Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rationalism and Rabbinic Authority

Many of my posts, especially lately, have been about the state of rabbinic authority today. Some people have requested that I instead write about rationalist Jewish thought. While I will try to get back to that topic, the two topics are, in fact, connected.

Contemporary Charedi rabbinic authority - i.e. "the Gedolim" - banned my books. This was essentially about opposing the rationalist approach.

But more fundamentally, the very concept of contemporary Charedi rabbinic authority stands in opposition to the rationalist approach. The rationalist approach is about how the human brain is, generally speaking, a potentially good tool for attaining knowledge, and it is about how the conclusions reached by the human brain are worthy of consideration. Thus, if we examine the definition of Rationalist Judaism, we see that it is about using the human brain to attain knowledge of God*, the natural world, and the function of mitzvos. (*This is something in which there is a difference between medieval Jewish rationalists and contemporary rationalism.)

This has important ramifications for rabbinic authority. While even with the rationalist approach there can be valid reasons for abiding by the rulings even of those with whom one disagrees, the approach to rabbinic authority is fundamentally different from that which occurs with the non-rationalist approach.

With the rationalist approach, arguments are made from reason rather than from authority or alleged divine inspiration. Expertise and authority is held by those who actually demonstrate knowledge and wisdom in the particular areas under consideration. There is no presumption of infallibility, either theoretical infallibility or practical/effective infallibility.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who apparently believe that great knowledge in Shas according to the Brisker derech = great knowledge in all areas of Torah = great knowledge in all areas of knowledge = great righteousness = being correct = being authoritative. (And = a whole lot of other things, too.)

And so, as someone who is fascinated by the rationalist approach to Judaism and the opposition to it, I am also fascinated by contemporary charedi rabbinic authority.

(Incidentally, I just got back home to Israel yesterday, and I hope to now be able to resume posting at a more frequent rate. It was great to meet many of my readers in the US, and I was very moved by those who went out of their way to give me rides - especially those who drove several hours out of their way to do so!)

28 comments:

  1. "With the rationalist approach, arguments are made from reason rather than from authority or alleged divine inspiration."

    Which is why "Rationalist" Judaism is a misnomer. Even if we take authority as more of a legal method we are still left with the fact that divine inspiration is a significant consideration in Jewish thought and affirmed in the Talmud. To bend the evidence, or effectively ignore such concepts, for the sake of a preconceived/external notion of what Judaism should be is not the method of "reason".

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yirmiahu, haven't you heard of Lo BaShamayim Hi? Chassam Sofer insists that it is UNTHINKABLE for divine inspiration to be involved in psak.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yirmiahu,
    I also think that one can still fit concepts prophecy, for instance, into a rationalist mode. The Rambam, a rationalist, in his Mishneh Torah delineates how one approaches a potential prophet. His claims are investigated using one's powers of reason, and the empirical evidence on the ground, before he is granted a presumption of having prophecy. And even then one is only obligated to follow the actual prophecy itself. A psak delivered by a prophet has no more legal force than one articulated by any great Talmud chacham, and is likewise not free from the possibility of error.

    All of this would apply many times to our current rabbinic leaders who can't lay legitimate claim to prophecy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It actually took me 3 hours to get to your speech in the city bec of traffic but I must say it was well worth it. Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  5. Elchonon: I think Yirmiahu was talking about "standard" Sinai revelation and prophecy, not post-biblical halachic revelation.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It's interesting that R. Slifkin's banned books, while dealing rationally with the subject matter, still appealed to Rabbinic authority, citing many sources for each claim they made. In other words, we cannot believe what the rationle tells us to believe without getting some confirmation from Rabbinic authority first that it is indeed permitted to believe so.

    While I myself may or may not subscribe to such an ideology, it is important to point this out, since in this regard R. Slifkin differs from the so-called "Acedemic Judaism", a title which some of R. Slifkin's critics use to dsecribe R. Slifkin's methods.

    Yirmiyahu, If you meant what Yitz Newton says you meant, the answer is of course that you are rgiht, but R. Slifkin wasn't talking about that. But if you meant what the others here understood from your words, I would recommend you to read R. Slifkin's essay on Sod Hashem Liyrayev (http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/02/when-god-reveals-his-secret-knowledge.html).

    ReplyDelete
  7. "david said...
    It actually took me 3 hours to get to your speech in the city bec of traffic but I must say it was well worth it. Thank you"

    While I didn't make it to the speech, I watched it on youtube, and I second David's sentiments.

    ReplyDelete
  8. http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=20025&st=&pgnum=303
    is this rationalist, how does it fit in with lo bashamayim he??
    KT
    Joel RIch

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yirmiahu,

    At the heart of the matter, Rationalist Judaism is only a misnomer in its founding assumptions (I don't buy most of the attempts to rationalize those assumptions), but once you move past tanakh, everything is comprehended in as rationalistic a manner as possible.

    Yeedle,

    They would ban everything they consider dangerous including things like the Rambam if they weren't so deeply ingrained that they are forced to reread him to make him acceptable.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "I was very moved by those who went out of their way to give me rides - especially those who drove several hours out of their way to do so!)"

    LOL. You're getting the GADOL TREATMENT! Next up: A rationalist ban on Dovid Kornreich.

    ("We were shocked to hear of this new and dangerous concept called Daas Torah... everyone must stay away... shomu shamayim ...
    Hachoseim B'dimah, Natan HaKatan.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Brisker derech"! Please don't use those phrases like that, you make yourself sound like an ignorant MO, as if you don't realize that R' Elyashiv, R' Kanievsky, and R' Shteinman (and MANY other gedolim) DON'T learn according to the "Brisker Derech"!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'd like to expand on one thing you wrote: "While even with the rationalist approach there can be valid reasons for abiding by the rulings even of those with whom one disagrees, the approach to rabbinic authority is fundamentally different from that which occurs with the non-rationalist approach."

    I believe one of the most rationalistic reasons beyond the importance of authority is the need for conformity. This need exists with regard to the communal aspects of Torah, the best example I can think of being kashrut. If there were no accepted authority to determine laws of kashrut, people could not be guests in each other's houses, which I think would go against what God wants from us. If there were no authority on eruvim, there would be endless communal arguments about whether a particular community's eruvim were or were not valid. Similarly for mikvot, and I'm sure there are many other examples.

    I bring these particular examples of the rationalist importance of authority because these are examples in which I believe the refusal of some groups to accept any authority other than that of their own leaders actually sabotages the very purpose of authority. Two eruvim, two mikvot, and too many people who believe their avodat hashem means in effect boycotting their friends' hospitality because they cannot agree on a binding authority for kashrut supervision. These things lead to disunity among Jews, where I believe one of the purposes and goals of Torah is to bring unity.

    A true respect for authority, in my view, would entail much more willingness to compromise in seeking common authority than currently exists in many groups.

    ReplyDelete
  13. > "Contemporary Charedi rabbinic authority - i.e. "the Gedolim" - banned my books. This was essentially about opposing the rationalist approach."

    Opposing consciously? or unconsciously? I think if one would ask them why they banned your books, they'd say either that your books had heresy in them, or at least that they would lead readers down the slippery slope to heresy. This answer seems honest to me. (Mistaken, but honest.)

    ReplyDelete
  14. shaul shapira: "LOL. You're getting the GADOL TREATMENT! ..."

    There is another sufficient explanation, which perhaps one ought hesitate to "LOL" about:

    גדולה הכנסת אורחים מהקבלת פני שכינה, שנאמר "וירא, והנה שלושה אנשים "
    [הלכות אבל יד/ג]

    ReplyDelete
  15. I have always thought Rav Hirsch is a perfect example of someone who "got it." He lambasted his opponents, true, but he did so in arguments in German periodicals. He tried to convince people. He didn't invoke authority. He realized we are living in the modern world, not in the Middle Ages.

    I wish the so-called gedolim today would do the same. (I actually think Rabbi Avi Shafran's recent article regarding homsexuality is a good example of this. He actually tries to present arguments. What a novel idea!

    (Unfortunately, Rabbi Shafran is only a spokesman; it would be the equivalent of Rav Hirsch's secretary writing articles in Jeshurun instead of Rav Hirsch himself. Wouldn't it be nice to see "gedolim" write eloquent books and articles in English explaining their positions? Books by Rav Kamenetsky, books by Rav Elyashiv, etc. etc.? The pope writes books in the vernacular. Why can't charedi leaders?)

    ReplyDelete
  16. There is, however, a further aspect that must be examined. In any community there is a need for leadership and a defined set of standards that defines the community. One of the functions of the leader is to ensure the standards are maintained so that the group continues to have its identity.
    Within Chareidi circles this has obviously been taken to the extreme. However, the Rationalist approach could also take it to an extreme but in the opposite direction, becoming a community of free-thinkers whose only connectiion to one another is free-thinking. At some point a leader would have to set parameters for this group. Otherwise you're just herding cats.

    ReplyDelete
  17. said...
    shaul shapira: "LOL. You're getting the GADOL TREATMENT! ..."

    "There is another sufficient explanation, which perhaps one ought hesitate to "LOL" about:

    גדולה הכנסת אורחים מהקבלת פני שכינה"

    Great! I need a ride to Baltimore tonight. How can I get in touch with you?
    But seriously, I have no problem with your behavior, it just seems like the Rationalist Rabbi is being treated like the Rationalist Rebbeh. Not that he doesn't deserve it, of course.

    ReplyDelete
  18. "But more fundamentally, the very concept of contemporary Charedi rabbinic authority stands in opposition to the rationalist approach."

    I reject the overall thrust of this post on both ends. First, you have people like me, who believe that R Elyashiv and RCK and R Shteinman etc, happen to the greatest overall talmidei chachamim alive, as well as extraordinary tzaddikim. But at the same time, we refuse to relinquish our brains and are not going to wish away a Rishon, R Hirsch or Pachad Yitchok. I interact with a fair amount of people who feel similarly.
    Second, you have the reverse. It is entirely possible that a mid level Talmid Chacham who could even be MO will conclude that your approach has been rejected and is therefore Kefira. I don't personally know of any, but it certainly could happen. It wouldn't be any worse than the likes of Professor David Berger- an academic who feels Judaism is being threatened and is leading what can only be termed a Kanna-ishe charge against Meshichist Chabad.
    Obviously , for many people the two in fact are connected, but I don't think they have to be.

    Anyway,please, please, PLEASE get back to Rationalism. You have no idea how much fun I had showing off Rabbeinu Efraim's werewolf in yeshiva. One guy actually didn't realize where it was from and angrily ripped up the paper. Then he had to eat his words. I went so far as to threaten him that if he doesn't believe Binyamin was a werewolf and ate Rochel he's a kofer! You have no idea how you can turn Yeshivism on its own practitioners.

    ReplyDelete
  19. You confuse rabbinic authority and rabbinic infallibility. There is no doctrine of rabbinic infallibility in the Torah. However rabbinic authority is explicit in the Torah. It is therefore obvious that one concept does not necessitate the other.
    Rabbinic authority was not invented in this decade. In fact, the authority that the rabbis have today is almost none-existent compared with the power that rabbis have wielded throughout Jewish history. For centuries rabbis wielded the power of excommunication and monetary punishment. In Talmudic times we even find cases of dismemberment as a form of punishment.
    In light of these facts one shouldn't be fascinated by contemporary rabbinic authority.

    ReplyDelete
  20. "First, you have people like me, who believe that R Elyashiv and RCK and R Shteinman etc, happen to the greatest overall talmidei chachamim alive, as well as extraordinary tzaddikim."

    How do you know that Rav Elyashiv and co. are extraordinary tzaddikim?

    ReplyDelete
  21. MRG states:

    "Rabbinic authority was not invented in this decade"

    However, you have to understand that it was invented, probably around the same time as Rabbinic Judaism was invented following the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

    ReplyDelete
  22. "I have always thought Rav Hirsch is a perfect example of someone who "got it." He lambasted his opponents, true, but he did so in arguments in German periodicals. He tried to convince people. He didn't invoke authority. He realized we are living in the modern world, not in the Middle Ages."

    R' Hirsch was dealing with people leaving traditional Judaism in droves. R' Elyashiv is leading sheep.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Baruch Gitlin,

    I see it just slightly differently: We can agree neither on what a problem is, nor on what a solution is. People who agree on these don't experience themselves as "compromising" when they defer to a solution that is superior pursuant to shared (epistemological) criteria.

    So we can have neither a melech ha-mashiach nor a beit ha-mikdash, for of these there can be only one.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Yehudah

    "Wouldn't it be nice to see "gedolim" write eloquent books and articles in English explaining their positions? Books by Rav Kamenetsky, books by Rav Elyashiv, etc. etc.? The pope writes books in the vernacular. Why can't charedi leaders?) "

    Couple of reasons - the Pope leads hundreds of millions, from illiterate peasants, to prostitutes, to heads of state and eminent scientists. Whether he succeeds or not is immaterial, but he must be capable of inspiring and reaching them all. Gedolim leads thousands, if we are generous hundreds of thousands, of remarkably homogenous people - whom they've already, so to speak, reached.

    Secondly, the Pope isn't meant to spend the majority of his time chazering over Canon Law and writing a lomdishe perush to Augustine. There are different expectations about leadership and scholarly expectations in Judaism than in Catholicism, and certainly between Catholicism and Chareidi Judaism.

    ReplyDelete
  25. >>>> However rabbinic authority is explicit in the Torah.

    huh? where?

    ReplyDelete
  26. Dan said...

    "How do you know that Rav Elyashiv and co. are extraordinary tzaddikim?"

    I didn't say that I know it; I said I BELIEVE it. Whether they actually are or aren't is completely irrelevant to my point that belief in the cosmic greatness of 'my Chareidi Gedolim' isn't neccesarily related to a rejection of R Slifkin's general hashkafah.

    As to the answer to your query, I know people who have met them personally and been treated differently than popular blog perception would have it. I myself have been to one of the members of the eidah hacharedis and was totally blown over by his genuine humanity. You're obviously entitled to disagree, but like I said, it's irrelevant to my point anyhow.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I had the same thoughts MRG above did. There is no such thing anymore as "rabbinic authority". The only place it exists is in Israel for marriage only, and even that can easily be circumvented by marrying out of the country. Nobody can compel you to do anything anymore. And even if you want to remain fully orthodox, you can do that too, and never have to deal with or listen to a rabbi who you dont agree with. Thus, your talk about "authority" is misplaced.

    ReplyDelete
  28. S, I appreciate your insightful response (and the question wasn't even mine.)

    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.