Mesorah On The Fly

One of Rabbi Dr. Yoel Finkelman’s academic areas of interest is charedi culture. His comments are always incisive and challenging. He is as passionate about his DL part of the Torah world as I am about mine. Since we have a relationship that has withstood public debate and other exchanges, including on Cross-Currents, I decided to jump in on his comment to Rabbi Gordimer’s post, and respond myself. (Besides, Rabbi Gordimer is on vacation. Somewhat.) After writing it, it seemed that the exchange was valuable enough to promote to a full posting.

Despite my brief response to him, R. Finkelman is still correct. The topic requires further thought and development, and I hope to contribute more at a later date, BEH. I suspect that his insistence on this comes from a place similar to mine: the observation that how Mesorah is understood and applied has become a mega-issue that now thoroughly divides the Orthodox world into two camps.

I still do not see in Rabbi Gordimer’s analysis an adequate definition of “Mesorah” or an explanation of how I know violations of mesorah in advance. (The question of why sermons in the vernacular are OK despite “Mesorah” based arguments against them in the 19th cent remains an important question for advocates of “Mesorah.”)
The closest to a definition is”Mesorah, insomuch that it reflects halachic and hashkafic axioms.”
Mah Nafshakh? If the arguments against a particular practice are essentially Halakhic, then make the Halakhic argument. (No, the argument from Serara is not a slam dunk here….) What does the term “Mesorah” add? If the argument is hashkafic, than a) find the texts and makes the argument and again what does “Mesorah” add? b) since when does dispute about hashkafah require the level of vitriol that has been leveled against those who want to see Women in clergy positions in Orthodoxy?
More, what does “axiom” mean here? If it’s an axiom stated in the mekorot, just quote the text. If it is axiomatic because it is unstated, well we all know that arguments from silence are pretty weak.

In the absence of an more substantive definition of “Mesorah,” the best I can come up with is that some thing is against the Masora if my religious intuitions tell me that it is really bad even though the straight halakhic arguments against it are weaker than my intuition about how bad it is. But that doesn’t sounds like a very good argument.

Reb Yoel,
While the lack of a satisfactory definition of Mesorah may haunt you (and it should haunt all those who are mevakshei emes), it is side-show in our discussion, but not the main event. With a nod to Justice Potter Stewart, we make use of many concepts without a firm grasp of their definition or nature. I assume you use electronics and prescription drugs. Please let me know when you can provide a satisfactory definition of an electron – making sure you specify whether it is a particle or a wave. Many prescription drugs are found to be effective and approved for use well before the reason for their efficacy is uncovered.

The issue here is not defining the limits of Mesorah, but whether it exists at all. The Far Left effectively deep-sixes it; traditional Orthodoxy values it, even when imperfectly understood.

This deserves fuller attention, as you correctly point out. But allow me a few observations from the traditionalist camp. I will tell you what Mesorah is not, and then (imperfectly – until I get a chance to write something lengthier) what it may approximate.

It is not something limited to a text. The challenge “Show it to me!” is understandable, but it is not on the lips of those who value it. They understand that, as Rav Gordimer stated, it is always rooted in halachic or hashkafic texts, but there is not a text for every large or small issue in a system as complex as Toras Hashem.

It is not something to be decided by personal intuition. In many cases it will have to be addressed by intuition, but not yours or mine. At least not mine. It is decided not by people who are competent, but people who are superstars. Not semi-pros, but clean-up hitters in the Majors. There are no such people on the Far Left, period. Sorry. I’m not going to get into ad hominem arguments, but most readers will know exactly what I mean. Some people will call those superstars “gedolim,” others will call them “baalei Mesorah,” yet others will call them “the greatest of our Torah teachers.” They still stand head and shoulders over everyone else in their respective camps.

Now for an approximation. AJ Ayer argues that a person preserves his identity because he has succeeded in time and place to the same individual who occupied the same or contiguous space a nanosecond earlier. IOW, we change between childhood and old age. What makes us the same individual is the smooth connection of being, every second along the way. There is connection, not rupture, between the immediate past and the present.

Mesorah works similarly. Of course we change, because Torah is the way HKBH wants us to engage a world that constantly changes. Mesorah maintains Torah identity. It makes sure that the rules, assumptions, weltanschauung of a moment ago are close enough to what they will be in the next moment (even when things are changing) that there is no disruption or discontinuity.

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27 comments to Mesorah On The Fly

  • cvmay

    When time allows, can you define/explain in more detail “Mesorah” & “hashkafic texts”? thxs, cvm

  • David

    The question, though, is whether things must change more quickly given how quickly the world is changing.

    Personally, it seems to me that we’re better off admitting that there is no iron-clad halachic or hashkafic reason why a woman can’t be a rabbi, it’s just that this is how yeshiva and communal life have been structured and there’s no pressing reason to change it.

  • micha

    Sorry, I don’t think mesorah is that obscure of a concept.

    Mesorah is the culture we received at Sinai. All those elements of Torah that can’t be captured in formal text. To use Dr Moshe Koppel’s metaphor, a foreigner learning English learns rules of grammar. A native speaker somehow manages to distinguish between grammatical and broken sentences without remembering that “would” could be used to introduce a subjunctive. And because the native speaker knows something more complete than the rules, he knows what it grammatical but oddly phrased, or know when the rules can be stretched by poetic license, and when that would violate the entire system.

    Similarly, the Torah is more complex than what could be articulated in writing. Some of what a rebbe transmits a student requires shimush, the student serving the rebbe, because only then do you absorb the culture, not just the words. The explosion in number of machloqesin when the Torah was passed from Hillel and Shammai to their students was because of a lack of that shimush. On a more positive note, the reason why Yehoshua was Moshe’s true successor was because he was the one who set up and dismantlted the “beis medrash” when Moshe would teach. Yehoshua didn’t “only” learn the words of his rebbe, he learned Moshe Rabbeinu’s world.

    Mesorah is inherently that aspect of Torah that is difficult to articulate.

  • dr. bill

    you are quite right – mesorah lacks a formal, precise definition. providing one may bring more bias than clarity. that said, the late prof. katz ztl did pioneetring work on how religious behavior changes in a traditional community. the community, not its rabbinic leaders often led the change, to which rabbis applied halakhic boundaries. the difference between religious and halakhic is very fundamental and well beyond what can be succinctly addressed. that is also not to say that only halakha matters, but going beyond should lead to yet more legitimate positions than the confines of halkha.

  • Menachem Lipkin

    “The Far Left effectively deep-sixes it; traditional Orthodoxy values it, even when imperfectly understood.”

    Whatever “Mesorah” is, it’s not binary. It floats on a continuum along with so many other things in our world that are less monochromatic than people would like to believe. It’s unfair and inaccurate to say that the far-left “deep sixes it”. All of orthodoxy, and truthfully most Jews with any connection, “value” it. The issue is the degree to which it’s used as governor to change. While the “far left”, in the eyes of many, may place too low a “value” on it and thus allow for more rapid change, the far right have enshrined it into a religion unto itself far detached from historical reality to the point where any change is considered a violation of that value.

    In reality the Mesorah is an evolutionary process, sometimes guided by “superstars”, but just as often, if not more so, catalyzed from the bottom up. So in the final analysis we can only know if something is part of the Mesorah retrospectively.

    The mesoraniks freaked even at superstar changes like those invoked by the Rambam, the Chofetz Chaim, the Rav, etc. Most of those changes eventually become part of the Mesorah, not necessarily due to the “superstars” but to the gradual evolution of communal acceptance.

    That said I think we are somewhat bifurcated. For example women learning Gemorah is very much part of the MO/RZ Mesorah and yet not at all part of the Chareidi Mesorah. Whereas the modern invention of mass long-term Kollel learning is not part of the MO/RZ Mesorah. Of course it’s still too soon to really know as we still need move forward a few generations to gain the proper perspective.

    So to with the issue of Maharats. IMO this is hardly revolutionary. In retrospect it was easy to see that it is merely the logical conclusion of what the Chofetz Chaim set in motion by allowing Bet Yaakov and the Rav pushed along by allowing women to study Gemorah. The Chareidi world capped it off by not allowing themselves past the level of Bet Yaakov learning. As such they really have no skin in this game. (Of course they are free to voice their opinion, but to make over the top statements about “removing themselves from orthodoxy” does nothing to advance the discussion and does everything to make themselves look ridiculous.) However, I find it baffling at how resistant the mainstream MO world is behaving given that this was totally foreseeable and inevitable. This is happening, whether people like it or not, and I think people should chill out and let time decide whether or this will have been part of the Mesorah or not.

    [YA – A continuum there is – but the Far Left is not on it in regard to Mesorah. They consistently meet every invocation of the concept with a demand: Show us the mekoros! – which can them be debated ad nauseum into a graveyard of conflicting arguments. Those on the continuum will disagree about its application at times, but recognize that there are decisions that need to be made by more seasoned Torah thinkers. The left in Israel might say, “RAL disagrees!;” the Far Left in the US has no one to quote other than people light-years away from eminence.

    I was not aware of an organized Far Left in Israel other than a group of partnership minyanim and one or two idiosyncratic roshei yeshiva, who have not banded together to effect major changes in the community.]

  • Chaim Saiman

    Two comments and an observation:

    1. RYA– I agree with those who have responded to you that what is “the mesorah” is very much in contest and is subject to change over time, and that if you examine the matter historically, the claim becomes significantly more complex. To pile on a more recent example, I recall learning in a charedi Yeshiva, and to the extent one heard the name “J.B.” who had a co-ed school who taught GM’ to girls in Boston, it was very clearly “not part of the Mesorah.” Today of course “the Rav’s” reputation has moved from not part of or the very fringe of “the Mesorah” to some who is the very definition of “the mesorah” (in the YU world) or at least undeniably a part of it (as in large parts of the American Charedi world). This shift would have surely surprised many observers of the mesorah in th 70’s and 80’s

    2. Just a few days ago I learned on this blog just a few days ago that the Rambam’s idea (mamrim 2:2
    בית דין שגזרו גזרה או תקנו תקנה והנהיגו מנהג ופשט הדבר בכל ישראל, ועמד אחריהם בית דין אחר ובקש לבטל דברים הראשונים . . . אינו יכול עד שיהיה גדול מן הראשונים בחכמה ובמנין… אפילו בטל הטעם שבגללו גזרו הראשונים או התקינו אין האחרונים יכולין לבטל עד שיהו גדולים מהם
    applies not only to a Sanhedrin that makes a formalized takkna, but even to the Chazon Ish who never explicitly said that he was making a takkana ledorot. Im not sure why this is not a violation of the mesorah.

    FWIW- I agree with you that there is more to Yahadus than what can be expressed in an official halakhic texts, and that the “show me the source” argument is far from the only relevant question. What is amusing to me is that when more liberal writers make the case that there is more to halakhah than can be narrowly found in the S’A, they use terms such as “meta-halakhah” or “halakhic values”— often to the rolling eyes of their more conservative friends. By contrast when more conservative writers want to access a very similar concept, they use the term “Mesorah”—- often to the rolling eyes of their more liberal friends.

    [YA – 1) Reb Chaim, you are conflating two different usages of the word “mesorah.” One refers to the content of the process of mesorah – what is “in” at a particular time in history. You correctly observe that this changes from generation to generation, as a Living Torah should. The second usage refers to the process itself – how changes are vetted in real time, to ensure that there is continuity. I have been writing about the latter – how baalei mesorah look at proposed changes – while you are writing about the former. Nobody is arguing that change doesn’t happen. The question is what kinds of change, how much, and on what terms. 2) I shouldn’t have to speculate about the meaning of a statement attributed to a living (B”H) figure. Ask him. 3)I guess we could repackage your FWIW statement this way: Left and Right roll their eyes at the sight of different expressions, while the Far Left is completely blind to their significance.]

  • Raymond

    I am not sure I should even attempt to make a comment, as I may be totally clueless regarding what everybody is talking about here. I will still give it a try, though, hoping that what I have to say about this, makes some sense.

    I am certainly no Torah scholar, nor in the thick of things in the Orthodox Jewish world. And yet, I have noticed that while far more latitude is allowed when interpreting Torah texts as compared to deciding Jewish law, that there still are nevertheless very definite boundaries in Torah interpretation that one is simply not allowed to cross, if one hopes to be looked at as a legitimate Torah commentator. Without mentioning other religions, any Jew, for example, who would interpret just about every Torah passage to be a sign of a certain Nazarite, would not even be given the time of day by his fellow traditional Jew, and rightly so. It is not necessarily that the person could not use some kind of logic to justify such an interpretation as much as it is so far outside of our handed down traditions, that he simply cannot be taken seriously. Perhaps another example of this is the Rambam’s attitude toward Aristotle. While the Rambam had a rather shockingly high admiration for that greatest of the gentile philosophers, the Rambam nevertheless knew where to draw the line, that is, which parts of Aristotle’s ideas are simply too absurd to be compatible in any way with Torah Judaism.

    Perhaps what I am trying to say, is that not everything has to be explicitly written down somewhere, for it to be universally understood among Orthodox Jews, to represent authentic Judaism. Some things are part of Judaism, and some are not. Orthodox Jews fully engaged in religious Jewish life, usually have a pretty good instinct for making such distinctions.

  • SA

    So what is the “mesora” for not printing pictures of modestly dressed women or even little girls in publications, or separate seating at lectures or on buses (whether it’s women in the back, or a curtain down the middle)? These are examples of things that have been imposed by …um, whom? that are quickly becoming norms in Orthodox life. If we bow our heads and accept, then our children will naturally assume this “mesora.” Yet those who resist are considered rebellious or at the very least, objects of suspicion. I’m confused.

    [YA – You are not confused at all. You recognize the power of group-think, which is sometimes a positive tool, but can also be a tool of intimidation. And you know exactly how to resist it. It takes courage, and the willingness to live outside the expectations of the group. Not for the weak-willed. What’s confusing?]

  • Yoel Finkelman

    Once again, always a pleasure to “spar” with you about issues that matter.

    Largely I agree with what you wrote: Judaism is not just text but context, cultural sensibilities and the habitus in which we operate religiously are very important, and that we should not reduce Torah commitment exclusively to technical legalism. In that sense, the way that we perceive that things have always been done matters a great deal. (Though I think you overstate the role of gedolim, but that’s for another time.)

    My problem involves the work that the concept of “mesorah” is being asked to do. You admit that the mesorah changes, albeit slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, and with the kind of organic coherence that links one moment to the other (even you must admit, I assume, that at least some changes happen quickly and dramatically also, though).

    But, it’s hard to figure out in advance when change is okay and when it is not. Here is where history matters. If we look at the history of Jewish practice, it is full of examples of innovations that were once rejected as against the mesorah but have become commonplace. Sermons in the vernacular, choirs in at least some Orthodox synagogues, indoor chuppah are a few of the most obvious 19th century examples. (Poskim in the 19th century argued that it was absolutely prohibited to set foot in a synagogue that offered sermons in the vernacular.) Look at the Eastern European rabbinic opposition to Torah education for girls in the decades before Sara Schneirer got up and did something (with much, much, much less support from the great rabbis than people tend to think – see Rachel Manekin on these issues). History laughs at us. We are absolutely convinced that proposition X is against the meorah, but our grandchildren will take those innovations for granted. This makes me very skeptical of the power of arguments based on mesorah. Two generations from now, they may not understand how we could possibly be arguing about such things.

    There is also a sociological aspect. There is no mesorah in Jewish texts for acupuncture, yoga, pickup basketball games, women’s dance classes, life coaching, cognitive behavioral therapy, female assistant principals, and a literally endless innovations in the cultural of the contemporary frum and yeshivish community. Yoga and acupuncture could certainly plausibly be linked with Eastern religions, which could themselves be plausibly linked to avodah zarah, and yet the same frum communities that reject what you have called the “far left” for being against the mesorah are extensive consumers of all kinds of Eastern-linked alternative medicines. No doubt, the explanation for this phenomenon has to do with religious intuition. Much of the right does not intuit yoga or acupuncture as problematic, but it does intuit female clergy as problematic. The Halakhic arguments against yoga are much stronger than against female non-rabbis.

    Part of the reason why these changes are perceived as being so threatening has to do with gender. “Gender stands at the center of every cultural system” (can’t find who I’m quoting). Changes in diet, exercise patterns, and even various synagogue patterns are not nearly as threatening to a cultural system as changes in gender roles. Mess with gender roles and everything about a culture shifts. That helps explain why a conservative culture like the Orthodox right is terrified of changing gender roles, but not so much about alternative medicine.

    For the most part, in contemporary discourse, the concept of “mesorah” is used to veto, reject, and at least in the case of female Orthodox non-rabbis, used to de-legitimate advocates of a particular position. My problem is not with the concept of continuity, tradition, or change that happens slowly. My problem is with just how much power is being attributed to an ill-defined and inconsistently applied term like “mesorah,” as well as the way it is used in the discourse as if it is a transparent, easily understood concept that makes a slam dunk argument soon as it is evoked.

    [YA – Let’s get the easiest one out of the way first. I completely disagree about the Eastern stuff. The issue there is entirely halachic, and can be subject to a yes-or-no treatment. Enough serious baalei halacha have weighed in on when offshoots of foreign ideological systems lose the halachic taint of avodah zarah. The practices you describe are mutarim, and haven’t raised any serious hashkafic eyebrows yet.

    I’m sure you are correct about the importance of gender in this discussion. I also think, however, that we would be ignoring what to me (and I suspect others) is the more important way in which the Far Left has removed itself from the mainstream. Sure, they come in for greater suspicion because of the gender-thing. But in the process, we learn about how they approach halacha, and how they ignore the entire concept of mesorah. That taints everything they do.

    Now for your main observation, about the predictability of mesorah as process. You may be correct about it not being able to tell us about the future. It might best be suited to tell us about the present. At the moment, all gedolei Torah reject the antics of the Far Left. According to my definition, that translates as “the proposed change is perceived/understood/intuited by us to be foreign to the way we understand Torah values.” Could things change in the future? Who knows? Some changes that are broached ultimately prove to be suited to changed conditions in a future generation; others die on the vine. The changes you point too were indeed foreign to the baalei mesorah (yes, we do disagree about the role of gedolim) at one point in history, and rejected at that time, but not rejected later. In other cases, they were rejected by most, but embraced by others. Partial acceptance makes a huge difference. As many have pointed out, mechitzah became almost a defining element of Orthodoxy, despite it not appearing as a clear halachic mandate in the gemara or Shulchan Aruch. (So today we observe that Partnership Minyanim still have mechitzos!) One of the reasons for this is that all major halachic authorities – in all camps, without exception – upheld the need for mechitzah. Had Soro Schneirer gotten no support at all for her innovation, she would have failed. With the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerer Rebbe on her side, she had more than a chance. I am reasonably sure that in the case of all the changes you pointed to, there were some major figures who embraced them.]

  • Yoel Finkelman

    BTW, contrary to popular belief I am not a rabbi.

  • moshe

    I agree, that the so called “far left” often makes arguments based on readings of the sources independant of any mesora. But their opponents consistently present their positions which are really rooted in what we are calling here “mesorah” in technical halakhic terms. This invites the other side argue in terms of “mekoros” and not relate to “mesorah”. Quite frankly in many cases with regard to women’s issues, the halakhic arguments put forward from the right are not overwhelmingly convincing to the extent that they would de-legitimize those who disagree. As such they actually empower “far left”. Marc Shapiro has written on this.

    On the flip side, you have defined Mesorah as lying with in the purview of posek’s discretion and not really open to challenge. Granted, but we must acknowledge that mesorah comes out of a social and ideological context and that in fact there are multiple streams of mesorah. What appears “universally understood” in one community may not be so in and other. The Slifkin affair is a good example of this. The “far left” will argue that RHS Shachter represents a mesorah with is in many ways far removed from the mesorah represented by the Rav, RAL and others, and as such his claims to rule on the basis on mesorah are irrelevant to them. I think that this claim is entirely legitimate, the problem is that they lack legitimate alternative leadership.

    [YA – I agree with both of your points. The case at hand, however, is a special case. There is unanimous rejection of the ordination of women. Unanimity (and near-unanimity) do not happen very often. When they do, we ought to listen up. There was nothing close to unanimity regarding the writings of R Natan Slifkin. ]

  • Ori Pomerantz

    What is the difference between oral Torah (as used before the redacting of the Mishnah, while it was still an oral Torah) and Mesorah?

    [YA – The way we have been using it here, the two are pomegranates and oranges. Oral Torah meant the transmission of the content of the Sinaitic revelation. Mesorah means the sense that any proposed innovation suits the needs of the ethos of the Torah, according to prevailing conditions.]

  • Dr. E

    Rabbi Finkelman presents an important challenge here, calling for a more intellectually rigorous approach. Knowing him personally, I will go out on a limb by saying that he might be in agreement with the conclusion of discomfort as it relates to the Maharat innovation. However, if one wants to use the Mesorah argument, the construct needs to be more tightly defined. (And Rabbi Finkelman is asking us all to use intellectually honest and rigorous principles to flesh out what that is.) Otherwise, any contrarian perspective in the debate will be relegated to that of “Daas Torah”, which is not only without definition and precedent (as applied), but politically driven. And as we have seen in Hapeles vs. Yated 2013, the weakness of the Daas Torah theory has exposed in the Charedi world for exactly what it is.

  • Mike S.

    First, as a physicist, I have to tell you your electron analogy is way off base. There are few things (if indeed there are any) outside of pure mathematics that are as well defined as an electron. We can calculate properties to an accuracy better than one part in a billion. The bit about specifying whether it is a particle or a wave is a red herring–the point is those are not two separate ideas at the subatomic level.

    Second, while no doubt in theory, “It [what is Mesorah] is decided not by people who are competent, but people who are superstars,” in practice, a great many changes in religious practice have developed without such support only to find it after the fact. This goes back at least to Talmudic times where a practice that is now central to our observance of taharat hamishpacha is described as having arisen as a stringency adopted by the “daughters of Israel.” Perhaps even into Biblical times since the gemara describes how reluctant the rabbis were to adopt Purim and how Esther had to argue them into it. And in more modern times one has the rise of Chassidut, despite the opposition of all the great rabbonim of the day including the Gr”a and the Noda b’Yehudah.

    [YA – I’m not going to argue physics with a physicist. BE”H, I will drop the use of that analogy, if you insist. I fear, however, that you are looking at this question as part of a privileged elite. The average university-educated layperson still sees behavior on the subatomic and quantum worlds as “weird.” There are shelves of popular books authored by physicists that help them discover that weirdness, and then let them know that modern science and Zen or some Eastern discipline are amazingly in synch. So much of it is built on the difference between the macro and micro worlds. You many be at home with both of them, but lots of others are not. And those people still have no problem using electronic devices they don’t believe they can fully understand.

    My point should still be well taken, even if we need to substitute a different example. We employ things we imperfectly understand. We employ them because we either know that they work, or know that they are true.

    It is not true that “all the great rabbonim of the day” opposed Chassidus. Back then, Chassidishe leaders were themselves great rabbonim. My own preferences are about as Litvish as one can get, but the Alter Rebbe was hardly chopped liver – even in the time of the Gra. Similarly, other changes that eventually were embraced were originally or eventually supported by at least some major Torah personalities. The Far Left has none. No one even close.]

  • dr. bill

    You write: I was not aware of an organized Far Left in Israel other than a group of partnership minyanim and one or two idiosyncratic roshei yeshiva, who have not banded together to effect major changes in the community.

    i see it quite the opposite. the US has a limited set of what you call far-left. israel has a rich academic wissenshaft culture, that is changing the face of orthodoxy in a dramatic way, bottom-up. being more academic, they do not affix themselves to movements. as a very astute observer noted a while back, the renaissance of jewish learning in israel is not (just) happening in the yeshivot – chareidi and hesder. the learning is of a different nature; valuable in a different way. a yeshiva student who reads a rashba wants to know everyone who has commented on the rashba; an academic focuses on what the rashba read and how/why he is commenting. one reads with an eye towards conceptualization, the other towards the historical development of ideas.
    one can certainly question the academic output or gadlus of the US left; not so in Israel.

  • Chardal

    >It is not true that “all the great rabbonim of the day” opposed Chassidus. Back then, Chassidishe leaders were themselves great rabbonim.

    But they WERE anti-establishment and many of their reforms were strong breaks from the mesorah and done with little talmudic rigour. The Besh”t showed little talmudic prowess. The magid was reportedly an accomplished talmudist but was completely unknown before meeting the Besh”t. He definitely could not be described as part of the rabbinic leadership. The third generation (which included the Alter Rebbe) was overwhelmingly young. Chassidut during this generation became a mass movement for the first time and it was almost entirely a movement of young people – the leaders and chassidim alike. The elder generation was unanimously opposed to its innovations which included completely changing the nusach haTefilla, changing the model of rabbinic leadership, rejecting the shchita of the misnagdim (glatt, etc), changing the value structure of the Jewish community (prayer is more important than learning), and completely undermining the traditions of synagogue decorum.

    [YA “Young” is not synonymous with tinok shelo calu lo chadashav (Sotah 22A)]

  • Menachem Lipkin

    “At the moment, all gedolei Torah reject the antics of the Far Left.”

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I truly hold that you are above this type of language of delegitimization. Whatever you have to say about the validity of the positions of those on the “far left”, I think you can admit that they are sincere and worthy of respectful dialog, especially from a person of your stature and sensibility who respectfully dialogs with those far more “different” than orthodoxy’s “far left”. Also, I think it only feeds into into the very atmosphere created in the media as mentioned in your wonderfully critique of Rabbi Grylak.

    [YA – Dear Reb Menachem,

    Flattery will get you somewhere – but not as far as you would want! Help me along with this. I don’t want to delegitimize – but I do have to have to draw lines of demarcation.

    Let me explain the difference. Unlike many of my colleagues, I would not hesitate to catch a weekday shacharis or mincha in a Far Left shul. I believe that the conversation with both laypeople and clergy of the Far Left should be respectful and own up to their sincerity. (I can drop the term, if someone comes up with something better. It is not a term of my invention, but it does accurately describe their position on a continuum of Orthodoxy. And as I have said before, it is far less insulting that their use of “Open Orthodoxy.”) I would accept an invitation to speak in one of their shuls.

    At the same time, respectful discourse can often come only when everyone understands that their are lines of demarcation. You are right, Menachem, I speak with groups much further distant than those of the YCT/IRF orbit. When they sometimes speak about how we really don’t disagree, we all share the same values, etc. I am quick to throw in (with the right inflection, and usually linked to some humor) that one of the things we share is “irreconcilable differences.” Without that disclaimer, I could not function, for fear that I would be perverting the message of Yiddishkeit.

    Differences with the Far Left are perhaps not irreconcilable. But they are huge. And they can – and should – make a big difference in the kind of Torah, the kind of inspiration, the kind of guidance that people will receive from those who find themselves in that orbit. Undoubtedly, some people fully belong there, and won’t relate well to people further to the right. But the flip side is also true. Those who seek a kind of Yiddishkeit that is built on an entire constellation of values, that relates to psak halacha in a certain way, that treats traditional texts in a certain way – those people must know that the Far Left has sociologically/culturally become a different group. As an educator, I do need to stress that difference. As hopefully a mensch, I do need to not exaggerate it, or demonize people in the process.

    It is a challenge. Thank you Menachem for holding my feet to the fire.]

  • Mike S.

    The Alter Rebbe was a student of the Maggid who was a student of the Besh”t, thus the third generation of Chassidut. While we, with hindsight, recognize the greatness of the Besh”t, the Maggid and the other students of the Besh”t, that wasn’t how they were perceived by their contemporaries in the rabbinate. Consider how often in rabbinic literature of the period you find chassidim referred to as “Chadashim mikarov ba’u”, a reference to idolatry. It seems to me that the reception the Besh”t received was at least as hostile as that directed at R. Weiss. Now, (again as a phycisist) just because they “laughed at Einstein” (also not really a good analogy) doesn’t make everyone who gets laughed at into Einstein; opposition doesn’t mean that history will judge the Mahara”t idea favorably. Just that there seems to be ample historical precedent for ideas that come from the bottom up (and sometimes encounter heavy opposition) sometimes becoming part of our tradition.

    [YA No gainsaying that there is room for bottom-up change. It still needs to be vetted. I don’t think you are correct that only a bunch of yingelach supported Chassidus. It had its supporters. And Chassidus was in peril of being rejected by the rest of the Torah community until a generation after the Gra, by which time even R Chaim Volozhin, while still involved in a polemic with chassidim, did not see them as ovdei avodah zarah, c”v. And chassidim to this day claim that the Gra’s opposition ensured that they did not veer off further than they could. The opposition of baalei mesorah is sometimes a necessary corrective, and actually allows for the change to take place.

    But again – even bottom-up changes always require the support of seasoned, high-achieving talmidei chachamim. The American Far Left at least at the moment simply does not have such people. All of them, for all their different hair-covering styles, are opposed to where they have gone, and where they say they are going.]

  • Dovid

    Dr. Finkelman,
    I would suggest the following explanation to address the “speech in the vernacular” challenge to mesorah: in this wonderful world-in-flux we live in, the rules of the game often change in unpredictable ways, sometimes in subtle shifts and sometimes in tectonic ones. The leading thinkers in any given generation cannot be expected to predict how new trends, which may or may not portend major change, are going to play out over time. When “speeches in the vernacular” first became an issue, it represented a clear and present threat to the distinctiveness of Jewish identity. Torah ideals and values – through the eyes of the mesorah – simply could not absorb this practice without being severely compromised. Thus, such speeches were rejected. Eventually, the underlying trends evolved from the order of a potential challenge to Torah society to the challenge of a whole new order of society. Torah WAS compromised and something precious was lost (Many would argue much was gained as well, but that’s a question for hindsight).
    Mesorah is that part of the halachic system that evaluates varying social and historical circumstances and applies that generation’s broadest and deepest vision to protecting its most essential values and preserving the purity of its character to the best of its ability. Sure, circumstances may eventually change and that will affect the application of mesorah. But no less often a trend will rise up with sound and fury only to drift away, washing the weak element that could not resist it out of the Torah community. There is no shortcut to figuring this out and there are no rules to “know in advance.” It is simply a social commitment in each generation to empower its greatest visionaries (in the sense of “ain ohr ela Torah” – vision of reality is a function of Torah insight) to lead the way when such judgments are necessary. They may seem to be on the wrong side of history as things play out, and those they railed against may even prove to have been ushering in the future. When that happens, though, something of inestimable value is always lost and the new world is a shell of what was. Different visionaries adjust to these changes at different paces and with different views but there is no connection to the light of Torah without them.

  • Bob Miller

    Many, including Rav SR Hirsch ZT”L, have discussed how best to bring Torah to bear on a changed set of societal conditions. They correctly assumed that the Divinely given Torah could never be irrelevant to some new situation that could arise. However, it’s clear that not just anyone has the qualifications and standing to judge the need for adaptation and then to manage any needed adaptation so as to sustain Torah in the short and long run. The communal splintering and extreme factionalism that exist today make it hard to see how any major adaptation could be carried off appropriately and across community boundaries. Before we think of even Torah-justifiable tinkering, we need to get our act together as a klal.

  • Chardal

    >”Young” is not synonymous with tinok shelo calu lo chadashav

    I agree. But scholars like R’ Sperber is neither young nor a tinok shelo calu lo chadashav. My main point is that chassidut was subversive to tradition and that its early leaders were simply did not meat the criteria contemporary chareidi sociology demands of people who try to change tradition. And their were batel beShishim when compared to the religious establishment which rejected them.

    In fact, looking at historical literature, much of the same invective that is today hurled at scholars like R’ Sperber was hurled at the early chassidic leaders. The trope that the Besh”t did not even know mishna property was particularly common. (and this is important because the early chassidic leaders who WERE accomplished talmudists often attributed their reforms to the authority of the Besh”t). The question here is whether mesorah is a valid category to use in fighting against changes in tradition – and IMO, the history of the chassidic movement makes any such argument extremely tenuous.

    [YA – I’m not convinced. Mesorah was important – and that is one of the reasons that Chassidus met with such fierce opposition. Chassidus would have remained outside the pale had it not been ultimately accepted by Torah heavyweights in the next generation. And it is quite likely that the next generations would not ever have accepted Chassidus, had it not been tempered by the pushback from the misnagdim! (For a reminder of some of what the heady days of the beginnings of Chassidus were like, reread R. Eliyahu Shochet’s book on the Gra and his rejection of Chassidus.) Mesorah functioned then to make sure that the incorporation of a new movement would not be overly disruptive, and would stay within boundaries necessary for the perpetuation of Torah.

    Could the same happen in regard to some issues that are on the YCT/IRF agenda? Sure. Right now, what is called for is pushback. In the dialectic, something may well emerge in time that no one is now thinking of, but will suit the Torah community of a future day.]

  • Benjie

    labelling people superstars also is objective. a certain camp routinely rejects all the rebbeim of another camp – routinely omitting the appelation rav – and certainly the appelation gaon
    furthermore, the eda chareidis recently slandered rav shteinman for being too “lenient” on certain army issues
    if we can’t agree who is a superstar – then how can we determine what is mesora?

    [For starters, because anyone who has learned for a good number of years in yeshiva can tell from a mile away who is NOT a superstar. That narrows the field considerably.]

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Rabbi Adlerstein, thank you so much for that thoughtful response to my comment. However, do you remember Gilda Radner’s Emily Litela Weekend Update routine from SNL? I wasn’t referring to your use of the term “Far Left”, as I think that’s appropriately descriptive and fine. (Totally my fault for putting “far left” in quotes!) My issue was with the word “antics”. I believe that word takes something that is important, sincere and thought out and totally trivializes it.

    Never mind. :)

  • Chaim Saiman

    RYA- Based on your comments to Chardal (7.4 @3.49) I think that we are quite close to agreeing on how “mesorah” works. The one qualifier I would put on this (hinted to by others) is that whether something is approved by the gedolim or not is a bit more of a two way street than is sometime suggested. The people look to see what the rabbis say, but the opposite is also true. See for example, R. Asher Weiss’ teshuva (send around this week, also in Minchas Asher) regarding eating (kosher food) at a nonkosher restaurant/cafeteria in a professional setting. There you will find that he relies on the fact that good frum yirey shamaim do this, a great example of how it works in both direction.

    [YA – Absolutely! IIRC, Rav Hutner has a piece on “bottom-up” changes in one of his maamarim. Chanukah, I think.]

  • Avidan Dehan

    “For starters, because anyone who has learned for a good number of years in yeshiva can tell from a mile away who is NOT a superstar. That narrows the field considerably.”

    Rabbi Adlerstein, this small comment makes a lot of things clear. It definitely explains why, over the years, I’ve found myself not able to agree with you on some important issues (on many others I do agree with you). This little tidbit is not just untrue, but the most dangerous source of conflict in the Orthodox world today.

    My impression of today’s yeshivah world (which I have been a part of for decades in both the USA and Israel) is the exact opposite: That whether one is widely considered a “gadol” or a “posek” often has little or nothing to do with reality. People who have spend years in yeshivah quite often apply these titles with zeal to people who really do not deserve them, if only because of their charisma, or their fervent talmidim (whose efforts to market their rebbe create a movement that it becomes easy to join in with), or because these people have succeeded in getting support (deserved or not) from others who are considered “gedolim” or “posekim” (who are not always honest or fair in whom they grant support and recognition to). In each of these cases, the “great” person’s hashkofos nearly always conform to what the his followers currently think must be the “correct” Torah approach.

    The opposite is equally true: There are plenty of good men or Torah whose learning, skills, experience, and balanced sense of judgement are consulted by those who personally know and respect them, but whose talmidim don’t have a fervent inner need to turn them into the next thing closest to God Himself (yes, I do think there is an element of avodah zarah in this too). Many of them are easily the equals or better of people who are called “gedolim” in North America today. But when these people express their opinions or their psak publicly, they are roundly condemned for their chutzpah in expressing opinions in matters that must be relegated to “gedolim”. Or they have people like Rabbi Adlerstein mocking them and those who look up to them as second rate.

    I’ll give you an example from several years ago, which made me lose a lot of respect for your column. In the Israeli giyyur controversy a few years ago, you took a lot of trouble to make it clear that Rav Chaim Druckman is neither a “gadol” nor a “posek”. You even mentioned that you consulted people you trust, who told you that in the RZ world he is not considered as such. Now, despite your anonymous sources, this is simply not a reflection of reality: There is hardly anyone in Religious Zionism today who is more widely and universally respected as a talmid hakham and a posek throughout all the various streams within RZ as Rav Druckman. Even in the case at point, giyyur, his approach is nearly universally accepted today. This was already clear at the time, but it clashed with your underlying assumption: How could someone who is considered second rate by everyone that YOU consider superstars, and by all the people whom according to you get to rate the superstars, and whom they all agree is doing something perhaps well-meaning but ultimately wrong — how could he possibly be a superstar himself and entitled to act on his own judgement?

    But he is. Because the community you rely on to judge who is a superstar isn’t really qualified to do any such thing.

    Thank God, Rav Druckman won that conflict.

    I’ve never met Rav Druckman personally in my life. But I do live in a typical Zionist Torah community which, while not worshiping him and not always agreeing with him, nevertheless sees him as someone whose rabbinic opinion is of the highest importance (alongside those of other great Torah scholars).

    The same thing is likely true of Rabbi Daniel Sperber (whom I did meet once by chance but don’t really know him). Can you honestly say with assurance that today’s American “gedolim” are even his equal? Can you honestly put the decision about whether he is a “superstar” to the yeshivah populace? Are they even qualified to make such a decision?

    Even though Rabbi Sperber’s name comes up so often in North American discussions, he is far from the only relevant personality. And no, it is not just a couple of “idiosyncratic” Israeli Zionist rashei yeshivah. Religious Zionism is, today, a playing-field with so many Torah outlooks and perspectives competing with each other to the extent that it makes America’s intra-Orthodox debate look like a dry, lifeless immitation. Do you consider YCT to be radical and “far-left”? Well it is just a small experiment compared to what is going on in Israel right now, with people who are first rate talmidei hakhamaim (whether the yeshivah crowd agrees or not) on all sides.

    Instead of trying to decide who is a “superstar” and who isn’t, and who has “gedolim” on their side and who doesn’t, it would be a lot better to deal with the issues themselves. “Mesorah” isn’t the issue, because no one side has a monopoly on it in the Orthodox world today.

    [YA – There is much merit in what you say, but I don’t think that it touches my argument. Agreed. The word “gadol” is misused as often as it is properly applied. I have been avoiding it, choosing the ancient Ugaritic term “superstar.” I do think we (meaning people who spent years in yeshiva, whether they be Lakewood, Mir, Shaalvim, KBY or Mercaz HaRav) can spot the superstars by looking at the depth of what they write. You are certainly correct that we have, BH, many fine first-rate talmidei chachamim in different camps. But they may not be superstars. I do not remember what I wrote about Rav Druckman. But I am pretty sure that he is not a posek, according to the defintion I have used several times on CC, and that I was instructed in by a wonderful chassidishe figure in LA, who was a mainstay of halacha here – but not a posek. I use the term posek in contradistinction to a moreh horaah. The latter is the one to whom we turn 99% of the time. He knows the literature well enough to answer the questions that have come up before. The former, the posek, can address a problem that has not come up before, and write intelligently and persausively by meticulously taking apart a sugya. Rav Moshe did that; the Minchas Yitzchok did that; Rav Elyashiv did that; lehavdil bein chaim lechaim, the Shevet HaLevi does that today. I don’t believe that Rav Druckman does that – although he is in fact a revered and beloved moreh horaah.

    Must a person be a posek to be one of the critical baalei mesorah to rule on new innovations? Not sure. Likely not. But if not, he needs to have some other quality that elevates him to superstar status. My point again is that in the case at hand – rabbahs/maharats/rabbis, there is wall to wall agreement by all who are regarded as superstars, whether on the right or left – that YCT is acting outside the mesorah, and dangerously so.

    Anyone want to ask Rav Druckman what he feels about it?]

  • cvmay

    “Eventually, the underlying trends evolved from the order of a potential challenge to Torah society to the challenge of a whole new order of society. Torah WAS compromised and something precious was lost”

    Dovid, I believe the gist of this statement was connected to speeches and devari torah in the vernacular. If so,,, As one who is a 3rd generation American, with children and grandchildren who are now 4th & 5th generation, there was no place/zero interest/non comprehension of Yiddish speakers for American raised children (of American/English speaking parents & grandparents). Our Torah mesorah/education was passed over by English speaking Rabbonim, Leaders, and Mechanchim in the early YEshiva/Day School movements. Not sure how TORAH was compromised and what precious legacy was lost. Can say the same for my Sefardic family members? Yiddish has never since the days of Iraq, Eretz Yisroel and America played a role in their TORAH upbringing! Please explain the compromise & lose!!!

  • Dovid

    I would generally compare it to the translation of the Torah into the Septuagint, which is one of the primary reasons we continue to fast every year on the 10th of Teves. When Torah is overly exposed, it loses some of its ability to create a special bond between G-d and His people – truly something to mourn over.