Lichtenstein isn't claiming that carcasses should be brought home and presented triumphantly to one's wife, that Zionism doesn't have serious flaws, that a feminist perspective is 100% consistent with Torah-true Judaism.

Rather, he is suggesting that it's better to attempt to find redeeming qualities wherever possible, and to learn from them. That's what more liberal strains of orthodoxy do - they find the hand of Hashem and extract spiritual value in the most "secular" of places.

Why focus exclusively on the obvious flaws? Who has the greater chidush -- the folks who stated the obvious about the carcass, or the guy who noted how white the teeth were. I'll take my chances with the latter. He is probably more sensitive to tzar ba'alei chayim.

Taken further, this is someone who is likely to see opportunity in Zionism and start a yeshiva in Israel. He is more likely to say that it's ok for girls to receive a Bais Yaakov education rather than be kept illiterate.

Any idiot can see flaws. It's a greater accomplishment to see redeeming values, learn from others, even those we disagree with.

And you know what? The pioneer who starts a yeshiva under the Zionist entity or the woman who founds a Bais Yaakov may just be onto something.

The Talmid said...

There was an incident of a certain pious man who was strolling with his students and they chanced upon the putrid carcass of a dog. The students exclaimed, "Oh, how putrid is this carcass!" And the pious one retorted, "Ah, but how white are his teeth!"

Are you saying pnei hador kipnei hakelev?

and BTW, R' Aharon Lichtenstein always writes like that.

See this article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein from The Jewish Action Reader-Volume 1, online here:

Yechezkel said...

To Ari --

>>It's specious to imply that only R. Lichtenstein's worldview, and not R. Feldman's as well, performs "reverse osmosis"...

I was not referring to either Rabbi Lichtenstein or Rabbi Feldman. I was referring to the Halachic "experts" at Jewish Legal Writings by Women.

>> you may be missing the point of the parable and of R. Lichtenstein's argument...

Of course, the point of the parable is exactly what you are sayimg. I fear that this is likewise the point of R. Lichtenstein's argument. Because, if it is, it does not have much impact on what Rabbi Feldman is trying to say. Rabbi Feldman is not giving a generic analysis of Zionism. He did not (even implicitly) subtitle his essay: Zionism - It's Pros and Cons. His essay carried an implied subtitle of something like: Zionism - Why We Cannot Embrace It or, more crudely, Zionism - What is Wrong With It.

What he means to say is: I don't see any need to spell out any benefits or achievements (white teeth) of Zionism. The protagonists will do that for me (as RAL indeed did). My purpose is to bring out why, despite whatever "white teeth" it has, it is not something that we can allow "into our house".

On that note, RAL is contributing nothing of importance.

To Talmid---

My main objective in harping on his vocabulary was his IMO very irresponsible use of the term "anger".