Friday, September 23, 2011

Lulavim and Rationalism

In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin tries to explain his rationalist approach to the statements of Chazal. He justifies this approach by pointing out that just because someone errs does not make him stupid. The adoption of this attitude is supposed to make it easier for the reader to swallow his rationalist approach to Chazal. It goes without saying that the authors of this blog possess a radically different opinion of the concept of "Rationalism" and how it interfaces with the statements of Chazal. But now is not the time and place. What I’d like to focus on is Rabbi Slifkin’s example. In his eagerness to demonstrate his point, he commits a serious blunder while simultaneously contravening his very own justification for Rationalism.

In reference to the halachic question of which direction an Australian lulav should be held by one who is celebrating Succos in the northern hemisphere, Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

No less an authority than Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, famed author of Aruch LaNer and a university graduate, discussed this question. He suggested that it was more reasonable that they should be held in the normal position. Others, however, apparently disagreed. To the modern reader, this sounds ludicrous. Australians are not "upside-down"! There is no absolute frame of reference! This case exemplifies the challenge that I have faced many times in teaching the rationalist approach to Chazal. Very few people are able to appreciate that errors made by people in very different eras and cultures do not reflect any sort of stupidity.

Wait a minute! R’ Yaakov Etlinger lived in the nineteenth century! He died just before Albert Einstein was born. He was aware of the law of gravity, he was aware of the vastness of space, and he was aware that the world was round. Concordantly, he should have been aware that people in Australia were not “upside down”. If his shaa’la hinged on the fact that Australians are "upside-down", it sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it? According to Rabbi Slifkin, any “modern reader” understands the ludicrousness of this position. Why didn’t Rabbi Etlinger understand it?

The answer is, Rabbi Etlinger was not stupid at all. On the contrary, anyone who believes that Rabbi Etlinger committed such a serious faux pas is lacking in plain common sense. Rabbi Etlinger was not talking about Australians; he was talking about Australian lulavim and the direction they grow. When it comes to the concept of derech gidulo, there most definitely is an absolute frame of reference. It’s very simple. The direction a lulav grows in Australia is diametrically opposed to the direction a lulav grows in Alaska. Thus, an individual holding an Australian lulav in Alaska derech gidul of Alaska is holding the lulav upside down in reference to the derech gidul of Australia. This concept is simple. It requires a minimum of thought to grasp. So why didn’t Rabbi Slifkin pick up on it? There is a saying amongst our sages: ha’ahava mikalkeles es ha’shura. Loosely translated, "personal involvement corrupts common sense".

4 comments:

  1. Thus, an individual holding an Australian lulav in Alaska derech gidul of Alaska is holding the lulav upside down in reference to the derech gidul of Australia. This concept is simple. It requires a minimum of thought to grasp. So why didn’t Rabbi Slifkin pick up on it?

    For the life of me, I can't understand why you think that I didn't understand that that is exactly what Rav Ettlinger is saying. I guess personal involvement corrupts common sense.

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  2. Natan Slifkin wrote:

    For the life of me, I can't understand why you think that I didn't understand that that is exactly what Rav Ettlinger is saying. I guess personal involvement corrupts common sense.

    OK. I’ll bite.

    You began your post with a halachic question: “If you import a lulav or esrog from Australia, do you have to hold it upside-down?”

    You then went on to comment that this was actually a “serious” question entertained by no less than the Aruch LaNer. You then commented that to the modern reader this question is ludicrous. Why? Because Australians are not upside-down.

    So my question to you is, why do you assert that this question seems ludicrous to the modern reader? What connection does the idea that “Australians are not upside-down” have to do with the direction Australian lulavim grow?

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  3. I agree with your question - why did Aruch LaNer now know what seems obvious to us today. But I don't understand your answer. Do you think that the perspective of Judaism is from some abstract stationary point outside of the atmosphere? Or do you think that Jews in Bavel held their esrog at a slightly different angle than Jews in Eretz Yisroel? Or that Jews in America have to hold their lulav perpendicular to the ground? Surely the only way of measuring 'derech gidulo' is from the ground upwards. And that does not change wherever you are on the globe.
    And according to your reasoning, Australians ARE upside down - because from your imaginary vantage point in space they will appear to be upside down.
    Of course, some of us believe in gravity, and base our sense of 'up and down' on the strength of gravity pulling us - which always pulls towards the centre of the earth.

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  4. Rabbi Sedley,

    Shalom Aleichem! Welcome to our blog and thank you for sharing your thoughts with our readers. May your involvement in our blog be ongoing and fruitful.

    But I don't understand your answer.

    I didn’t provide an “answer”, per se. When I wrote “the answer is”, I was commenting solely on the silliness of assuming that the Aruch Laner’s halachic deliberation was based on the idea that Australian people are upside-down. I wasn’t providing an explanation for the position that an individual celebrating succos in the northern hemisphere should take an Australian lulav upside down. More on this shortly.

    Do you think that the perspective of Judaism is from some abstract stationary point outside of the atmosphere?

    The Aruch LaNer’s sha’ala has nothing to do with Judaism’s perspective. It’s a localized question focused exclusively on the halachic parameters of derech gidulo.

    Or do you think that Jews in Bavel held their esrog at a slightly different angle than Jews in Eretz Yisroel?

    Why would they need to do that? People in Eretz Yisrael used Israeli esrogim and people in Bavel used Babylonian esrogim. Esrogim are not indigenous to Israel you know. What do you think they did in Bavel during the seventy year galus? Or during Greek and Roman times when often times the roads to Parthian Jewry (Bavel) were locked down?

    Or that Jews in America have to hold their lulav perpendicular to the ground?

    On the tzad that the halachic definition of derech gidulo follows the actual geographical location where the esrog grew, I suppose this would be a possibility. It sounds weird, I know. We certainly don’t pasken that way. But that didn’t stop certain people from arguing with the Aruch Laner’s conclusion that derech gidulo follows the geographical location of the owner of the esrog, not where it grew.

    To be honest with you, this is highly irregular for me. I normally do not discuss halachic matters without reviewing all the sources first. I never read the Aruch LaNer in question and in fact before Rabbi Slifkin’s post I never even heard of this sha’ala! This whole conversation is purely theoretical from a halachic standpoint. I have no idea if Rabbi Slifkin’s depiction of the sha’ala is correct or not. I was merely commenting on his unfortunate attitude towards Chazal and the silly mistakes one can make when one is overanxious to support nonsense.

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