Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hakirah, Metzitzah, and More


Hakirah, Metzitzah
, and More
Marc B. Shapiro

Hakirah has performed a valuable service in dealing forthrightly with the matter of homosexuality. Issue no. 13 (2012) contains R. Chaim Rapoport’s “Judaism and Homosexuality: An Alternative Rabbinic View,” which I think is an outstanding presentation of the alternative to what has seemingly become the “official” haredi position in this matter. This “official” position is, in my opinion, so misguided that I would like to say a few words on the topic, since R. Rapoport did not go far enough in his criticism.

To remind readers, Hakirah no. 12 had a discussion on homosexuality with R. Shmuel Kamenetsky. This was followed by the publication of a document signed by many rabbis which follows R. Kamenetsky’s approach. It is available here. (The document is also signed by an assortment of mental health professionals,  rebbitzens and "community organizers".)

There are so many problems with the approach found in this document (called a “Torah Declaration"), some already noted by R. Rapoport in his response to R. Kamenetsky, that it would take a lengthy piece to go through them all. Let me just call attention to a few points that I don’t think have been made yet. To begin with, while many rabbis have signed this document, including a number that I know personally, I have yet to speak to someone who actually believes what the document says, and this includes the people who have signed it! Many will regard what I have just said as pretty shocking, in that I have declared that people who signed the document do not believe what it says. Yet I know this to be true, at least with regard to some of the signatories (those that I know personally), and I suspect that other than R. Kamenetsky, it might be that no one who signed the document really believes what it says (and it wouldn’t be the first time that people sign declarations that they really don’t believe in).

Let me explain what I mean. According to the document,

Same-Sex Attractions Can Be Modified And Healed. From a Torah perspective, the question whether homosexual inclinations and behaviors are changeable is extremely relevant. . . . We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. . . . The only viable course of action that is consistent with the Torah is therapy and teshuvah. The therapy consists of reinforcing the natural gender-identity of the individual by helping him or her understand and repair the emotional wounds that led to its disorientation and weakening, thus enabling the resumption and completion of the individual’s emotional development.

The ideas just quoted are the very foundation of the Torah Declaration, and as we see in his Hakirah interview, R. Kamenetsky has been convinced by the dubious proposition that homosexuals can change their sexual orientation. He goes so far as to say that "no one is born gay with an inability to change" (p. 34 [emphasis added]. Not long after the appearance of the interview and the Torah Declaration, the man most prominently identified with the notion that gays can change publicly rejected his earlier viewpoint.)

Whether people can change their sexual orientation is a scientific or psychological issue, no more and no less. The first objectionable point of R. Kamenetsky’s approach is turning this into a matter of theology. Indeed, R. Kamenetsky has created a new dogma in Orthodoxy. According to him, believing that a homosexual can change his orientation is a basic Torah value. The reason for this is stated in the document: “The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid. Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel. Such an attitude also violates the biblical prohibition in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14 “and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”[1]

There you have it. Human beings are deciding what God can and cannot do and declaring that it is impossible for someone to be created with an inalterable homosexual nature. That this is completely incorrect is acknowledged by none other than the most extreme advocates of reparative therapy. They themselves acknowledge that there is a significant percentage of people who cannot change their orientation. They have never claimed that everyone can change. What the document gives us, therefore, is a theological statement that is rejected by all scientists and psychologists, including the ones who provide the very basis for reparative therapy. That itself should be reason enough to reject it. (On Nov. 29, 2012 the RCA acknowledged "the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation." See here.)

This relates to my point above that no one really believes what they signed. To those who doubt what I say, do the following experiment and report back if your results differ. Ask someone who signed the document if he really believes that every homosexual can change his sexual orientation. The answer you will get will be “Of course not everyone. You can never speak about everyone. But many (or most) can change.” In other words, the signatories will acknowledge that they diverge from the document on a basic point. You will have to ask them why they signed a document if they don’t accept everything it says, and the response will probably be that there is much about the document that they do accept, and that is why they signed it. But I repeat my point that this is an unusual document in that I don’t think that there is any signatory, with the possible exception of R. Kamenetsky, who accepts the Torah Declaration on Homosexuality in its entirety.

Furthermore, it is not a “liberal” idea to say that people can’t change their sexual inclinations. By looking at another example we can see that it is indeed nonsense to say that everyone can change their sexual orientation and recreate themselves as typical heterosexuals. There are some men who have strong urges for pedophilia. No matter what they do, and how much therapy they get, they can’t get rid of these urges. (I am obviously not comparing homosexuals with pedophiles, or implying that there is any connection between the two. I am only using the example of pedophiles to make a point.[2]

) If we adopt the theology of the Torah Declaration, it means that even hardened pedophiles, who have abused lots of children, can change, because God wouldn’t create someone without a possibility for a healthy sex life. Yet we know that this isn’t the case, and some people simply can’t change. They might be able to control their urges, but as they have told us again and again, the urges don’t go away. It is hardwired into them. (Is it perhaps the false theological notion expressed in the Torah Declaration that explains why yeshivot continued to allow known pedophiles to work? That is, did the rabbis assume that just because someone sexually abused children last week, there is no reason to think he can’t repent and cease to be a danger this week?)

And what about the people who are created with uncontrollable urges to kill? We know about these people, as they usually become murderers. And what about the people who are created with diseases that kill them before they are able to marry and have children, or the ones created without arms so they can’t wear arm tefillin[3]? In other words, sometimes people are created a certain way and they are not what we regard as normal. That is the world, and we simply can’t understand why things are the way they are. But one thing I would hope that we can agree on is if people can keep their faith in a good God even while knowing that some children are born with terrible illnesses that will cause their death, it certainly should not shake their faith to believe that some people are born with inalterable homosexual urges. A homosexual who can’t be changed hardly presents a challenge to theodicy the way a child with cancer does, so I can only wonder why the Torah Declaration feels that only the former is theologically untenable.

All traditional sources cited in support of the Torah Declaration’s assumption that people can change their orientation only refer to behavior. That is, it is an accepted belief that all people have the ability to control their behavior. Without this belief, the notion of a mitzvah doesn’t make sense. This distinction between orientation and behavior is so obvious that I don’t know how so many learned rabbis overlooked the document’s collapsing the two categories.

The more problematic element of the document, which I have already mentioned and which verges on the blasphemous, is that the Torah Declaration presumes to tell God what he can and cannot do. Based on the human intellects of the authors of the document, they establish as dogma that God would never create someone whose only sexual attraction is to his own gender. This is all very nice, but since when can humans dictate to God what he can and cannot do? If God “wants” to create a person who only has same-sex attraction, He can, and the proper response is silence, since we can’t understand why God would do that. Humans don’t have all the answers, and the Torah Declaration should stop pretending that we do. Whether homosexuality is nature or nurture is something the scientists and psychologists can discuss, but contrary to the document, all of the evidence is that there are plenty of people who cannot be “fixed.”

2. In my last post I mentioned that Agudat Israel has transformed itself into a lobbying organization. One of the areas they have been involved with is metzitzah ba-peh, so let me say a few things about this. It is really incredible how for many the debate around metzitzah ba-peh has become one in which the Modern Orthodox are one side, and the traditionalists on the other. I say this because the truth is that the virtually all of the rabbinic greats of Lithuania approved of metzitzah without oral contact. Alexander Tertis’ Dam Berit is a valuable resource that all interested in this matter must consult. Here is the title page.
























On p. 33, R. Shlomo Cohen, the famed dayan of Vilna, says the following about metzitzah, which is very relevant to what we ourselves have seen (namely, the rejection of the firm opinions of countless doctors and scientists on the matter, all in the name of tradition).

דבר הזה אינו שייך לרבנים רק לרופאים המומחים ולכן אין לי מה להשיב על שאלתו

According to R. Shlomo, the question of how to perform metzitzah is entirely a medical issue, and the rabbis therefore have nothing to say on this matter, much like in all other halakhot dealing with medical issues the opinions of the doctors are determinative. (It hardly needs to be said that in matters of pikuah nefesh the opinions of thousands of experts, including the world's most outstanding authorities, cannot be overruled by one idiosyncratic figure who appears to be motivated by non-scientific concerns.) 

Also of interest is that in 1906 R. Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski reported that in Vilna virtually all of the mohalim did metzitzah with a sponge. He wasn’t happy with this, but this was the reality.[4]

An interesting tidbit regarding metzitzah ba-peh is found in the Taz, Orah Hayyim 584:2. Here he mentions that he heard that R. Feivish of Cracow, when he circumcised on Rosh ha-Shanah, would not clean the blood out of his mouth. Rather, he would blow the shofar with the blood in his mouth so that the mitzvot of milah and shofar were joined.
Finally, for those who want to understand why it was only in the nineteenth century that metzitzah came to be regarded as central to the mitzvah of milah, Jacob Katz’s article “Polmos ha-Metzitzah” in his Ha-Halakhah ba-Metzar is crucial. In short, the centrality of metzitzah, and its description as a basic part of milah, is a product of the Orthodox defense of metzitzah in the face of Reform attacks. I think we are seeing something similar today. The digging in of haredi heels in defense of metzitzah ba-peh, complete with over-the-top rhetoric, is understandable (to a certain extent) and due precisely to the fact that it is an outside force that is threatening the practice. Had their own poskim suggested what the government is now insisting on, we would not have seen the same reaction. Yet it is still difficult for outsiders to grasp why some rabbinic leaders of these communities seem entirely oblivious to any medical dangers associated with the practice,  וסלחת לעונם כי רבנים המה
Let me say a few more things about metzitzah ba-peh. 

1. I saw on one of the blogs (I can’t locate it at present) that someone stated as self-evident that metzitzah ba-peh is only done with babies, not adults. The truth is that while the accepted opinion is indeed that metzitzah ba-peh is only done on babies (and maybe also on older child converts – I haven’t been able to find an answer to that), there are indeed opinions that even adult converts have to have metzitzah ba-peh performed on them. R. Moshe Klein (the son of R. Menasheh), Mishnat ha-Ger, p. 71, states without qualification that a convert has to have metzitzah, and if the mohel is afraid of catching a disease he should inquire of a posek if it can be done without the mouth. However, R. Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, Hilkhot Milah 6:1, rejects this viewpoint and states that there is no metzitzah, ba-peh or otherwise, with an adult convert.
2. According to R. Marcus Horovitz, Mateh Levi, vol. 2, Yoreh Deah no. 60, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch was prepared to accept the government’s abolishment of metzitzah without objection. It is difficult to square this assertion with Hirsch’s writings on the topic that show him as a strong defender of the practice.[5] Is it possible that Horovitz’s comment, meant as a criticism of Hirsch, reflects the difficult relationship these two men had?
3. In Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah I, no. 223, R. Moshe Feinstein, in writing to a hasidic rebbe, expresses the standard viewpoint that metzitzah is only a medical procedure and has nothing to do with the mitzvah of milah. There is nothing surprising here. However, his correspondent had written otherwise, that metzitzah was an essential part of the mitzvah. In response to this, R. Moshe writes: חושב אני שהוא רק פליטת הקולמוס. The language R. Moshe uses implies that he did not know that among the hasidim metzitzah isindeed viewed as part of the mitzvah. Is it possible that R. Moshe was unaware of this? I don’t think so. It would appear, therefore, that the words I just quoted are a polite way of R. Moshe telling his correspondent that “what you wrote is without any substance.”
4. In 1994 R. Schachter’s Nefesh ha-Rav appeared. On p. 243 he states that R. Soloveitchik thought that today there is no need for metzitzah at all, not just metzitzah ba-peh. I remember how shocked I was when I read this, and was certain that it had to be wrong. As far as I know, no Orthodox authority has ever agreed to abandon metzitzah entirely, and I therefore couldn’t believe this report. My doubts were strengthened by the fact that R. Schachter quotes the Tiferet Yisrael as agreeing that metzitzah could be abandoned, when the truth is that the Tiferet YisraelShabbat 19:2, says the exact opposite, that metzitzah must be continued no matter what the doctors say.
As part of this post I wanted to include this page of Nefesh ha-Rav, so I went to Otzar ha-Hokhmah to download a PDF. Here it is.

















































Lo and behold, the copy on Otzar ha-Hokhmah is the third edition published in 1999, and there is a note on this page in which R. Schachter states that he has been told that what he wrote was incorrect, and that R. Soloveitchik only opposed metzitzah ba-peh. This makes much more sense and is what I assumed all along, so I was happy to see that my suspicions were confirmed.
R. Schachter recently spoke publicly about metzitzah ba-peh, and he is entirely opposed to it.[6] You can listen to his talk here.
Some might be surprised to hear R. Schachter say, after explaining that the Sages followed the most advanced medicine of their times, “When we look back at Chazal, look at medical statements in the Gemara, we laugh. . . . So you look back in the Gemara, it’s ridiculous, but the Gemara, in the days of the Tannaim, they were following the latest information of the doctors of their generation, of the scientists of their generation.”
I have to say, however, that R. Schachter is mistaken in his description of how the Hasidim understand metzitzah ba-peh. He incorrectly assumes that no one really regards it as a basic part of the mitzvah, i.e., halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai. “You know and I know and we all know that it is not halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai.” He claims that all those who do say it is halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai are exaggerating for rhetorical purposes, much like the expression yehareg ve-al yaavor is used for all sorts of things but is not meant to be taken literally. (R. Schachter himself created a good deal of controversy a couple years ago when he said that the refusal to ordain women was a matter of yehareg ve-al yaavor.)
Finally, I would like to make a general statement about how many in the Modern Orthodox world have been relating to metzitzah ba-peh. There is no question that for those in this segment of Orthodoxy, metzitzah ba-peh should not be done, both for medical reasons and also, I have learnt, for aesthetic reasons. With regard to the latter point, there is a sense among many in the Modern Orthodox world, and I myself have heard this and seen it in writing, that metzitzah ba-peh is “disgusting”. I understand that this is how people feel, but it is an improper feeling. Until the nineteenth century, metzitzah ba-peh was universal at every circumcision. How can observant Jews regard a practice that was basic in every Jewish community of the world as “disgusting”? I understand that it doesn’t fit in with today’s aesthetic sense, and that itself is perhaps reason enough for people not to do metzitzah ba-peh. However, everyone should be careful to avoid any denigration of metzitzah ba-peh that does not originate in medical concerns.
Don’t get me wrong, as I don’t mean that every practice that we find in Jewish communities throughout history should get such a “pass”, but here we are talking about a universal practice over thousands of years. It can’t be denied that there were “repulsive” and “gruesome” practices in Jewish communities.[7] Here are two cited by Shlomo Sprecher in his article mentioned in note 6: 1. Barren women would swallow the foreskin of newly circumcised boys as a segulah so that they could become pregnant. 2. Epileptics drank a potion that contained a girl’s first menstrual blood as a segulah to cure them of their epilepsy.[8]
I recently found another bizarre segulah that also falls under the rubric of “repulsive”, and I think that it would probably also be regarded by law enforcement as a form of sexual abuse. It comes from R. Zvi Hirsch Kaidonover (1646-1712), Kav ha-Yashar, ch. 51. For obvious reasons I am not going to translate this into English.
ועוד סגולה נפלאה לתינוק הנולד שלא יקרה עליו חולי נכפה בר מינן, מיד כשנולד ישימו בפיו ברית קודש של תינוק ויהיה ניצול כל ימיו מחולי נכפה
3. Following one of my previous posts I had correspondence with a reader and the discussion turned to the issue of how much of rabbinic literature is inner directed, that is, from intellectuals to other intellectuals.[9] I assume that this was the mindset of the Sages, and this explains some texts that I don’t think would have been recorded had there been an expectation that the masses would ever see them. In particular, I have in mind the talmudic stories that do not reflect well on certain rabbis. If we understand these texts as scholars talking to other scholars, then it makes sense that they would criticize each other, and even make fun of one another.[10] People in a closed community (in this case, the rabbinic elite) converse with one another in a different way than when outsiders are allowed in.[11] The problem is when the masses are studying Talmud, as today, that they have a difficult time with these texts, and Artscroll needs to explain them in an appealing fashion.
Here is one example of the sort of story I am referring to, that I assume was designed for internal consumption only, as it doesn’t reflect well on one of the Sages who is portrayed as being quite rude and insensitive. Taanit 20a-20b:
Our Rabbis have taught: A man should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar. Once R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his ass by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, "Peace be upon you, Sir". He, however, did not return his salutation but instead said to him, "Raca,1 how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?" The man replied: "I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, 'How ugly is the vessel which you have made'." When R. Eleazar realized that he had done wrong he dismounted from the ass and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, "I submit myself to you, forgive me". The man replied: "I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, 'How ugly is the vessel which you have made'." He [R. Eleazar] walked behind him until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, "Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master," the man asked them, "Whom are you addressing thus"? They replied, "The man who is walking behind you." Thereupon he exclaimed: "If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in Israel"! The people then asked him: "Why"? He replied: "Such and such a thing has he done to me." They said to him: "Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah." The man replied: "For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future." Soon after this R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon entered [the Beth Hamidrash] and expounded thus, A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Law, Phylacteries and Mezuzoth.[12]
It appears that we see a continuation of this internal conversation in post-talmudic times. For example, I don’t think the rishonim who so harshly criticize their colleagues — I am referring to the colleagues they respected — would speak this way in a derashah before the common man. However, in internal dialogue they exercised more freedom. I think this can also explain the strange way that R. Isaac of Corbeil, the author of Sefer Mitzvot Katan, is referred to. He is called בעל החוטם. According to tradition, he was called this לפי שהיו לו שערות על החוטם.[13] Here too, I think that this was a humorous nickname that his colleagues knew him as, but not something that the average person would be expected to use. (Those who went to BMT will probably recall how various rabbis would speak of "Whitey Horowitz". I don't recall students ever referring to R. Moshe Horowitz this way.)  
I came across another example of what appears to be "internal conversation" from modern times that I think readers will find interesting. Both are found in R. Pinchas Miller’s Olamo shel Abba. Miller’s father, R. Asher Anshel Yehudah Miller, was a posek and author of seforim. I can’t imagine that the following comment, cited in the name of R. Shmelke of Nikolsburg, was something Miller, or R. Shmelke, wanted the masses to hear. Rather, I assume that it was an insider’s joke, designed to be shared among colleagues.
Shabbat 118b states that if Israel observes two Sabbaths properly they will immediately be redeemed. R. Shmelke explained that this refers to Shabbat ha-Gadol and Shabbat Shuvah. It is traditional that on these Sabbaths the rabbis give derashot before the community. R. Shmelke added that the rabbis act as if what they are saying is original to themselves, even though they have taken it from others. The Sages say that if you repeat something in the name of one who said it, you bring redemption to the world (Avot 6:6). Based on this text in Avot, R. Shmelke explained the above talmudic passage as follows: “If Israel observes two Sabbaths properly”, that is, if the rabbis who give the derashot on Shabbat ha-Gadol and Shabbat Shuvah (“two Sabbaths”) actually acknowledge where they get their ideas from (“repeat something in the name of one who said it”), “immediately Israel will be redeemed” (p. 501). This is such a provocative text because not only does it accuse the rabbis of plagiarism, but it states that the redemption itself is being delayed because of their behavior. If it was repeated by the masses it would be regarded as terribly degrading of the rabbis, but seen as a somewhat playful "derashah" to be shared among rabbinic colleagues, it loses much of its sharpness.[14]
There is another interesting passage on p. 326, which despite being humorous, I would have also assumed could only be said among colleagues. Yet Miller’s son tells us that his father used to repeat the following in his derashah at weddings: We know that it is a mitzvah to help the bride and groom to rejoice, but the rabbis come to weddings and instead of doing this, they deliver a long derashah and speak words of mussar to the young couple and thus disturb their joy.[15] That is why at the sheva berakhot we state שמח תשמח רעים האהובים כשמחך יצירך בגן עדן מקדם. In other words, we wish the bride and groom that their joy should be complete like the joy Adam felt when Eve was created for him, because in their time, in the Garden of Eden, there were no rabbis around who were able to disturb their joy!
* * * *
4. I want to call attention to a book that has just appeared. Its English title is Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief and it is edited by Daniel J. Lasker. You can read more about it here. It is available for purchase at Bigeleisen.
This is just the latest in a series of valuable books published by Ben Gurion University Press as part of the Goldstein-Goren Library of Jewish Thought. The articles that I think readers of this blog will find particularly interesting are David Stern, “Rabbinics and Jewish Identity: An American Perspective;” David Shatz, “Nothing but the Tuth? Modern Orthodoxy and the Polemical Uses of History,” Baruch J. Schwartz, “Biblical Scholarship’s Contribution to the Concept of Mattan Torah Past and Present;” Menachem Kellner, “Between the Torah of Moses and the Torah of R. Elhanan;” Tovah Ganzel, “‘He who Restrains his Lips is Wise’ (Proverbs 10:19) – Is that Really True?” and the symposium on Jewish thought in Israeli education, with contributions from R Moshe Lichtenstein and Adina Bar Shalom (R. Ovadia Yosef’s daughter).
Here are a few selections from Shatz’s article:
To be clear, academics, I find, generally shun blogs that are aimed at a popular audience because the comments are often, if not generally, uninformed (and nasty). A few academics do read such blogs, but do not look at the comments. One result of academics largely staying out of blog discussions is that non-experts become viewed as experts. Even when academics join the discussion, the democratic atmosphere of the blog world allows non-experts to think of themselves as experts and therefore as equals of the academicians. Some laypersons, though, as I said earlier, are indeeed experts in certain areas of history.
(In this quotation, one could also substitute “rabbis” or perhaps better, “poskim”, for “academics”, and “areas of halakhah” for “areas of history.”) Shatz is specifically speaking about historians, and contrasting experts vs. non-experts in this area. Yet when it comes to the sort of things I often write about here, I can attest that it is usually non-academics who are the real experts. Time and again I am amazed at the vast knowledge of so many of the people who read this blog. As for the general phenomenon of blogs, there are many people who for whatever reason (usually lack of interest, ability, or patience) are not going to write lengthy articles. Yet they often have a great deal to contribute, much of which is very important to the world of scholarship (almost always in terms of uncovering unknown sources and correcting earlier errors, as opposed to offering new interpretations or original theories). Academics ignore this to their own loss.[16]
In my future book I refer to numerous blog posts, and posts from the Seforim Blog have already been mentioned in a number of scholarly publications. My own reason for writing posts is because most of the material I discuss is, I think, interesting and sometimes even important. While this material is often not of the sort that can be included in a typical article, the genre of the blog post suits them just perfectly. Speaking of the Seforim Blog in particular, its readership encompasses a very large percentage of English speaking traditionally learned Jews of all backgrounds, beliefs, and professions (from Reform rabbis to Roshei Yeshiva and poskim, and everything in between). Thanks again are due to Dan Rabinowitz for providing this unique and wonderful platform.
Here are two more quotes from Shatz:
Be the causes what they may, there is an intramural struggle among the Orthodox, a competition for the soul of Orthodox Judaism, and the primary weapon with which it is being waged is history. For Modern Orthodox Jews today, instead of history being a threat to belief, as in earlier periods, it has become a way of arguing for one version of Othodoxy over another. And it is used for polemical purposes far more than philosophy. There are today few Orthodox philosophers, but comparatively many Orthodox academically trained historians.
Can the Modern Orthodox explain why it is admissible for Hummash and the Sages (in aggadot) to write non-accurately and provide inspiration and memory, but inadmissible for those on the right to write in that genre?
My article in Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief is entitled “Is there a ‘Pesak’ for Jewish Thought.” Those who publish know that it is often the case that only after it is too late does one realize that one's article or book omits something important. Here too that was the case. In the article I discuss Maimonides’ view in Guide 3:17 that there is no punishment without transgression. That is, he rejects the notion of yissurin shel ahavah. I note that Maimonides claims that this is the opinion “of the multitude of our scholars,” and he cites R. Ammi’s opinion in this regard from Shabbat 55a. What is significant is that later in the sugya the Talmud states that R. Ammi’s opinion was refuted. Maimonides ignores this rejection, and even states that R. Ammi’s opinion is the majority view. This illustrates how Maimonides felt free to reject a talmudic viewpoint in a non-halakhic matter, even when it seems that the opinion is deemed authoritative by the Talmud.
What I unfortunately neglected to mention is that in Guide 3:24 Maimonides also deals with yissurin shel ahavah. Here he acknowledges that there are talmudic sages who accept this notion, but he adds that his own opinion, i.e., the rejection of yissurin shel ahavah, “ought to be believed by every adherent of the Law who is endowed with intellect.” In our own language, we might say that this viewpoint should be obvious to anyone with “half a brain.” Yet this is quite a shocking statement when one considers that there were talmudic sages who had a different perspective. Did Maimonides regard them as lacking intellect?
Here is another point I would like to add: In my Limits of Orthodox Theology I argue that it is most unlikely that Maimonides would choose to establish something as a dogma if it was a matter of debate among the Sages. (If establishing dogma was simply part of the halakhic process, this would not be problematic.) I see that R. Shlomo Fisher apparently has the same perspective, as he writes in his Hiddushei Beit Yishai, no. 107 (p. 413):
וגוף הדברים שכתב הרמב"ם בפה"מ ועשאן עיקר גדול תמוהין מאד. חדא, אם הם עיקר גדול היכי פליג עלה ר' יהודה.
The issue of deciding matters of hashkafah in a halakhic fashion has also recently been discussed by R. Yaakov Ariel in his new book Halakhah be-Yameinu, pp. 18ff. I have to say that the more I read by Ariel the more impressed I am, as everything he writes is carefully formulated and full of insight. He strikes me as very open-minded with a good grasp of Jewish philosophy. He is, of course, also an outstanding posek. I now understand why it was so important for the haredim, under R. Elyashiv’s lead, to prevent him from being elected Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. What the haredim wanted, and were successful in this, was to destroy the Chief Rabbinate as a force to be reckoned with. The way to do this was to make sure that its occupant would be nothing but a “crown rabbi”. That is, they wanted to appoint a chief rabbi who is a figurehead, who interacts with the government on behalf of the haredi leadership, who goes around the world speaking about Jewish topics to the masses, and who can deal with non-Jews. What they absolutely did not want in a chief rabbi was a figure who had any rabbinic standing and who could thus challenge haredi Daas Torah.
At a time when much of the right wing religious Zionist world appears to have gone off the deep end, R. Ariel stands as a voice of sanity. Be it his attack on Torat ha-Melekh (a book which I still plan on discussing) or his strong rejection (together with R. Aharon Lichtenstein and R. Nachum Rabinovitch) of the outrageous letter written by Rabbis Tau, Aviner and others in support of Moshe Katzav, or his defense of women voting (arguing that today R. Kook would not be opposed; Halakhah be-Yameinu, p. 189) he shows that right wing religious Zionism need not be identified with the craziness we have been accustomed to see in recent years. 
Let us return to his recent essay where he argues, in opposition to what I wrote in my article, that Maimonides often does “decide” in matters of hashkafah no different than in halakhah. To illustrate his point, Ariel notes that there is a dispute among the Sages about whether there are reasons for commandments. He claims that Maimonides מכריע ופוסק  in accord with the position that there are reasons. He concludes:
אף על פי שלדעתו כללי ההלכה אינם חלים בענייני אמונה, בכל זאת ניתן להכריע את האמונה על פי דרך הלימוד הנקוטה גם בהלכה.
The notion of a pesak emunah, if it is to be parallel to a pesak halakhah, would mean that after Maimonides gives his pesak, in his mind it is now forbidden to adopt the other viewpoint (just as when Maimonides rules that something is forbidden on Shabbat) .Yet where does Maimonides ever say that there is an obligation to accept his viewpoint about reasons for the commandments? What Maimonides does is show why his viewpoint is correct, and Ariel cites these sources. But just because Maimonides wants his readers to adopt his own viewpoint, in what way is this a “pesak emunah”? Maimonides is simply expressing his strongly held belief. He is not ruling alternative positions out of bounds, as he does in deciding halakhah. This appplies as well to the other examples Ariel brings to prove his point. All he has established is that Maimonides argues for a position in matters such as the nature of prophecy and providence, but that is far removed from the notion that Maimonides saw his opinions as halakhically binding. On the contrary, just because Maimonides tells us what he thinks the Torah’s position is in a matter such as providence, he had no expectation that the masses would (or in some cases even should) follow him in this, and he was fully tolerant of the masses holding to their errant opinions as long as the matter was not an authentic dogma.
5. I have now finished my book on censorship. I can’t say when it will appear as it still has to be properly edited, typset etc., but hopefully this won’t take too long. I have loads of interesting material that for various reasons I was unable to include in the book, so the Seforim Blog will give me a good opportunity to bring it to the public’s attention. Let me begin with something sent to me by Rodney Falk.
Professor Louis Henkin, the son of R. Joseph Elijah Henkin, died in 2010. Here is his obituary as it appeared in Ha-Modia.
 

Notice what is missing! The obituary won’t even mention who his father was. Had Louis Henkin been a businessman or a doctor this information would not have been excluded, of this there is no doubt. But it is considered a disgrace to R. Henkin’s memory that his son was an intellectual, one who lived the life of the mind, and yet he didn’t become a rav or a rosh yeshiva . People in the haredi world can understand how not everyone is cut out to be a rosh yeshiva or sit in kollel, and these “unfortunates” are therefore forced choose a profession. But apparently, the notion that one who has the brains and intellectual stamina to become a great scholar might choose to devote himself to non-Torah subjects borders on the blasphemous for Ha-Modia. As such, while Louis Henkin can be acknowledged for his achievements, he has to be severed from his father’s house (the same father who sent him and his two brothers to Yeshiva College).
I think Yoel Finkelman has put the matter quite well in discussing the larger issue of which this example is  part and parcel of:
Haredi writers of history claim to know better than the great rabbis of the past how the latter should have behaved. Those great rabbis do not serve as models for the present. Instead, the present and its ideology serve as models for the great rabbis. Haredi historiography becomes a tale of what observant Jews, and especially great rabbis, did, but only provided that these actions accord with, or can be made to accord with, current Haredi doctrine. The historians do not try to understand the gedolim; they stand over the gedolim. Haredi ideology of fealty to the great rabbis works at cross purposes with the sanitized history of those rabbis.[17]
6. Rabbi Jason Weiner, a fine musmach from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, has recently published a Guide to Traditional Jewish Observance in a Hospital. Formerly assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Century City, he now serves as Senior Rabbi and Manager of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The book comes with approbations from R. Asher Weiss and R. Yitzchok Weinberg, the Talner Rebbe, and the halakhot in the book have been reviewed by Rabbis Gershon Bess, Nachum Sauer, and Yosef Shuterman. The book can be downloaded here.
7. Some readers have asked me about upcoming shul lectures. Here is what is on my schedule through Passover.
Feb. 15-16: Sephardic Institute of Brooklyn
March 1-2: Beth Israel, Miami Beach
March 8-9: Shearith Israel, New York
March 15-16: Beth Israel, Omaha
If any readers are interested in having me speak at their shuls, please be in touch.
8. No one got the answer to the last quiz, so let me do it again. The winner gets a copy of one of the volumes of R. Hayyim Hirschensohn’s commentary on Rashi. If you know the answer to the question, send it to me at shapirom2 at scranton.edu.

What was the first Hebrew book published by a living author?



[1] What does this last sentence mean? How can an attitude violate a biblical prohibition?
[2] As a good illustration of changes in attitude in the last forty years, here is what R. Norman Lamm wrote in his classic article on homosexuality in the 1975 yearbook of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Such a sentence would, today, be quite politically incorrect, and regarded by gays as incredibly offensive: "Were society to give its open or even tacit approval to homosexuality, it would invite more aggresiveness on the part of adult pederasts toward young people." 
[3] R. Meir Schiff (Maharam Schiff) is unique in believing that one without arms should put the tefillin shel yad on the head, together with the tefillin shel rosh. This is the upshot of his comment to Gittin 58a.
[4] See R. Sinai Schiffer, “Mitzvat ha-Metzitzah,” p. 106 (printed together with R. Sinai Adler, Devar Sinai [Jerusalem, 1966])
[5] See Eliyahu Meir Klugman, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pp. 292-293.
[6] “Following in the Footsteps of Our Fathers,” Nov. 13, 2012.
[7] The words are those of Shlomo Sprecher from his article on metzitzah in Hakirah 3 (2006), p. 51.
[8] Speaking of drinking, take a look at this strange passage. It appears in R. Hayyim Rabbi’s letter at the beginning of R. Haggai Ben Hananyah’s Nimukei Levi (Ashdod, 2008), p. 2. Add this to the long list of texts that I refuse to translate.

בדין חלב אשה. נשאלתי פעם, אם בזמן תשמיש עם אשתו, החלב שלה אסור עליו, או שבעל ואשתו כגופו, ואין בו דין של יונק שרץ. ובפרט לטעם שמא יינק מבהמה טמאה, ובאשתו כגופו שהתירו לו בשעת פיוס וכו', לא גזרו בזה. ויתכן שמותר כדין פסיק רישיה בדרבנן. ובנידון כזה, שזה חשש גזירה, גם בניחא ליה יש מקום להתיר. כן נראה לכאורה.

[9] The previous post is found here.

In the comments, Yehudah Mirsky wrote:
Fwiw, as I recall, Steve Wald in his book on Eilu Ovrin shows that the genuinely awful am-haaretz passages in Pesachim are a later stammatic addition, and that Jeff Rubinstein argues has a chapter on this in his "The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud" where he argues both that that sugya in Pesachim is sui generis in Hazal and - interestingly - reflects the Stammaim's needing to justify their very scholastic lifestyle vis-a-vis people who were working for a living. Rubinstein cautions that the whole sugya may have been intended as a series of private jokes and need not necessarily reflect actual social relations between the stammaim and their surrounding society.
[10] Yeshayahu Leibowitz quipped that the Sages must have had a good sense of humor, since they included the following passage in the Talmud: תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם. See Sihot al Pirkei Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot (Jerusalem, 2003), p. 289. In all seriousness, however, there are indeed humorous passages in the Talmud, as pointed out by R. Moses Salmon, Netiv Moshe (Vienna, 1897), pp. 45-46. Here is one example he gives (Bava Batra 14a).:

The Rabbis said to R. Hamnuna: R. Ammi wrote four hundred scrolls of the Law. He said to them: Perhaps he copied out the verse  תורה צוה לנו משה

Salmon claims that anyone with a bit of sense can see that R. Hamnuna’s reply is a wisecrack made in response to the obvious exaggeration about R. Ammi.

Nehemiah Samuel Leibowitz states that even in the Zohar we have passages that show a humorous side. One of the many examples he points to is Zohar, Bereshit, p. 27a:

וימררו את חייהם בעבודה קשה בקושיא. בחומר קל וחומר. ובלבנים בלבון הלכתא. ובכל עבודה בשדה דא ברייתא. את כל עבודתם וגו' דא משנה.

See Leibowitz, “Halatzot ve-Divrei Bikoret be-Sefer ha-Zohar,”Ha-Tzofeh le-Hokhmat Yisrael 11 (1927), pp. 33-45. For more on humor in the Talmud, see Yehoshua Ovsay, Ma'amarim u-Reshimot (New York, 1946), ch. 1; R. Mordechai Hacohen, "Humor, Satirah, u-Vedihah be-Fi Hazal," Mahanayim 67 (5722), pp. 8-19.

[11] Such a community also establishes special rules for itself, of which I can cite many examples. Here is one, from R. Solomon Luria, Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 8:49:

ואם חוזר בפעם השלישי א"כ הוא משולש בחטא, אזי אין מניחין כלל לפדותו מן המלקות אלא ילקה בב"ד ודיו, אם לא שהוא בר אורין שאין ראוי להלקותו

After all we have seen in the last few years, I am quite certain that today the average person would not accept that when it comes to criminal matters that the rabbis should be given special privileges and exemptions.
[12] See also Va-Yikra Rabbah 9:3 where it describes how R. Jannai called his host “a dog”, and then learnt how wrong he was.
[13] See the introduction to the Constantinople 1510 edition of the work, reprinted in the Jerusalem, 1960 edition.
[14] On p. 187 Miller offers a different perspective. Here he quotes another rabbi who said that if necessary it is OK for one to repeat another’s hiddushim in the Shabbat ha-Gadol derashah, because the Sages tell us (Pesahim 6a): שואלין ודורשין בהלכות פסח.  This means:

מותר "לשאול" מאחרים בשעת הדחק ולדרוש בהלכות פסח

[15] I am told that it is still the practice in certain communities for the rabbi to deliver a derashah at a wedding..
[16] I think in particular of S.’s wonderful blog On the Main Line, which routinely provides important, and until now unknown, primary sources that are vital to a wide range of areas of scholarship.
[17] Strictly Kosher Reading, p. 122.

6 comments:

RavTzair said...

Great post as usual.
Regarding exemptions for rabbis who have sinned, see R. Sherman's article in the last Tchumin.

Anonymous said...

Did he author seriously expect even for one minute that Rav Shmuel would say anything different ?

If next week certain psychologists decide that heroin addiction is not treatable and is a valid individual right - will Orthodox Rabbis be called up on the carpet for their right-wing views ?



Anonymous said...

Ummmm...I think Dr. Shapiro has created a straw man argument about R' Kaminetzky's statement. RK only says that God doesn't create homosexual people - and that subsequent post-birth events trigger a psychological condition called homosexuality. I don't see any claim that 'everyone' can be healed- only that such healing is possible. As such, the signatories haven't 'lied' ....anyone who admitted such to Dr. Shapiro were just being subject to his zeal and enthusiasm to ascribe to RK a position that RK never took. I think RK would absolutely agree that 'treatment' gor many homosexuals will fail, and he would say that the reason would be that their conditions are too hardened/embedded to be treatable. This is not an endorsement of RK's position - but we should be honest about reading too much into that position.

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