Saturday, October 30, 2010

Will to the congregation, or Tradition, tradition! (part 7)

I have been thinking today about the concept of authority in Judaism (both authority of a Rebbe and authority of a posek) and remembered this post, in which I quoted from a book by David Hartman, where he proposes a new order of Orthodox Judaism, in which halachic and hashkafic decisions will no longer be bound by the authority of community and authority of tradition, but instead will be determined by human reason alone. You can follow the link to the post to read the summary of the chapter and the excerpt delineating this “new order”, but this is the key part:
A whole new way of life emerges when we maintain that community does not define the contents of truth. Once tradition need to justify itself in the court of universal reason, it can no longer demand obedience to itself as the highest virtue nor can it regard such obedience as the way to spiritual excellence. [...] Arguments from authority [that] presuppose acceptance of the authority which derives in turn from a loyalty to the community which legitimates that authority [shall be abandoned].
So, today I was thinking about the role of a posek. When the whole controversy with Sara Hurwitz was happening, I called my rabbi, and we spoke a bit about the controversy, the role of the rabbi, how American Jewry hijacked the role of a Christian priest and applied it to a rabbi, and other interesting topics. I asked him: what makes someone a posek? Yes, he has to have a smicha. Yes, he has to go through the process of shimush. But what then? “Are you asking me,” said my rabbi, “when does the magic start?” I said: yes. He then replied: the magic starts when a community designates someone an authority in Halacha. This is what makes him a posek. This is what gives him an authority to make chiddushim in Halacha.

Rav Moishe Feinstein basically answered the same when he was asked how he became a posek. He said: someone had asked him a sha’aleh, and he gave a psak.

So, now, let’s think about what this means. Torah is bli gvul. It is infinite. It comes from the essence and will and wisdom (which are not the same thing) of G-d Almighty, who Himself is beyond all thought and comprehension. So, what makes us think that we can know His Will? Nothing. We can’t. “No thought can comprehend Me”, “for My thoughts are not your thoughts”.

We cannot know G-d’s will. That is why the whole liberal talk of “I know what G-d wants from me because it’s in my heart” is nonsense. It’s termites (see the quote at the beginning).

On the other hand, He has made His will known to us — through Moshe Rabbeinu, through His prophets and through His teachers, the authorities in each generation, from whose decisions we are admonished not to deviate either right or left. But why? Why does He make it known to some people, but not to everyone? What’s the algorithm? Where does the magic start?

And here we come upon the famous story with the Rav of Prague, Noideh b’Yehudoh (source):
Prague was once a great Torah center, and when the rov had passed away they sought a fitting replacement. Obviously this man would need to be a Torah giant, and to make sure that he was, the scholars would test every prospective applicant for the job: first the rov had to deliver a high-level Torah lecture and the scholars would try to disprove it — this was no easy task, not that unlike being thrown to lions. Should they be unable to find a hole in his lecture, they would start asking him legal questions that a rov would have to know. If he passed the questions he could be the new rov. However, each applicant that came to the test would eventually fail, so Prague went without a rov for some time. Eventually a young man, R’ Yechezkel Landau, came to be examined. He did very well and the examiners just couldn’t stump him, so finally they started asking him halachic questions that were so complicated that they could practically never happen — and he finally gave them an answer they didn't like.

They began to shout, and brought out books to prove that he was wrong, and therefore unworthy to be rabbi in their city. “Ok,” said the young man, “but first I’d like to explain something to you. You see, a rov is a human being, and humans can err. However, if a rov is honest and dedicated — if he does his utmost best to fulfill his role — then G-d protects him from mistakes. This is so that he shouldn’t mislead his flock. You, however, are asking me questions that are irrelevant — they never happened and they never will happen — therefore, there is no protection in this case, since my flock is not at stake, only my honor is. And for honor there is no special protection from above.” And they took him to be their rov (later known as the Nodah B'Yehuda).
This is an answer to the question of why would Hashem reveal His Will and Wisdom, infinitely removed from our understanding and our level of reality, to a rav. For the sake of the tzibbur.

And that is why the “arguments from authority [that] presuppose acceptance of the authority which derives in turn from a loyalty to the community which legitimates that authority” are important. Hashem’s Divine Providence guides the Jewish Nation. He wants His people to carry out His Will. And that is why He shares it with those whom the communities establish as their leaders and authorities.

More on the topic:
Tradition, tradition! (part 2)
Surrounding children with holiness

1 comment:

Mor said...

I think that this is logical if you are assuming that a rav's authority actually derives from the acceptance of the community. I kind of feel though that a rav's authority derives from the fact that he is a talmid chacham and a yerei shamayim, and the fact that he is recognized by many (holy) jews as such proves rather than establishes the fact that he is a posek.