Monthly Archives: July 2013

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – Part 1

As the election for Israel’s chief rabbis approaches, I have been doing some research into different perspectives that have been developed to address the Halachic role of the chief rabbi and the chief rabbinate, in theory at least.  I will present some of the analyses that have been offered over the next few days.  For anyone who is interested in the topic, there is a very lengthy three volume set that was put together in honor of the Rabbanut’s 70’s year (it started during the time of the British Mandate and is therefore older than the State of Israel) – הרבנות הראשית לישראל: שבעים שנה לייסודה.  A particularly helpful article in that volume is Dr. Itamar Warhaftig’s סמכותה ההלכתית של הרבנות הראשית that summarizes many of the issues.  While I do not agree with all of his analysis, it opens up the issues and the perspectives that have been presented.  Continue reading Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – Part 1

On Chilul Hashem as a Motivation in Pesak

Sorry for the hiatus – packing up a lift for Israel is no small task.

Last week I had the privilege of giving a shiur to the Summer Beit Midrash on pesikat halacha bishaat hadechak – the philosophical and procedural issues involved in rendering halachic decisions under extenuating circumstances.  Perhaps at some point I will write up a summary of the shiur (or post the audio).  In the meantime, I wanted to focus on a striking responsa by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Shlit”a.

One of the issues I dealt with was the possible role that chilul Hashem (or more precisely, the desire to prevent it) could have on pesak. Continue reading On Chilul Hashem as a Motivation in Pesak

What Tish’a Be’av Means To Me

I was recently listening to a shiur given by Rabbi J. J. Schachter asking what Tish’a Be’av means to us today given our difficulty in mourning for the Temple. He stated that with the foundation of the State of Israel and the seeming fulfilment of many of the prophecies about the messianic era, it has become very hard to mourn for what we lost. I was very bothered by this difficulty for a long time. Admittedly we still do not have a Temple, but in all honesty, how does that change my life? Then it occurred to me that this issue has already been addressed in a famous Chazal. The Gemara in Berachos 3a tells us about how Rabbi Yossi went into a ruin to daven. While he was in there he heard a voice cooing like a dove and sighing: “woe for the sons that for their sins I destroyed my house and I burnt my hall and I exiled them amongst the nations of the world.” Eliyahu appears and tells him that G-d says this regularly; G-d says these words three times each day. Furthermore, every time the Jews enter a synagogue and say the words “may His great name be blessed,” (words recited as a part of kadish) G-d nods His head and says: “praised be the king who is praised in such a fashion. What for the father who had to exile his sons? And woe unto the sons who were exiled from the table of their father.” This Gemara, for me, sums up nicely what is missing. Even when HKBH has given us so much, while the exile continues and there is still not a Temple, with all that comes with it, from the sacrifices to the Sanhedrin sitting in their rightful place, we can have a king, but we cannot have a father. We can still observe the halachah to the best of our abilities and be G-d fearing Jews, as well as live a good life. However, the sense of closeness, the deeply personal relationship is missing, Our father is very far and we can barely hear him. We can barely feel his presence. That is surely something to cry for.

First, we cry because we feel the distance in the lack of obvious miracles. For example, the yard of the Temple (the Azara) was never too small to hold the people within it. Similarly, the area of the Temple allocated for the slaughter and dissection of animals never smelled bad. Without obvious miracles we feel doubtful. Is G-d really there? Does he really care what we do?

The second factor which springs to mind is the Sanhedrin. Even if we were to reconstitute the Sanhedrin today in a genuine manner, they would not be sitting in their rightful place, in the Temple. As a result, they would not be able to function fully as a Sanhedrin. For example, we cannot pursue a capital case in the absence of the Sanhedrin in the Temple. Why is that? Presumably it is because even if we have a Sanhedrin, but they do not sit in the Temple, they are missing some element of divine inspiration which prevents them from adjudicating in the most serious cases. They are missing the (admittedly indirect) divine communication.

Tish’a Be’av is about much more than any earthy concern, even the building of the Temple. H’s about the relationship with G-d that we dait have. It’s about the relationship which we lost so long ago that we’ve forgotten what it ever was.

Chok, Mishpat, and Current Events

Today in class we were continuing a discussion the famous distinction between Chukim and Mishpatim.   The exact definition of that distinction is debated by the Rishonim.  Popularly, however, people think of the broad claim of Rashi that Mishpatim are mitzvot that can be understood and Chukim are those that cannot A piece came to mind by Mori VeRabi Rabbi Aryeh Klapper that speaks to many of the issues hitting the news in the last few weeks, as it was originally written to deal with the Rabba issue and addresses homosexuality as well.  The piece is divided into two: Part 1 and Part 2.  I encourage everyone to read them carefully.

In a nutshell, he describes two processes.  Drawing on the distinction between chok and mishpat as understood above, he notes that when people do not understand a law or can’t imagine it standing for a general principle in Halacha (rather than an exception), they can “chokify it” – accept the binding authority of the mitzvah but assume that the reason is inscrutable and therefore the philosophy behind it should not be extended.  On the other hand, people can choose to “mishpatify” – embrace not only the law, but its philosophy, claiming it stands in for the values of the Halachic system more broadly.  He argues that chokification can be a legitimate way for people to deal with mitzvot they have difficulty with emotionally, intellectually, or even ethically.  (I would add that Rambam also believes in the process of chokification.  Part of his central claim about chukim is that they are laws that based on contingent historical causes, and therefore their reasons don’t work when the historical factors don’t apply, which is what makes them chukim.)

What I would add is that there is (unfortunately) a third option, which is illegitimate, and that is to decide that not only can you not accept a mitzvah as representative of the Halachic system, but you cannot accept its truth, goodness, or validity.  This is true even if one is not going to act on his perception that a mitzvah is immoral or unfair.  The very act of judging God flies in the face of the notion of Torah – either you accept the authority of God or you don’t.  As the Gemara in Eruvin 64a says, if you so much as say that you like a part of Torah and don’t like another – it is as if you consorted with prostitutes.  The prohibition of Bal Tigra, not subtracting a mitzvah from the Torah is based on this notion- the Torah is perfect and to add or subtract to the corpus of Torah.  For Rambam especially, it is a theologically driven command (as opposed to other Rishonim who think it is fundamentally a problem of distorting the form of specific mitzvoth – see summary in the first section of the Pesicha Kolleles of the Pri Megadim).

Note his language:

רמב”ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ט הלכה א

דבר ברור ומפורש בתורה שהיא מצוה עומדת לעולם ולעולמי עולמים אין לה לא שינוי ולא גרעון ולא תוספת שנאמר את כל הדבר אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם אותו תשמרון לעשות לא תוסף עליו ולא תגרע ממנו, ונאמר והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת, הא למדת שכל דברי תורה מצווין אנו לעשותן עד עולם, וכן הוא אומר חוקת עולם לדורותיכם, ונאמר לא בשמים היא, הא למדת שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה, לפיכך אם יעמוד איש בין מן האומות בין מישראל ויעשה אות ומופת ויאמר שה’ שלחו להוסיף מצוה או לגרוע מצוה או לפרש במצוה מן המצות פירוש שלא שמענו ממשה, או שאמר שאותן המצות שנצטוו בהן ישראל אינן לעולם ולדורי דורות אלא מצות לפי זמן היו, הרי זה נביא שקר שהרי בא להכחיש נבואתו של משה, ומיתתו בחנק על שהזיד לדבר בשם ה’ אשר לא צוהו, שהוא ברוך שמו צוה למשה שהמצוה הזאת לנו ולבנינו עד עולם ולא איש אל ויכזב.

To act as if a mitzvah is not in the Torah is an assault on the Torah and God.

Furthermore, we should note that while chokification may be legitimate, it is not ideal.  This notion of chok was anathema to the majority of Rishonim, who thought that chok referred to things that could not be fully understood by human beings, or were historically contingent and therefore less relevant than they once were, but not things which have no reason.  Thus, one should understand that the move towards chok is far from simple theologically, not to mention that the more laws one relegates to chok, the less the philosophy of the Torah can permeate his or her worldview.  As the Torah is meant to provide a philosophy of life and not just a series of atomic laws, this would be a loss to one’s religious life.