The El Al Ticket Fiasco and Rationalism
As many of you know, a few weeks ago there was a very big mistake made with El-Al tickets, which were accidentally advertised for just a few hundred dollars - a fraction of the normal price. When the mistake was discovered, El Al decided to nevertheless honor the tickets, for reasons that are unclear. But the question was, what should those who purchased the tickets do? They might have originally thought that it was simply a sale, but once it became clear that it was actually a costly error, should they offer to return the tickets?
To my mind, this was a non-starter. Of course one should return the tickets! Not that I'm judging anyone who didn't - one should not judge someone until one is in their place. But it seems obvious to me that the proper course of action - not lifnim meshuras hadin, but the proper course of action - is to offer to return the tickets. El-Al's stated mechilah - presumably due to various pressures - is irrelevant. As the Torah says, v'asisa hayashar vehatov - "You shall do that which is just and good." Ramban notes that halachah does not necessarily govern every case, and one must extrapolate from existing halachos so as to exercise moral judgment in other cases. Taking advantage of someone's mistake, and thereby causing them a loss, is clearly immoral. The whole idea of the halachos of ona'ah is based upon this!
It was surprising, and even disturbing, to see how many people claimed that it was justifiable to keep the tickets. Many of the justifications involved assumptions about what is best for El-Al, as though the buyer is entitled to make that decision! Others justified it based on technical halachic considerations. I was wondering if there is perhaps a connection with rationalism.
As discussed in a post of a while back, Reasons for Mitzvos, one of the differences between rationalist and non-rationalist schools of thought is the issue of reasons for mitzvos. Non-rationalist approaches see the reasons as primarily metaphysical and unknowable. Rationalist approaches, on the other hand, see the reasons as theoretically comprehensible, and relating to improving our minds and behavior.
There is a well-known serious drawback with the rationalist approach, in that it can lead to the weakening of observance. As we see with no less a person than King Solomon, once a person believes himself to understand the reason for a mitzvah, there is a temptation to rationalize that it is not binding when the reason is presumed not to be present.
However, I think that it might not be appreciated that there is also an advantage with the rationalist approach. A non-rationalist is perhaps more likely to get caught up in the technical details of the halachah, and to assert that halachah is the start and end point of morality. The rationalist approach, on the other hand, encourages a person to grasp the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law. In the case of the El-Al tickets, a rationalist will perhaps be less concerned with whether it is technically permissible to keep them, and more concerned with what the spirit of the law demands as moral behavior.