Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Another Revolution in Judaism

One way or another, many people today are worked up about revolutions and reformations in Judaism. In light of that, I was very surprised at the results of my investigation into the topic of what a person can do for someone who has passed away. It revealed that there has been a complete reformation in this area, yet it is one that has slid by without people noticing or objecting.

For those who didn't read my monograph on this topic that I posted, here is the brief summary: Today, it is almost universally believed that anyone can learn Torah and do mitzvos to give an aliyah to the neshamah of someone who has passed away. It is further almost universally believed that this has always been the normative position in Judaism, with no dissenting views. But prior to the late 19th century, every authority to weigh in on this topic stated that one cannot learn Torah (or do other mitzvos, with the possible exception of charity) to benefit the soul of someone who has passed away, unless that person was your ancestor (or otherwise had an influence on your life).

It's not quite a complete revolution, because there are still Torah scholars who maintain the traditional position; in a footnote in my monograph, there is a great story about Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky. But I think that this is the exception rather than the rule (I would welcome being corrected on this if I am mistaken).

How did such a revolution take place? How did a concept go from novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim, to normative viewpoint with no mention of dissenting views, in just 150 years?

Could it be that people are simply unaware that this is a novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim? In many cases, this is undoubtedly so. But amongst Torah scholars who generally research traditional views on matters, and who write about this very topic, it's difficult to imagine that they are entirely unaware of this.

In some cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to encourage Torah study. To quote a certain prominent Rosh Yeshivah (this is a second-hand quote, so I don't know if the quote is exact): "Although there is no classical source for the concept that one can transfer the reward of mitzvos to other people, we want to do things for people who have passed away, and we want people to learn Torah, so we encourage this concept and hope that Hashem has a way of connecting the dots."

In other cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to obtain financial support for Torah study. For example, there is a popular book about how to give an aliyah to the neshamah, which makes no mention of the Geonim and Rishonim, and which speaks about how the best aliyah is given by funding Torah study in a kollel; it further states that the second-best aliyah is given by tzedakah and that the best kind of tzedakah is funding Torah study in a kollel. Not surprisingly, this book is co-published by a kollel, which is dedicated to, and funded by, this concept.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, if you follow the view of Rambam and others regarding being supported vs. working, and you believe that the contemporary mass kollel system is not a good thing and should not be propped up, then there is no reason for distorting classical Torah views on how to help someone who has passed away. If you believe that the contemporary mass kollel system is a good thing, then you will generally be in favor of attempts to support it, but you still might be leery of distorting the history of rabbinic positions on this matter in order to take financial advantage of people (especially people who are mourning the loss of someone). On the other hand, a person might be so desperate for financial support that this does not stop him. Chazal say that "if a person does not teach his son a trade, then he has taught him to steal" - and distorting the history of rabbinic positions on this matter is much easier than stealing! (Note that unless a person has been in dire financial straits oneself, one should not judge the actions of others in such circumstances. It is the fault of the system that brought them to this point.)

Whatever the reason, we see here yet another example of how the normative and traditional positions of Torah Judaism are sometimes not only modified, but completely overturned.

18 comments:

  1. IMHO it's also a response to a human need to feel that there is something within our control that we can do for those who are no longer with us. It's particularly interesting that there are those who put so much emphasis on a son saying kaddishbut oppose a daughter's saying kaddish and believe that only a descendant's actions can redound to the credit of the niftar.
    KT
    Joel RIch

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  2. As you pointed out, it is not surprising that this practice became popular/acceptable concurrently with the new ideal of mass, full-time Torah study. In terms of whether this is 'good or bad', I would argue it depends on how it is being used. True, it can be abused like in the case of mass kollel. But in a smaller scale, it's often used to sponsor kiddush, dedicate items in shuls, sponsor parent-child learning programs, and the like. We can debate about whether or not we hashkafically believe this can cause any kind of change to the soul of the person we are acting in honor of, but I would argue that this is still a noble practice when it is done appropriately.

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  3. R. Joel - Good point. Still, surely that would be solved with the more traditional practice of giving charity. I don't think it sufficiently accounts for innovating that you can pay someone to learn Torah or do mitzvos and transfer the reward.

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  4. "it's often used to sponsor kiddush, dedicate items in shuls, sponsor parent-child learning programs"

    That fits within the traditional parameters of honoring the deceased, giving them a merit, etc. The new idea of transferring reward is something else. (Please read my essay carefully!)

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  5. I don't think that transfer of reward is as complex as you make it sound. Surely it is agreed that the kind of tzedakah has to be a zechus. The bigger the cause, the better the zechus. So if you believe supporting a kollel is better than supporting a shul, then it is also a greater zechus for the deceased.

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  6. But that's something different. It's the zechus of having a descendant support a worthy cause. That's different from having the reward of Torah study being transferred.

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    1. I don't believe that its the accepted mainstream view today that the actual reward of learning is transferred. The allure is merely that the departed will receive the zechus of supporting limud haTorah. Some might make some Yisochar/Zivulun claims, but that is probably a funding ploy.

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  7. If the mitzva is only being done because of the deceased, and by that I don't mean that the person has the deceased in mind, rather that only due to the deceased is the mitzva being done, then while the merit of the mitzva itself might be nontransferable, the deceased still may gain a merit as having caused a mitzva to be done. In the case of Rav Kushelevsky, the shiur was already planned, so no merit accrued to the deceased, but if someone arranged a new shuir which otherwise would not have taken place, and does so now solely as a result of a person's death, it seems logical that the deceased gets some sort of merit, however slight it may be.

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  8. Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky definitely is pro the mass kollel system and yet holds that he can only help his own grandmother

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  9. Brings to mind a quote from Terry Pratchett.

    "It's always been there."
    "Yes, but had it always been there ten minutes ago?"

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  10. This is the wrong topic to get worked up about. Preachers and Rabbis have been making comments to the effect of "helping" the dead (as opposed to merely remembering them) since time immemorial. Those who believe it are comforted. Those who don't, understand that it is just an attempt to comfort them, and appreciate that. It's hardly a revolution, though, as in every other area of life, the specifics are subject to gradual evolution.

    Contrary to your research thus far, this is not something new. Having published at least four different peer-reviewed journal articles [on Judaic studies] in the past few years, I understand the concept of critical research. But scholarship can only go so far. A scholar must have an intuitive sense to know that certain items, if claimed to have been around a long time, should have been in print if the claim were true. For other items that is not necessarily the case. And in yet other instances, it just means the researcher hasn't fully exhausted the material yet. I respectfully suggest the latter is true in your case.

    Keep up the good work. Again, kos tanchumim to you and your wife, your MIL sounds like she was a wonderful woman.

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  11. > How did such a revolution take place? How did a concept go from novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim, to normative viewpoint with no mention of dissenting views, in just 150 years?

    And how many things have gone from novel and opposed to normative and left no trace that they were once controversial?

    > In some cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to encourage Torah study.… In other cases, it occurred as a result of people wanting to obtain financial support for Torah study. … Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

    It’s lying to well-meaning people, so it’s a bad thing. Even if the result is something that the liars believe is beneficial for everyone.

    > distorting the history of rabbinic positions on this matter is much easier than stealing!

    Why is it not stealing? They are selling something that they know doesn’t work. If they thought it worked, it would be one thing, but as you say, “amongst Torah scholars who generally research traditional views on matters, and who write about this very topic, it's difficult to imagine that they are entirely unaware .“

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  12. How did such a revolution take place? How did a concept go from novel chiddush that is opposed by all Geonim and Rishonim, to normative viewpoint with no mention of dissenting views, in just 150 years?

    Doesn't this happen often? I'm sure that there are many, many more examples, but I can think of the following:

    1) Torah education for women.

    2) Lenient conditions for using of Medicine on Shabbos.

    3) Lenient conditions for dealing with uncontrolled fire on Shabbos.

    4) Widespread selling of Chametz in lieu of disposal.

    5) Sukkah non-use for sleeping.

    6) Kol Nidrei

    7) Kaddish itself and a lot of the practices around it (e.g. many saying it at the same time to avoid issue of priority).

    8) Kapparot

    Chadash Asur Min HaTorah, like Yehareg v'Al Yaavor, is a polemic, not a description of reality.

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  13. David Ohsie

    (4)-(8) are all to some extent perversions of Judaism and some are real abominations. Everyone knows that change happens. The question is whether it is good or bad. This can only be answered on a case by case basis.

    (1) is perfectly explicable and, really unavoidable (I'm not saying we should wish to avoid it, I'm just saying that even if we did, we couldn't). (2) is correct and obvious, if you accept the Bavli's explanation for the gezeira. No halachically significant amount of people grind up medicines for personal use anymore. (3) is product of changed living conditions.

    On the other hand, some changes are a consequence of the paganisation of Judaism in galut. Others are the product of honest error, of temporary heterim for which there is no current need, or pointless humra seeking by people with a non-Torah understanding of what it means to be frum. Such changes are bad and should be reversed.

    For example:
    (I) It is not acceptable to shamelessly evade bal yimatzei with a sham sale because many Ashkenazi Jews used to deal in spirits.
    (ii) It is not acceptable for one to not sleep in the Sukkah because your great grandparents lived in Russia and didn't have electric radiators.
    (iii) It is not acceptable to turn a vernacular prayer designed to conclude the service in a dignified fashion into a magical incantation for the dead, which causes the service to end in a rabble.

    etc.

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  14. Natan, the interesting question is: regardless of whether it only works for one's ancestors, what's your take on the metaphysics of the whole thing? That is, from a rationalist point of view.

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  15. (4)-(8) are all to some extent perversions of Judaism and some are real abominations.

    What a surprising response :).

    For the record, I wasn't saying that any of the changes are bad. I certainly think that #1 is a change for the better, and I would say that, as with #2, the purported conditions supporting the prohibition overturned by #1 are invalid today, if they ever were valid.

    While I don't sell my Chametz, I think that #4 is very justifiable given changed circumstances. The food inventory of a typical household is likely much higher than in the past, leading to the some of the same difficulties faced by merchants, for which I believe there is a Tosefta which recommends a sale. Careful Rabbis go to some extent to create a true sale according to as many Shitos as possible.

    #6 is only potentially objectionable under a hyper-halachic interpretation of the meaning of the ritual. If you step back a moment and consider the context, it is not very difficult to understand.

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  16. I think that poskim display a tolerance towards certain practices, even if they're borderline superstitious, just to consider the feelings of the people involved.

    I remember reading a story about Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l: The chassan and kallah are escorted by their parents to the chuppah, and the escorts hold lit candles. RSZA noticed that there is a prevalent superstition that if the candles go out, the marriage will not be a successful one. RSZA asked that they make a gemach for those glass lanterns that protect the candles from a draft. Not of course that there is any substance to that superstition, but just that people shouldn't be perturbed if the candles do go out.

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  17. Saying kaddish for someone who is not your ancestor is an old practice certainly way before the 19th century. The Darchei Moshe (Y.D. 376) quotes the Maharil, an Ashkenaz Rishon who brings a case of a family hiring someone to say kaddish for a woman relative because she had no son. He also quotes the Binyamin Zev an early Acharon a contemporary of the Rema who says that the custom in many shuls was to say kaddish even if there was no avel in the shul for all the dead of Israel who had no one to say kaddish for them. He we see clearly that the idea of at least saying kaddish for someone other than a father or mother was common at least as far back as the Rishonim of Ashkenaz. So I'm not sure about your 19th century revolution.

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