Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Leniencies Of Bet Shammai

One of the more intriguing comments of Hazal regards the question of judicial and ideological consistency. The Talmud (Eruvin 6b and parallels) writes:

The Halacha is always in agreement with the House of Hillel, but he who wishes to act in agreement with the ruling of the House of Shammai may do so, and he who wishes to act according to the view of the House of Hillel may do so. [He, however, who adopts] the more lenient rulings of the House of Shammai and the more lenient rulings of the House of Hillel is a wicked man. [While of the man who adopts] the restrictions of the House of Shammai and the restrictions of the House of Hillel, the Scripture says: But the fool walks in darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:14). A man should rather act either in agreement with the House of Shammai both in their lenient and their restrictive rulings or in agreement with the House of Hillel in both their lenient and their restrictive rulings.

In Modern Orthodox circles (and among Haredim, behind closed doors), much satisafaction is derived from the second part of the highlighted passage. [While of the man who adopts] the restrictions of the House of Shammai and the restrictions of the House of Hillel, the Scripture says: But the fool walks in darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:14). The stringency obsession of the contemporary Halakhic community is often maddening. Indeed, it serves to turns the Torah into the categorical opposite of 'its ways are ways of pleasantness.' (Of course, the most prominent attempt to address is etiology is found in Professor Haym Soloveitchik's classic essay, 'Rupture and Reconstruction.' See also the exchange here and here, along with Professor Samuel Heilman's Sliding to the Right.)

At the same time, the first part of the statement also deserves careful attention. [He, however, who adopts] the more lenient rulings of the House of Shammai and the more lenient rulings of the House of Hillel is a wicked man. There is, it is true, nothing wrong with ruling leniently when that is both appropriate and thoroughly based halakhically. However, it is illegitimate to exclusively seek leniencies and 'ways out' that violate halakhic integrity, personal intellectual and religious consistency and/or seek to render personal convenience (ideological or otherwise) superior to the plain dictates of Torah observance. [In fact, I vividly recall that in a Saturday Night lecture in 1973, when the Rav זצ"ל was teaching the first paragraph in הלכות עבודה זרה he characterized 'kula searching' as a form of עבודה זרה. More specifically, he used the Rambam's formulation: מתנבא בשם השם לעבוד עבודה זרה. The immediate context was the then recent Conservative decision to include women in a minyan. He extended it to people who search through Shulhan Arukh to look for קולות.]

Respect for the halakhic process, and judicial/methodological consistency are the hallmark of the Jew, for whom 'Accepting the Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven' (קבלת עול מלכות שמים) is an essential part of his spiritual makeup, even when it is difficult or inconvenient.

I was thinking about this when I read Rabbi Professor David Berger's Apologia pro Vita Sua,
'Identity, Ideology and Faith: Some Personal Reflections on the Social, Cultural and Spiritual Value of the Academic Study of Judaism' (published here). In a particularly pertinent passage, Professor Berger writes (25-26):

In the realm of concrete decision-making in specific instances, it is once again the case that the impact of academic scholarship does not always point in a liberal direction. In other words, the instincts and values usually held by academics are not necessarily upheld by the results of their scholarly inquiry, and if they are religiously committed, they must sometimes struggle with conclusions that they wish they had not reached. Thus, the decision that the members of the Ethiopian Beta Israel are Jewish was issued precisely by rabbis with the least connection with academic scholars. The latter, however much they may applaud the consequences of this decision, cannot honestly affirm that the origins of the Beta Israel are to be found in the tribe of Dan; here, liberally oriented scholars silently, and sometimes audibly, applaud the fact that traditionalist rabbis have completely ignored the findings of contemporary scholarship. Some academics do not hesitate to criticize and even mock such rabbis for their insularity and their affirmation of propositions inconsistent with scholarly findings, but on occasions like this the very same people are capable of deriding other rabbis for their intolerant refusal to ignore modern scholarship. (Emphasis Added)

One need not, however, go so far afield as to the origins of Ethiopian Jews (who may yet be deemed to be Jews, irrespective of their purported Danite origins), in order to make this point.

One glaring example of self-imposed cognitive dissonance (albeit in a non-Festingerian mode) is found in the current debate over the minimum requirements for conversion. There are two schools of thought. The minimalist school (most prominently associated with R. Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, based primarily on the Maggid Mishneh ad Hil. Issure Bi'ah 13,7) maintains that a priori acceptance of the commandments is desireable but not critical for the effecting of a valid conversion. The other school maintains that conversion without a meaningful, longstanding and proven commitment to full religious observance (with varying shades of opinion as to the extent) is meaningless (This was emphatically the opinion of Rav Soloveitchik. In shiur, on a number of occasions, he suggested that while the convert who was less than qualified might be Jewish as far as his or her personal obligation to perform mitzvot was concerned, it would be absolutely insufficient for marriage. Such a convert would be barred from marrying a Jew until he or she had proven himself (cf. Hil. Issure Bi'ah 13, 15; Shita Mequbetzet ad Keritot 9a. See also the comment by R. Hayyim Ozer Grodzensky in ShuT Ahiezer III, 26 s.v. ומהאי טעמא נראה).

In contrast to other scholars, however, my own research I carried out over the past five years) has led me to the conclusion that the latter opinion is historically the most authentic. Without going into details (which will appear when the study is published), suffice it to say that prior to the Emancipation, it never occurred to Hazal or the post-Talmudic authorities that their could be any other type of conversion short of absolute and proven devotion to a life of observance. This requirement is not stated, because in law that which goes without saying usually does. The minimalist interpretation developed as a result of the exigencies of the Jewish entry into modernity, and is no more than 250 years old.

My point here is not to argue against the cogency of the minimalist interpretation (though I, personally, believe that the more demanding approach is correct). Law has its own life and dynamic. What I do wish to point out, is that resort to historical/academic methods and results in the act of halakhic decision-making (as opposed to its legitimate use in the discovery of realia or the determination of texts) is a problematic enterprise. At the very least, though, the religious integrity of the practitioner demands consistency in application.

As the Gemara concludes:

A man should rather act either in agreement with the House of Shammai both in their lenient and their restrictive rulings or in agreement with the House of Hillel in both their lenient and their restrictive rulings.

1 comment:

tmeishar said...

Excellent post! As a new student to the Talmud machlaka I find myself compartmentalizing my life a lot. This is just one area where there are ramifications...