A Grand Theory of Halachic Everything

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If you are an intellectual creativity junkie, you will get your fill with this article by Dr. Moshe Koppel of Bar-Ilan. I found it breathtaking in its sweep and its utility. I will be surprised (and disappointed) if it does not generate as much discussion as Dr Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction” article did in its time.

Language is understood when people share unwritten expectation of syntax and semantics. Language changes – but change is effective only when it conforms to the expectations of enough people. If the changes are too dramatic, or not espoused by enough people, the changes do not become part of the language. When they are accepted, the differences that accrue make for some very different sentences over the course of centuries. In Dr. Koppel’s felicitous example, Chaucer and Eminem both speak English, although neither would understand the other.

Comparing the historic course of halachic Judaism to the fate and development of language turn into a versatile tool in the hands of Dr. Koppel, explaining how and when community practice can permissibly change. He demonstrates effect codification has upon halachic flexibility – the positive consequences (e.g. eliminating the effects of personal bias and limitations; ensuring that the process of psak is more rational than intuitive) as well as the negative (disrupting the “natural” ebb and flow of the oral, rebbi to talmid transmission. He shows how subtle differences in the meta-halachic intuitions of what is consistent with halachic process and what is not (what he calls moral judgment) become a source of friction and factionalizing of the community. (Chiefly, he posits a tension between a preference for individual rights and autonomy with a privileging of communal needs.) He accounts for the formalizing of hashkafic principles, and even for why it is that we are on a trajectory of greater chumrah all the time – why the process of “signaling” that one is a trusted part of the in-group has to become more costly and extreme with time. He ponders the effect that living in a Jewish state can have upon the entire set of protocols, as Judaism becomes less of a “second language” – which is always more strained and self-conscious – and more of a native one. He sees room for optimism.

While some of these observations are not new, what is novel here is that they all fit in neatly into a single axiology – a Grand Theory of Halachic Everything. It is a marvelous tour-de-force, a stunning blend of linguistics, sociology, creativity, and firm commitment to halacha.

For all of its beauty and elegance, some of the articulation made me wince – to put it mildly. Dr. Koppel’s theory allows him to account for the standardization of the system of beliefs of Torah Judaism as simply an epiphenomenon of a heightened sense of commitment to halachic practice, rather than the receipt of a valid mesorah. I gulp hard when reading one sentence (that comes after a few other difficult ones): “In short, what we generally think of as principles of faith is simply a narrative that codifies the sense of meaningfulness that accompanies true commitment to the moral system.”

Knowing Dr. Koppel (we’ve written about him in the past; perhaps more practically, he is know far and wide as the creator of some wonderful faux-paskevilim, executed in perfect style each Purim), I called him on it. It became immediately apparent that he did not intend to imply in any manner or form that ikarei ha-dos are contrivances meant to find meaning in a way of life, rather than a legitimate parts of the mesorah. He seems to have overreached in his attempt to make the system and theory palatable to the non-committed Jew. Like his work with biblical criticism, his emunah takes him to a different place than his pursuit of unvarnished scientific inquiry. (To be fair, his observation that commitment to practice precedes self-discovery of ikarei ha-dos has some similarity to what the Shalah ha-Kodesh writes in a few places. HKBH, he says citing earlier sources, created an ohr de-hemanusa within the practice of mitzvos. In other words, the very certainty of HKBH’s existence is conveyed to us – by design – by encountering His reality through acting as halacha demands.) The articulation of section V in the article was unfortunate; given what we know of his beliefs and practice, it should not becomes a distraction from the elegance of the rest of the article.

I found his general theory especially compelling in his overall observations about the speed at which change can occur within halacha, and whose voices will and will not be trusted in suggesting those changes. Those who have followed certain recent debates within these pages will know what I mean.

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11 Responses

  1. YEA says:

    The title of this post reminds me of my time in yeshiva in 2005 when the mashgiach gave a shmooze on the subject of the Slifkin books and the heresy contained therein. One of the highlights was when he picked up one of the books and read from Rabbi Adlerstein’s review on the back cover, “The Jewish Theory of Everything has arrived!” As I recall, this, plus Rabbi Adlerstein’s use of the phrase “responsible Kabbalah”, was said to epitomize everything that is wrong with the books. From the tone in which he read it, I surmise that he didn’t have the slightest clue as to what the Theory of Everything is, and he was under the impression that Rabbi Adlerstein had coined the phrase himself.

  2. dr. bill says:

    Joel Rich, I am not so convinced we know the “how.” The language analogy is a good one, but not all that exact. In terms of a feedback loop, I tend to doubt it. If rabbis paid more attention to the “how” they might try to accelerate adoption of their POV; I do not think it axiomatically changes (or impacts) their decisions all that much. (Some rabbis might choose a decision more likely to be accepted under a “half a loaf..” rationale.) Your airline example, and the documented cases in other industries where pricing policies and strategies were made (more) public are more analogous to publicizing not the “how” or the “why” but the “what.” I suspect that greater exposure of psakim does give some rabbis pause, particularly from rendering liberal decisions. Sadly, I do not think it works the other way.

    i have seen psakim by RMF ztl privately addressed that differ from his public tshuvot in Igrot Moshe. His rationale is more than legitimate; if RMF says someone like person X, but not everyone, can do action Y, many people will say – I am also like X. for that reason he asked that his psak not be made public. BTW, when the addressee’s son died, his daughter found letters to her grandfather from RMF in her father’s library. they were was not revealed to anyone for over 50 years. she cherishes the knowledge of how RMF viewed her grandfather and trusted he would use a heter judiciously.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Is this one of those theories that seems to fit what already happened but has no ability to predict?

  4. E. Fink says:

    Wow. This might just be the most amazing article I have ever read. Thank you for sharing it.

    I think your concern about Section V can be solved another way. There is a reason that our mesorah includes articles of faith. There is a reason they were codified. There is a reason they were accepted. These reasons fit in neatly with Dr. Koppel’s theory. It didn’t HAVE to be that we had articles of faith and it didn’t HAVE to be that these are our articles of faith. They are there because they serve an important need. A need that Dr. Koppel identifies.

  5. joel rich says:

    dr. bill,
    To me the interesting question is how self aware are poskim of the sociological analysis of the how; if not acutely, would their becoming aware of it change their own how?? (a partial analogy, do websites that predict airline pricing patterns for future fares impact the future fares?)
    KT
    Joel Rich

  6. dr. bill says:

    prof. soloveitchik addressed the important question of “why” a set of changes occurred. prof. koppel is addressing “how,” creating a useful analogy between how language and halakha transform. It would be entirely erroneous to ascribe, particularly to a discussion of “how,” any valuation of changes or any claim to what constitutes legitimate change. if anything, prof. koppel’s excellent essay adds depth to what is well known: absent a mimetic tradition, words can be badly misconstrued.

  7. Leon Zacharowicz MD says:

    In short, what we generally think of as principles of faith is simply a narrative that codifies the sense of meaningfulness that accompanies true commitment to the moral system

    Silly me. Here I thought, all these years, that halacha stemmed from the rigorous application of principles of Talmudic methodology, as understood by generations of scholars, whereas it is merely a narrative aimed at meaningfulness.

    My question is: how does this theory make any meaningful difference to those whose life’s work is understanding halacha and in some cases effecting change (as some of us have tried to do, with varying degrees of success, in fields such as medical halacha)?

  8. joel rich says:

    It became immediately apparent that he did not intend to imply in any manner or form that ikarei ha-dos are contrivances meant to find meaning in a way of life, rather than a legitimate parts of the mesorah.
    ============================
    I’m sure R’MK didn’t intend such an inference, but does it give you pause for thought that such an inference could explain the facts on the ground? Probably not, since we do believe that mesorah, but it makes it a bit more understandable why not everyone else sees it the way we do.
    KT

  9. Shades of Gray says:

    “I found his general theory especially compelling in his overall observations about the speed at which change can occur within halacha, and whose voices will and will not be trusted in suggesting those changes.”

    I think that the basic hashkafah/affiliation of someone who suggests something can raise a red flag of caution as far as the motivation being in the wrong direction, but ultimately thinking through and explaining an issue is a much more important response than who originated the idea. There is however a joke about an European Rav who did the opposite of what people in the street did, due to the “sechel of the baal habayis being [automatically] the opposite from the sechel of the Torah”, and at times one may sorely tempted to apply such advice :)

  10. S. says:

    “I will be surprised (and disappointed) if it does not generate as much discussion as Dr Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction” article did in its time.”

    That was very possible when it appeared in Tradition in 1994. I’d be surprised if such a single article generating so much discussion and thought is possible anymore, no more than there can really be epoch-defining record albums.

  11. Baruch Gitlin says:

    Thank you for linking to and reviewing this most thought-provoking article.