Monday, February 28, 2011

Disputes Vs. Deference

When the first ban against my books was issued, by Rav Shiner, Rav Wachtfogel, Rav Lefkowitz and Rav Weintraub, I didn't think for a moment that I would have to obey it, especially since I had never actually heard of any of these people. But I was concerned that Rav Elyashiv would end up banning my books. If he were to do that, would I have to obey him?

In the ensuing months, I explored the topic of rabbinic authority in detail. I discovered that I was not the only one who was confused and misinformed about it! And so I posted a page on my website explaining why I was not obligated to follow the directive of Rav Elyashiv or any of the other charedi Gedolim. It began with the more obvious reasons - that these Gedolim are simply not knowledgeable about the scientific issues, the positions of the Rishonim, the books or the audience - but the final reason, which was a later addition, was really the most crucial point: that these Gedolim follow an entirely different school of thought within Judaism.

Yet even that was short of the mark. It presumed and implied that when everyone is working within the same school of thought, one should indeed defer to the judgment of those who are more learned. This is indeed the argument made in the latest post at the outstanding Hirhurim blog. Yet, while anyone is free to defer to whoever they want, is there really a reason to do so?

I have an essay, due to be published soon in a memorial volume, on the topic of students disputing teachers - a case where the relationship between the two would surely demand maximal deference. And the Gemara says that "Anyone who disputes his teacher, is as one who disputes the Divine Presence." Yet the Rishonim and Acharonim considered it inconceivable to interpret this maximally; after all, the Gemara is replete with examples of students disputing their teachers. They therefore explained it to refer to things such as the student acting disrespectfully to his teacher, undermining his teacher's authority by publicly overturning his rulings, etc. But for him to disagree with his teacher's rulings - and even to say so publicly - was not only permitted, but actually mandated, according to several authorities, in cases where he genuinely feels his teacher to be mistaken.

And this is in the case of a student-teacher relationship! Clearly there would be even less reason for deference in other cases. Rav Moshe Feinstein has two important responsa on the topic of disputes vs. deference. One is regarding the propriety of a rabbi in Bnei Brak disputing the Chazon Ish (see translation here), where Rav Moshe says that it is inconceivable that there would be any reason why he would have to defer to the Chazon Ish. He says that even a student may not rule in accordance with his teacher if he disagrees with him - all the more so with someone who is not his teacher. And in another responsum (translated here), he explains why he sometimes disputes Acharonim and even Rishonim. His reason is that everyone has the responsibility to form opinions based on what makes sense to them.

But how can one have the audacity to dispute those who are vastly greater in scholarship and wisdom? Isn't it absurd to think that one's view has any credibility?

Not at all. This is not like a first-year college student disputing Einstein. It's more like an average person having different political views than a professor of political studies. In Torah, interpretation is not solely based upon stored facts. Rather, there is an enormous amount of sevara - subjective reasoning and personal judgment. These can be improved with more study and experience, but there will inevitably always be differences between different people. It's not just between different schools of thought, such as with rationalism versus mysticism, that differences come to the fore. Every person is different - as Chazal say, "Just as their faces are different, so too are their thoughts different." Assuming that someone possesses basic competence in Torah, and is not missing any relevant facts or sources, there is no a priori reason why his analysis of a topic should not be superior to that of someone else who is more learned. (Though there may be cases, such as in issuing public rulings, where experience with dealing with communal issues itself is a factor in arriving at the appropriate ruling.) The credibility of his conclusions in the eyes of the general public, and the extent to which it will be accepted, will inevitably be based on the general stature of that person. But everything ought to be judged on its own merits, and there is no reason why, barring a case where one lacks information, someone should a priori assume that his analysis of a topic is necessarily worthless vis-a-vis that of a more knowledgeable or brilliant scholar.

32 comments:

  1. Ooh, this is a dangerous one. How does a person determine when they have learned enough to make a reasonably acceptable psak (if even for themselves)?

    You will have people who read an english language summary on a particular topic, written by one author, with a single subjective perspective, and then after reading that one book consider themselves to be expert enough on a topic to pasken for themselves or disregard other piskei halacha which disagree with their new found "expertise".

    At the other end of the spectrum, you certainly will find people that are well qualified, in depth and breadth, to reach their own conclusions and disagree as they see fit with other precedentiary piskei halacha.

    Who decides? The best idea would probably be to find an objective trusted outsider to see if your personal conclusion passes the "red face" test. Aseh lecha rav.

    Of course there will always remain a gray area. Elu v'elu.

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  2. R'HS frequently speaks about those who are entitled to an opinion - iiuc in his book it's a very small group.

    Sammy is certainly right about the slope issue but I'd ask "who watches the watchers?"
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  3. Everyone is entitled to an opinion! That doesn't mean that it has credibility - but they are entitled to it!

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  4. "Everyone is entitled to an opinion! That doesn't mean that it has credibility - but they are entitled to it!"

    When it comes to halacha, it is a question of action, not just a question of opinion.

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  5. "Assuming that someone possesses basic competence in Torah"

    That's an assumption that not everyone will make about you.

    Let's imagine an alternate universe. In this world Rav Elyashiv actually gives the Slifkin debate more than 5 minutes of his time. There are no askonim manipulating him. Rav Elyashiv reads the books examines the sources and writes a letter explaining how Slifkin misunderstood many of the sources he quotes. He explains why some of the concepts have been applied inappropriately.

    In this alternate universe, the public is assured that Rav Elyashiv holds, based on his expertise in torah study, that the chumash cannot be interpreted as Slifkin did, and that the sources do not truly support his view and those sources that do support his view "we" don't hold of.

    In this alternate universe, even if we assumed that you had basic competence in Torah,your opinion would not be worth much. This isn't like a case where someone has a kasha on the chazon ish from a gemara and the chazon ish never addressed it. If all the sources are on the table, and someone with basic competence says that they prove something, and an expert says that they do not, then it's time for our basicaly competent hero to learn something from the expert.

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  6. If he indeed provided good explanations as to why I was wrong, then you are correct, my opinion would not be worth much. But that is precisely the point - that it depends on the merits of the arguments. Furthermore, in any case, I would be entitled to have my opinion! This is exactly Rav Moshe's point.

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  7. At the root of this is a flaw in the thinking of the leadership of the Chareidi community. This is how is goes:
    1) Our leaders are the greatest halachic authorities in the world.
    2) All Jews have to follow halacha.
    3) Therefore our leaders are the leaders of the entire Jewish nation.
    Done.
    You're a Dati Leumi who want to follow Rav Aviner? Forget it. You're an MO who follows RHS? Forget it. Rav Eliashiv and his colleagues are greater than them. Their opinions are more authoritative than them. If you want to call yourself Torah observant, you must follow them.
    So that's why the ban against you matters to so many people. How dare I, a Torah observant Jew, not hold by it when Rav Eliashiv said I must?

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  8. Garnel, this is beyond that. The problem here is people outside of the Charedi community who think that nobody is allowed to disagree with Rav Hershel Schechter or Rav Aviner!

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  9. R'NS,
    I think they allow for disagreement in though but not in practice.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  10. Just passing throughFebruary 28, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    This is not like a first-year college student disputing Einstein. It's more like an average person having different political views than a professor of political studies.

    Well, maybe we should ask the Talmudic experts what they think?
    I guarantee you they'll all say it's more like the former. Not completely a hard science, but nowhere near a social science.


    In Torah, interpretation is not solely based upon stored facts. Rather, there is an enormous amount of sevara - subjective reasoning and personal judgment.

    Ask the talmudic experts if they agree with that loose definition of sevarah. I would call it Talmudic reasoning and Torah judgment.

    These can be improved with more study and experience, but there will inevitably always be differences between different people.

    But these differences always boil down to which gemara is more relevant, which source is more authoritative and which Torah value is more dominant.
    It's a fine and exact balancing of some very complex and limited choices --not some free-association of boich sevarahs which are rampant in the social sciences.

    The credibility of his conclusions in the eyes of the general public,and the extent to which it will be accepted, will inevitably be based on the general stature of that person.

    How about in the eyes of professional, lifelong, talmudists and halachists? Don't they establish one's halchic expertise/ credibility much more objectively?


    But everything ought to be judged on its own merits, and there is no reason why, barring a case where one lacks information, someone should a priori assume that his analysis of a topic is necessarily worthless vis-a-vis that of a more knowledgeable or brilliant scholar.

    Even the social sciences have experts who have credibility and informed laymen who don't. You can't really know if you are considering all the information pertinent to the question unless you are in command of all the material.

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  11. Well, maybe we should ask the Talmudic experts what they think?
    I guarantee you they'll all say it's more like the former. Not completely a hard science, but nowhere near a social science.


    I don't think that they would all say that. There are statements by R. Chaim of Volozhin and others about how the Talmid can sometimes be correct vis-a-vis the Rav.

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  12. There is a much more fundamental issue:

    Rav Elyashiv is not my rabbi. I am under absolutely no obligation to pay any attention to anything he says unless my own rav says to follow him. This is no disrepect to Rav Elyashiv; my own rav has different traditions from his rabonim. To follow Rav Elyashiv when he disagrees with my own rav is picking and choosing halachic authorities, something our sages frown upon.

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  13. "people outside of the Charedi community who think that nobody is allowed to disagree with Rav Hershel Schechter or Rav Aviner"

    My rav thinks the world of Rav Schachter, but sometimes disagrees with him. In the MO world disagreement is indeed permitted.

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  14. Just passing throughFebruary 28, 2011 at 11:19 PM

    I wasn't referring to the stature of the student vis-a-vis the teacher issue. I was referring to the glib analogy you made between halacha and the social sciences.

    I must say I'm impressed that you let my comment through.
    If nothing else, you are intellectually honest.

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  15. I'm surprised this post has only gotten 14 comments. I think it is one of your more important ones. I am constantly annoyed at people who write learned blog posts, essays, or books with the warning in the beginning not to rely on anything the author has said; rather he must ask his local Orthodox rabbi. I always wonder: Why? It never made any sense to me.

    Take shaking women's hands, for example. Anyone who has read an article or two on this, knows the various opinions and the various stories of rabbis who either did or did not shake women's hands. If I am convinced one side is right (or if I see a strong tradition supporting my inclination on the matter), why need I go to a rabbi to formally ask?

    Generally speaking, I believe one should follow one's family's and community's traditions. But there are exceptions, and furthermore, not everything always falls under family or community traditions. (Additonally, many people don't really belong to a community the way they used to once upon a time, further complicating matters).

    And therefore, there are times that one has to make a decision and one should make them, I think, if one strongly believes one side is correct.

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  16. Your second link to RMF's Tahuvah is same as the first

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  17. Fixed! Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

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  18. Just got up to this part in Rabbi Lamm's "Torah Umadda".

    Rabbi Lamm states:

    Authority, whether of the past or any other kind, is unquestionably a major element in tradition and in law, especially in Judaism generally and in Halakkah specifically, and must be respected. But truth has a prior and stronger claim upon us as a matter of religious principle.

    Rabbi Lamm then goes on to bring pages of support texts for this idea.

    (See starting page 75 in the latest edition.)

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  19. When it comes to halacha not everyone has a right to an opinion, see Avodah zarah 19b, Yorah Deah 242:13, Rambam Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:3-4, Hilchot Sanhedrin 20:8

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  20. Those sources are not saying that such people do not have a right to an opinion! They are talking about a right to PASKEN for others.

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  21. מצאתי גם לנכון להדפיסם מאחר שאיני בזה אלא כמברר ההלכה שכל תלמיד חכם ומורה הוראה יעיין בהדברים ויבחון בעצמו אם להורות כן וכאשר יראה שאני לא סמכתי כסומא בארובה אף על חבורי רבותינו אלא בדקתי בכל כחי להבין שהם נכונים כאשר צוה רבי עקיבה איגר שם וכן אני מבקש לכל מעיין בספרי שיבדוק אחרי דברי.

    Moshe Feinstein (Hakdamah Igrot Moshe)

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  22. Ultimately, the dispute about the hegemony on halachic authority of the "gadol" is not one about facts. It is about philosophy. In heredi circles, the gadol is representative of the hashkafa of that community. Their outlook is one of severity, stringency, suspicion of outside influences, and fear of assimilation. Therefore, his rulings reflect that, and not any unique proficiency or mastery of Torah wisdom.

    My son-in-law is a rabbi, and I discussed with him the fact that halachic decision making is not a "black box" where the facts go in and objective out pops a halachic ruling. He readily admits that a rabbi's hashkafa clearly affects his rulings. The only question is if he is honest enough to say that. If so there is nothing wrong with it, if you are open about promoting a certain agenda.


    In any case it is good that you have called the heredi world out on this bluff, "daas torah", which they use when they can't justify something based on reason and facts.

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  23. Joel asked a great question of "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" It made me realize though that the watchmen here don't actually hold any real power.

    In the classical case, the guardians have power over the people, begging the question of who will police THEM. The teretz takes on the form of a noble lie in which those with power (the guards) are lead to believe that the power they wield is distasteful and therefore only used for the greater good. Thus, they police themselves.

    The guardians in this situation are the rabbonim. they have the power to rule with their knowledge(essentially to make their opinions "fact") but are only looking to provide a service to the people.

    R' Moshe's statements, however, show that the rabbonim (or at the very least R' Moshe) don't even perceive of themselves as having that power. they are not making definitive decisions, but rather are putting forth their perspective and interpretation in response to questions and situations. They carry no implicit authority except the marriage of their knowledge and sevara.

    The noble lie then is not told to the rabbonim, but apparently to the people, and becomes a lot less noble in the process. Somebody convinced The People that the rabbonim carry an authority that they themselves don't claim to.

    The question then isn't Who Watches the Watchmen, but who made them "The Watchmen" in the first.

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  24. 1.You had no hava minah to listen to R Lefkowitz et al because you had never heard of them, but because you had heard of R Eliyashiv, you thought efsher you had to listen to him? makes no sense. Shma minah why men spend millions of dollars to publicize their names in political election seasons. Because they know that many people will vote for them just because "they've heard their name."

    2."the Gemara says that "Anyone who disputes his teacher, is as one who disputes the Divine Presence." - The GEMARA says that? Or some individual tanna/amora says that? And even if the former, so what's wrong with arguing with the divine presence? The rabbis did that too. ( Eg, the oven of achnai.)

    3."everyone has the responsibility to form opinions based on what makes sense to [SIC] them." should be "him". Everyone means "every one", ie, its a singular. You cant attach the plural of "them" to a singular preposition.

    4. there are literally thousands and thousands of examples of students arguing with teachers, amoraim arguing with tannaim, achronim arguing with rishonim, etc. its foolhardy to try to pigeonhole all of them into categories, not saying you did. "we dont argue with our predecessors" is a boilerplate piety people like to recite just before they proceed to argue with their predecessors.

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  25. Rabbi Slifkin, you say that this isn't "like a first-year college student disputing Einstein". I know the phrase was for rhetorical effect. It misses the most important point, the one that divides subjects like the sciences from theology and philosophy.

    If an undergraduate performs an experiment disproving something that Einstein said, then after it's been repeated everyone nods their heads and revises. It's how science progresses, building on what comes before and eventually refining or completely supplanting it.

    Consider publications. In the rabbinical world opinions are published with one's own name and the names of as many prominent colleagues as one can find. The authority of the authors gives authority to the opinion.

    In the scientific world the system of anonymous peer review is designed specifically to prevent this. The reviewers do not know who the authors are. The authors do not know who is reviewing their papers. The system is set up to let the work stand on its own as much as possible.

    The two perspectives are very different.

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  26. Just to add to Todd's excellent point, the reviewers(the haskomah givers) usually haven't even studied the work! They say so openly themselves! This joke and disgrace is justified with words like 'kvar ismachei gavra'! Some say that they give haskomas to help the author with parnosah! No respect for G-d, for Torah or for the people! I have no words, WTH! Really WTH!

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  27. Meir says
    I think the answer is quite simple. Most people have no idea how to even learn and are not capable of learning themselves. They have absolutely no right to make up their own s'voros. For those who can prove that they are capable of learning, even if they are not the greatest talmidai chachomim, they have every right to make their own.

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  28. Some say that they give haskomas to help the author with parnosah! No respect for G-d, for Torah or for the people! I have no words, WTH! Really WTH!

    In other words, their willing to defile the Torah for money. Thank you, I think I'd prefer the company of honest kefirs. Much more wholesome

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  29. Carol said: "Just to add to Todd's excellent point, the reviewers(the haskomah givers) usually haven't even studied the work! They say so openly themselves! This joke and disgrace is justified with words like 'kvar ismachei gavra'! Some say that they give haskomas to help the author with parnosah! No respect for G-d, for Torah or for the people! I have no words, WTH! Really WTH!"

    You should speak to the Rav's giving haskama's instead of unfairly criticising them. I find it funny how you'd probably be arguing that everyone's entitled to their opinion and how somehow you manage to slam anyone with an opinion unlike your own. Have a little respect for some great people. It's only the little people that are entitled to an opinion.

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  30. Elie, why is this unfair criticism? The Rav speaks for himself in the haskoma. To review a text one has to read it, no? You don't agree that the gdoilim don't read the sforim on which they give haskomos? Or the sforim that they ban?
    Where am I wrong? Please explain. But until then - WTH? Really WTH!

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  31. Have you listened to this audio by Rabbi Adam Mintz?

    (see bottom of link:
    http://www.rayimahuvim.org/pages/summer_audio/summer_lect09.htm

    Are American Modern Orthodox Jews Obligated to Follow the Psak of Rav Eliyashiv?

    "Recently, Rav Eliyashiv, the posek of the Lithuanian Yeshiva community in Israel has issue several piskei halakha prohibiting going onto the Temple Mount, wearing Crocs on Yom Kippur and using Shabbat Elevators. Is the America Modern Orthodox community bound by these decisions? This lecture will explore this topic through the lens of the tradition sources ans the analysis of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein."

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