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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2 years 3 months ago

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.

2 years 3 months ago

“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!!!

Avidan Dehan
2 years 3 months ago

“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?]

Chaim Saiman
2 years 3 months ago

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.]

Menachem Lipkin
2 years 3 months ago

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. :)