Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Inerrancy of Chazal in Halacha


For the past year or so, readers of Rabbi Slifkin’s Rationalist blog have been inundated with an endless number of posts about matters such as the fallibility of Chazal and the incompetence of our current gedoley Torah. Rabbi Slifkin’s blog was ostensibly launched as a means of explicating the “rationalist” approach to Judaism. But as time went on, the content became less about rationalism and more about petty politics. As it currently stands, the blog functions as little more than a venue for Rabbi Slifkin’s “chareidi bashing”. As one reader commented on that site
[The Rationalist] blog, like R. Slifkin, is an outstanding example of the evolutionary process of which the blogger is so enamored. R. Slifkin was once a right-wing yeshivah student, and evolved into whatever he is currently. This blog began primarily as an exploration into the legacy of rationalist medeival Torah scholars, and has evolved into little more than an alternative version of the anti-semitic failedmessiah blog. 
In view of the endless calumnies perpetuated on the internet against our mesora and the gedoley Torah who are its guardians, it pays every once in a while to discuss the greatness of Chazal, the greatness of Talmud Torah, and the importance of תלמידי חכמים in general. In this case I would like to utilize the comments made by one of the leading poskim of our generation as a means of being michazek our readership in these matters.    

Rav Shlomo Miller shlita is the Rosh Kollel of the Kollel Avreichim of Toronto and also heads the Bais Hora’ah of Lakewood which operates under his auspices. In a recent gathering in Lakewood, Rav Miller spoke to those assembled about the importance of producing competent מורי הוראה. The following is a synopsis of Rav Miller’s comments. For those who understand Yiddish, a video of Rav Miller’s address can be downloaded here.    

Rav Miller began by pointing out that many biney Torah are under the impression that there are two distinct branches of Torah learning. Some strive to become lamdanim (Talmudic scholars) while others attempt to attain proficiency in p’sak halacha. These two pursuits are often seen as exclusive from each other. Accordingly, many people assume that a posek (halachic arbiter) need not be a lamdan. This, explained Rav Miller, is the furthest thing from the truth.

Rav Miller quoted his Rebbi (Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l) that any posek who renders piskey halacha without being thoroughly familiar with the relevant sugyos haGemara is capable of making the most serious errors in halacha. In order to be a proper מורה הוראה, one must also be a lamdan! He must toil over the gemara and delve into its sugyos in all of their amkus (depth).

Rav Miller then quoted the Mishna in Avos (6:6) which states that one of the 48 qualities associated with the acquisition of Torah is the “reluctance to issue halachic rulings” (אינו שמח בהוראה).  Rav Miller explained that the goal of a מורה הוראה is not the issuing of halachic rulings. Rather, the goal is to learn Torah exclusively for the sake of knowing the Torah. To develop a powerful love of Torah and to spare no effort in attaining the אמתת התורה, the truth of the Torah. The goal of every מורה הוראה should be to know halacha, not to pasken halacha. Of course, if שאלות come up they must be responded to. But this is not the matara (end goal) of limud haTorah and is not the end purpose of studying halacha. The matara is Torah Lishma, Torah for the sake of knowing Torah. The end purpose of studying halacha is to come to a clear and unambiguous understanding of the laws of the Torah, to achieve the umko shel halacha, the deepest comprehension of the Torah.  

On a lighter note, Rav Miller went on to quote Rav Zelmele Volozhiner who stated as follows: “People say that learning the poskim without learning the sugyos haGemara is like eating fish without the pepper. But I say that it is like eating pepper without the fish!”

Rav Miller then broached a serious question in hashkafa. We know that the wisdom of the Torah is endless. The Torah is “arukah me’eretz mida u’rechava mini yam”. On the other hand human beings, no matter how great, are mugbalim (limited). We are limited in our capacity for knowledge and limited in the extent of our comprehension. How can any מורה הוראה presume to issue definitive rulings in halacha when there may be so much more that he has not yet understood? Rav Miller answers this question in a most remarkable way.

The pasuk in Mishlei states:
קסם על שפתי מלך במשפט לא ימעל פיו – There is charm on the lips of a king; in judgment his mouth will not deceive (Mishlei 16:10) 
The plain meaning of this verse is that Hashem controls the pronouncements of kings. When a king sits in judgment, he must deal with all kinds of people. But although the accused may sometimes be a deceptive fellow, Hashem nonetheless “charms” the lips of the King such that the proper judgment is dispensed. However, there is a deeper meaning to this pasuk.

The Gra (ad loc.) explains as follows. The term מלך refers to תלמידי חכמים as the gemara states מאן מלכי, רבנן (c.f. Gittin 62a). The lips of Torah sages are like a special charm (from the term קסם קסמים a weaver of charms, or spells). So although a Torah sage may err in reference to the details of the question posed to him, nonetheless his actual p’sak din will “magically” be correct!

The Gra goes on to provide an example of this phenomenon from the gemara in Gittin 77b. The story there is that a certain שכיב מרע (dying man) wrote a גט to his wife so she should not become זקוקה ליבום after his death. He wrote the גט on Friday but did not have the chance to give it to her. Meanwhile his condition worsened on Shabbos and there was a strong חשש that he would die that day. The גט was not able to be taken to her due to the prohibition of מלאכת הוצאה on Shabbos so they brought the issue in front of Rava. Rava paskened that the man should be מקנה the room that the גט was in to his wife. She should then go to the room and be קונה it with a קנין חזקה by opening and closing the door of the room. As soon as she acquires the room, the גט is considered to be in her hand מדין חצר and she is considered מגורשת and no longer זקוקה ליבום.

Rav Ilish was standing in the presence of Rava when he rendered his p’sak halacha and turned to him in protest:
אמר ליה רב עיליש לרבא: מה שקנתה אשה קנה בעלה! – Rav Ilish said to Rava, [the halachic principle is] “whatever a woman acquires belongs to her husband”!
In other words, as soon as the woman would acquire the room, it simultaneously reverts back to the ownership of the husband thus rendering Rava’s suggestion ineffective. Had they followed his suggestion, the woman could have gotten married to another man although she was still זקוקה ליבום! When Rava realized that he had erred, he became chagrined. But then the gemara goes on to say that they discovered that this woman was an ארוסה not a נשואה and the halacha is that we do not apply the principle of מה שקנתה אשה to ארוסות. So although Rava had erred in his assessment based on the details of the question as he understood them at the time, at the end it was discovered that the circumstances were different and the actual p’sak din turned out to be correct. As the Gra explains, Hashem “charmed” Rava’s lips such that his p’sak reflected the circumstances as they really were. This phenomenon, states the Gra, characterizes the nature of all of Chazal’s piskei halacha.

Referring to this principle of the Gra, Rav Miller then went on to explain that the reason Rava was zocheh to such an incredible level of siyata d’shmaya in his Torah was due to his superlative ahavas haTorah. Rava dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah Lishma and therefore Hashem reciprocated by granting him tremendous hatzlacha in his learning.

Rav Miller then wrapped up his presentation with divrei chizuk to the assembled biney Torah. “Rava was indeed zocheh to great siyata d’shmaya, but can people like us ever aspire to be zocheh to such a thing?” asked Rav Miller. And the answer is yes! We must be zocheh to סיעתא דשמיא! We must try to develop a powerful ahavas haTorah on our own personal level of ruchnius. מורי הוראה must be ba’alei middos. Above all, they must possess the מדה of ענוה, humility, and their actions must be לשם שמים. If מורי הוראה do their best to live their lives in accordance with these principles, then surely Hashem will grant them siyata d’shmaya and bless their efforts with success.  עד כאן דברי מורינו

There are many lessons that can be learned from Rav Miller’s short address but I would like to broach two specific topics. Everyone who is familiar with Rabbi Slifkin’s writings knows the extent to which he goes to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal. From his perspective it seems reasonable to adopt the idea that no matter how great Chazal were they were still human and therefore must have occasionally erred in their pronouncements. But based on Rav Miller’s comments we now have a way of understanding the inerrancy of Chazal within the guidelines of rationalism. Yes, it is possible for Chazal to err in their reasoning and yes, on occasion they did err. But when it came to their final halachic pronouncements as recorded in the Talmud Bavli, Hashem granted Rav Ashi siyata d’shmaya l’maala mi’derech hateva! He directed his efforts such that all of the piskei halacha recorded there were al pi amito shel Torah. In truth, I have already suggested such an approach in the past and indeed Rav Yitzchok Isaac Rabinowitz advances a similar approach in his Sefer Doros Rishonim. However, Rav Miller’s words provide a source for this approach while serving to bring it into sharper focus.

The second comment I would like to make is that based on Rav Miller’s address we can understand the “rationality” behind heeding the pronouncements of our gedoley Torah. And although Rav Miller stated his principle in regards to p’sak halacha, it seems reasonable to extend its application to the general pronouncements made by gedoley Torah for the benefit of the Jewish nation. If Hashem assists מורי הוראה in the rendering of their piskey halacha even when they are only relevant to yechidim, then kal va’chomer He assists our gedoley Torah when they issue Torah opinions that are relevant to the entire klal!            

Comments welcome…

8 comments:

  1. BH
    Dear Rav Simcha shlit"a
    Yeyasher kochacha!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi hope you are well,
    Before I comment on this post let me comment on our earler correspondence

    While I appretaite your advice and concert, I disagree with firstly I think it is more important to be open about one's beliefs to one's potential wife, after all she is the one that will have to live with this "hidden zionist"
    Secondy let me tell you something, my chavrusa is what I would call "yeshivish" he wears a black hate, he has not watched a movie since he was about 7 years old etc. He is the most pure person I know, it is an honer to learn with him. A while ago when he has dating (he is married now) he told me that there was this girls family that realy wanted him for their child, the only problem was that my chavrusa was close to some rabbonim in a yeshiva, that had a few non yeshivish opinions.but they realy wanted my chavrusa, because hi is great, so they told the shadchan to ask him if he will stop associating with those rabonim completely.
    My chavrusa was complety put off by this and called it off, their loss.

    But BH most people in this country
    Don't care about stupid labels, we have a lot of "mixed" marriages here.

    To comment on this post,
    "it seems reasonable to extend its application to the general pronouncements made by gedoley Torah for the benefit of the Jewish nation. If Hashem assists מורי הוראה in the rendering of their
    piskey halacha even when they are only relevant to yechidim, then kal va’chomer He assists our gedoley Torah when they issue Torah opinions that are relevant to the entire klal!"

    Unfortunately the real world is not like that, take for example the case of Elior chen, the gedolim came out in support of him. Now imagine a mother reading the support and thinking "let me heed "the pronouncements of our gedoley Torah." Let me give Rav Chen shlita, my little boy to teach him."
    Do you see why your idea can be very harmful?

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  3. Danny,

    Unfortunately the real world is not like that, take for example the case of Elior chen, the gedolim came out in support of him. Now imagine a mother reading the support and thinking "let me heed "the pronouncements of our gedoley Torah." Let me give Rav Chen shlita, my little boy to teach him."
    Do you see why your idea can be very harmful?


    No I most certainly do not! First of all, there was no “pronouncement” by the gedolim that people should send their children to Chen. The issue was that certain accusations came out against someone who until then was known as a marbitz Torah so several rabbonim supported him based on the information available. When the facts came to light the rabbonim pulled their support. Everyone is prone to error, even gedoley yisrael. That’s not what I was referring to in my post. I am referring to general pronouncements made by the unanimous voice of daas Torah about issues that relate to the klal in general. Now sometimes there is not unanimity. In such cases one must follow his own personal Rav/Posek/Rosh Yeshiva/Rebbe. However, if all the gedoley yisrael issue a proclamation that, say, it is assur to have unfiltered internet in your home, then one would have to be a fool to disregard their advice. If all gedoley yisrael agree that television is harmful to one’s spirituality and should not be watched, then you should heed their proclamation. These are the types of things I am talking about. Our gedoley yisrael are the einey ha’eida and we look to them, and them alone, for guidance in our spiritual affairs. Now who is and who is not a gadol is a different story. And what happens if there is not unanimity is also a separate question. But in general, listening to our gedolim is one of the best pieces of advice you will ever receive. It’s really too bad that you can’t see that.

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  4. Dear R' Isaac shlit"a

    Thank you for your divrey chizuk

    Chazak ve'ematz!

    Simcha

    ReplyDelete
  5. Let me first say that I understand that this is a very sensitive topic, I hope that for the sake of emes we don't fall into petty personal insults.

    "First of all, there was no “pronouncement” by
    the gedolim that people should send
    their children to Chen"

    Ok, but if gedolim make a public statement saying that they KNOW him to be a good man, and that people must try FREE him, even before a court case! Obviously the gedolim must have known that he was Harmless. My example of the mother was meant to show that she would not be following the gedolim's view if she was going to send her child to Chen but then refused to in light of the news (obviously the gedolims view was that he is definitely innocent, otherwise how could they ask for people to free him?)

    "...so several
    rabbonim supported him based on
    the information available"

    Firstly the "several rabbonim" happen to include the top haradi gedolim in israel. Secondly they publicly proclaimed that they know chen to be righteous "based on the information available" (somehow the letter did not say what I wrote in quotation marks) . And that people should support him.

    Most importantly regarding the "information available" one of the top gedolim that supported him did so because his rabbis signed the document. How someone can sign a public letter saying that we know someone to be a good person when all one really knows is that other people who he trusts signed it is beyond me. Especially in such a serious case like this, could you imagine in the days of the sanhedrin a member simply paskening based on what the other members do?
    (Please don't edit my comment, I am sure that everyone that reads this blog has read other blogs that wrote about this, so it is important that you speak out on this issue.)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Continued...

    And a very important point about people being "known as a marbitz Torah" unfortunately, like every race and religion, the frum community is not immune to child abuse, therefore there will be teachers "known as a marbitz Torah" that abuse children, you can't simply proclaim that they are not guilty, or that they are tzadikim and ask that they be freed without facing the law and having a proper court case.

    "That’s not what I was referring to in
    my post. I am referring to general
    pronouncements made by the
    unanimous voice of daas Torah about
    issues that relate to the klal in
    general"

    Sorry, I understand your post like this

    1)Rava (an individual) made an error,(as you say "Everyone is
    prone to error, even gedoley yisrael.") but the psak din turned out to be correct. The actual error was "charmed" by Hashem in order for the ruling to fit reality.

    2)If Hashem assists someone i.e. Rava, kal vechomer he will assist our gedolim (you don't mention this unanimous thing) on issues that effect the "entire
    klal" (I consider trying to free a child abuser that can destroy a lot of our children's lives an issue that is "relevant to the entire klal")

    I don't think Hashem "charmed" the gedolim to sign the chen letter, in order for there error to reflect reality, because all that that letter accomplished was that people lost faith in Gedolim. Therfore my point is that when gedolim make mistakes, they are very often real mistakes that don't reflect the reality, and their mistakes can indeed be harmful (just like anyone's mistakes can be harmful.) You are making a claim. I wonder if you are able to provide recent examples of gedolim making mistakes that were actually "charmed by Hashem to refect the reality, like the case in the Gemorah. look even if it happens half the time, it is not enough to simply follow the gedolim blindly. As you say "Now who is and
    who is not a gadol is a different story" it does not matter if a gadol wears a blackhat or a knited kippa, or whatever, I believe that they can make mistakes, even mistakes that cause damage and that Hashem gave everyone a brain for a reason, so that they can use it to think for themselves while at the same time drink the wisdom at the feet of those wiser and more pure than them.

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  7. Danny,

    Let me first say that I understand that this is a very sensitive topic, I hope that for the sake of emes we don't fall into petty personal insults.

    No need to worry. You see, I’m not having this discussion. I’m a seasoned player and I know that such discussions are unproductive and invariably conclude with lashon hara and rechilus. I’ve done my best to clarify my position to you. I’ve explained that I was referring to general pronouncements about spiritual matters, not temporary reactions to changing circumstances. I even gave you examples of such. If you feel the Chen thing falls under this category then you haven’t understood me. This is all I want to say on this matter Danny. Sorry.

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  8. "I’ve
    explained that I was referring to
    general pronouncements about
    spiritual matters, not temporary
    reactions to changing circumstances"

    The gedolim said that Chen is "Kosher" similar to the way the gedolim said that voisiznois is "treif"
    You can argue that more people have a relationship with voisiznois than Chen, but that is just matter of numbers. Therefore there is no reason to follow the gedolims statement about voisisnois.

    But even a simple psak regarding a completely spiritual issue can be mistaken I will give you a "random" example a gadol might say that you can't walk into a house that has internet and that you can't accept kids that have internet into a school because it will be spiritually harmful for the other kids.
    He then might retract because he was not fully aware of the facts in america, or for what ever reason, in the meantime kids have been refused entry into schools. In such a case the "charm" would not work.

    I can go on and on but I know you don't want to discuss this, and in any case no matter how philosophical we get, I think you understand what really disturbs me. And I am not really a good debater, I am sure you are more intelligent then me.
    I am not saying that to flatter you, I am telling you this because recently we had a well known guest rabbi that came to the country, I really respected this rabbi, a have listened to his shurim for years. I decided that I would discuss these questions with him. He kept on giving funny analogies and then would say things like "I have explained this to you three times" he would say this in a very loud voice, so everyone would here. And look this Rabbi would beat me in logic and philosophy in his sleep. But I think he knew what was disturbing me but did not want to address it. I was very pained by that experience, it spoiled my shavout.

    If you don't want to talk about these issues its your choice, but I hope you understand that there are thousands of people who read these things on Rabbi slifkin's and other blogs and are very disturbed by it and loose faith in the gedolim, and unfortunately there is no one defending the gedolim's side. It is good that you posted this dvar Torah, but when it comes down to the reality on what is really going on there is a deafening silence.
    Rabbi Slifkin wrote a post about the signatures on the chen letter, it was hands down the most disturbing thing I have ever read, it is to disturbing for me to past a link.
    the chen thing is a sign that something is seriously wrong somewhere.
    one can believe in daas Torah, but that is just faith, it is not grounded in the reality. If you have any explanations I beg you not to hold them back, I can't go on searching in vain.

    ReplyDelete