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!