Monday, May 16, 2011

The Secret Letter of Chasam Sofer

A few days back, I published a post entitled "Was Chasam Sofer Actually Correct?" This was in reference to Chasam Sofer's famous ruling to ignore recommendations to wait three days before burial amidst concerns that people were being buried alive. I noted that this ruling was bizarre in light of Chasam Sofer himself suggesting that Chazal took their definition of death from the gentile physicians of their era; if so, why shouldn't Chasam Sofer follow the medical science of his era? In order to account for the strangeness of his ruling, I suggested that Chasam Sofer was motivated by meta-halachic considerations involving reacting to Reform - similar to Maharam Schick's opposition to any compromise on metzitzah b'peh, which involved arguments and claims that are simply false, but can be understood in light of it being a meta-halachic issue.

Now, some people saw it as unacceptable to claim that Chasam Sofer was being either deliberately or unknowingly dishonest in his responsum. I can understand that objection (although, without an explanation of how his responsum is coherent, I don't think it helps save Chasam Sofer.) Fortunately, subsequent to writing the post, I discovered that Chasam Sofer had a follow-up letter which was not published along with his original responsum - in which he explicitly admits that his statements were incorrect from a strict halachic perspective and in which he justifies saying them due to meta-halachic considerations!

The original responsum was written to Maharatz Chayes. Maharatz Chayes responded to Chasam Sofer's claims regarding the Biblical weight of the prohibition against leaving the dead unburied, insisting that these claims were simply not true. And Chasam Sofer replied that, technically speaking, Maharatz Chayes was absolutely correct, but in light of the fact that nowadays many people are not concerned about rulings that are "only" rabbinic, one should elevate their status and claim that they are min ha-Torah. (I had long been aware that this was Chasam's approach in general, but I never previously knew that he stated it specifically with regard to this issue.)

It is not surprising that when Chasam Sofer's responsa were published, this letter was left out. Fortunately, Maharatz Chayes printed it in his own work, and you can read it here. Pay attention to the footnotes, where Maharatz Chayes sharply disputes the notion that one can make incorrect claims about the status of halachos in order to motivate people to keep them.

(Personally, I can sympathize with both points of view. But in the long run, I think that Chasam Sofer's approach backfires. This is especially true in the modern era where there is more access to information. Sooner or later, people will find out that they are being deceived - and this deals a devastating blow to their confidence in rabbinic authority.)

The letter does not address the question of why Chasam Sofer attributes final authority to Chazal's definition of death even if they took it from gentile physicians. But it seems most reasonable to say that, either consciously or subconsciously, the same factors were at work. Because in matters of life and death, no posek would ordinarily rely on the physicians of antiquity over those of today.

The only remaining puzzle that I have is why so many halachic authorities incorporate this responsum of Chasam Sofer into their position on brain death. Of course, my primary objection is the fact that Chasam Sofer was not saying anything at all about whether the presence of respiration (and/or a pulse), in the absence of brain function, is sufficient to rate a person as being alive. But aside from that, the revelation of the extreme meta-halachic aspects of his position should surely weigh against utilizing his stand, for those who feel that such meta-halachic considerations should not play a role today.

11 comments:

  1. I agree that deliberately lying actually backfires in the present era. One small example is in contemporary American kashrut. The OU will not label a product as DE because they fear it will confuse the customer. Instead all such products are labled as dairy. Recently I've met a number of people who when they find an OU product labled as "d" that has no dairy ingredients listed look at the (now mandatory) list of allergens. If milk is listed they treat it as D, otherwise the treat it as DE. Another factor that can be weighed is if the product has the notice "Manufactured in a factory that processed dairy ingredients". S

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think the point of this example is; if one has strong feelings about a subject, he can determine his own halacha. Even if this is so, it doesn't seem right to use such an impulse as an "av-halacha" for other determinations.
    Gary Goldwater

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ooooooooold news. Check out Raaved vs. Rambam on the Mitzvah of Ba'al tosef. Rambam describes it as misrepresenting a d’rabanan as a da’oraissa as ba'al tosef, whereas Raavad says you can do to mizaraiz the masses.


    Josh

    ReplyDelete
  4. Maharatz Chayes responded to Chasam Sofer's claims regarding the Biblical weight of the prohibition against leaving the dead unburied, insisting that these claims were simply not true. And Chasam Sofer replied that, technically speaking, Maharatz Chayes was absolutely correct, but in light of the fact that nowadays many people are not concerned about rulings that are "only" rabbinic, one should elevate their status and claim that they are min ha-Torah.

    What does this exaggeration of the severity of the prohibition have to do with the Chasam Sofer's rejection of the medical opinion of his time in favor of Chazal's time?
    If he revealed his intentional exaggeration of this prohibition to the recipient, why would he have concealed his true view about medical opinions?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Maharatz Chayes only challenged him about the severity of the prohibition. Plus, it may have been subconsciously due to Orthodox motivations that he gave authority to Chazal's doctors on medical matters.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Rabbi Slifkin,

    You wrote, "Sooner or later, people will find out that they are being deceived." Actually, most charedi Jews never find out, and I find that most disturbing of all. Does Judaism rest for the majority of Jews on misinformation? Would it properly survive if they weren't misinformed? If not, isn't there something wrong with that picture?

    Has Judaism ever rested on as much misinformation in any previous era? I find all this quite troubling because Judaism should not have to have recourse to misinformation to survive.

    ReplyDelete
  7. so how would you explain science and halacha in light of this recent event? http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/05/11/husband-celebrates-miracle-brain-dead-wife-wakes-hospital/?test=latestnews

    ReplyDelete
  8. Most likely, inaccurate reporting; alternatively, a misdiagnosis (as sometimes happens even with cardio-pulminary death). Nobody EVER wakes up from brain death.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yehudah, I'm not sure it really matters. It appears to be that Orthodoxy - it's halachos together with it's minhagim - is and will continue to be, what Orthodox society makes it out to be. Why do we do certain things if there is no halachic basis for it or a mistaken halachic basis for it? Because that's just what Orthodox Jews do. We're a tribe and only our tribal leaders - people who are perceived as powerful authorities (i.e., Gedolim) - can change it. And Gedolim do not and will not change anything.

    As far as what happened in days of yore - Jews were not as extensively educated as they are now. Jews may have been literate – something you couldn’t say for the majority general population - but Jews did not sit in school for the first 21 years of their lives unless they were chosen to learn based on strong academic abilities, which meant that they would learn and train be the rabbis of the next generation. Nowadays, every kid is in high school and then off to either beis medrash, college or both until at least age 21. This never existed before in our history. Jews knew how to read, daven, learn basics, and were out helping the family earn a living by age 11. The boys helped earn a living and the girls helped run the households (which was a lot more work than it is nowadays). There was no radio, telephone, internet, and books were expensive. Until the printing presses (and even after) how much did the general population know already? How could they know any more than was taught to them? And even if they DID learn of some untruth - how could they tell others about it? Would the community listen to a particular yachid who says he discovered an untruth or would they listen to their community Rav?

    I would imagine that this liberty of changing halacha was taken hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of our history by those in positions of power in making halachic determinations.

    Hence the “evolution” of Judaism, and what is now called “Orthodoxy” or “Torah True Judaism” (depending on where on the Orthodoxy spectrum you identify).

    ReplyDelete
  10. From reading the story that is linked it is hard to be sure what exactly transpired, but my best guess based on the wording is that the term 'brain dead' was used to mean 'in a coma' and not 'irreversible loss of neurological function as confirmed by multiple tests and confirmatory studies." Unfortunately this a common misusage which leads to a lot of misunderstandings.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Larry L. beat me to the example of the OU crying dairy, but I think it backfires even more: when I see an OU-D, I assume the product is pareve unless it's an actual milk product. I can't be bothered hunting through the ingredients when I know how unlikely it is that there's any actual dairy in there. (I'm usually checking for dairy for health rather than halachic reasons, but the lies are just as annoying.)

    If I were Ashkenazi, I might make a similar calculation about how likely it is that the equipment itself was still dairy at the time the food was produced.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.