Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

That's Not an Apology

You know what's more annoying that someone being self-righteously insulting? It's when you call him on it and he responds by says "Tsk. I didn't mean to be insulting. You obviously didn't understand me so I'll rephrase what I said before." Such a person winds up being insulting for a second time and still doesn't get it when he faces a hostile response.

Such, it seems, has occured to Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein. He recently published a post on Cross-Currents that seemed to imply that there's one way to be properly frum: his way. The responses to his opinion were vociferous, so vociferous that he saw fit to publish a follow-up piece. The follow up piece should have been short and simple: What I said was intolerant. Sorry, I didn't realize how I sounded.

Of course, that's the last thing that would have been posted. In an era where saying sorry is anathema (not just to frum Jews but to pretty much every single group in society), it wouldn't do to admit he had made a mistake. Instead, we got another long piece, explaining why we didn't understand how right he had been the first time.

His first argument, for example, is weak and easily thrown back:

Let’s say a person lives in Williamsburg, sports a shtreimel and long, curled peyos, and his father was the gabbai for many years in Rav Yoelish’s beis medrash. All his forebears in recent memory hail from Satu Mare, Hungary. On the other hand, he drapes an Israeli flag outside his apartment (and lives to tell about it), and swears allegiance to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Is he a Satmar chusid?

By picking an extreme example, Rav Adlerstein misses the point. Of course he would not be a Satmar chasid. Satmar chasidus is a small group with very, very defined beliefs and criteria for membership. Orthodox, or Torah Judaism, is not. It's a very large group with a great deal of heterogeneity. The about person couldn not call himself a Satmar but he could still be an Orthodox Jews.

He continues with his closed opinion thusly:

argued that the contradiction vanishes if one assumes a difference between what is “heretical” and what is “unacceptable.” Rabbi Leff was saying, I believe, that some beliefs may not be heretical, but the voices that have rejected them have been close to unanimous. In those cases, maintaining such beliefs is “outside the pale” of Jewish experience. The community has the right to regard them as foreign, rather than merely different.

I would agree there is a difference between heretical and unacceptable but once again, what';s unacceptable? Who defines that? Where is this 100% pure community that defines for all Torah Jews what is okay and what is not? What's more, anyone following the news from Israel lately knows that in the chareidi world, there is no longer a difference between hetertical and unacceptable. Anything that drifts from the rigid line of pure Chareidi practice is a "to'eivah" tha tmust be abolished.

Then there's this little line that hides in the middle of a bigger paragraph:

Except for principles of faith, we don’t legislate beliefs.

Huh? We don't legislate beliefs? So much of modern Ultra-orthodoxy is legislated beliefs, even if not formally codified. If you want to be a Lubavitcher, you must believe the Rebbe was/is Moshiach. If you want to be a Satmar, you must believe the state of Israel is the source of all evil in the world today. But that brings us back to the original point - that the entire Orthodox world has so many different groups in it that it is impossible to legislate more than the broadest beliefs such as faith in God and acceptance of the truth of Torah. Indeed, Rav Adlerstein accidentally admits to the problem with his position:

Yes, the construct lends itself to abuse. There will be groups that argue that anything but their hashkafa, their halachic practice, is beyond the pale, and foreign to all of Jewish thought and experience. But they will do this regardless of what I write in my article! And they will be patently, demonstrably wrong. So I am not as worried about them as others are.

What's the difference between saying Breslov chasidus is the only real Torah Judaism and saying that you have to be a follower of the Agudah? Rav Adlerstein also admits that, despite having created a concept of being "beyond the pale" or "unacceptable", he can't actually define what that means:

Do I have a satisfactory litmus test of what is in, and what is out? No I don’t. Not having an airtight definition does not mean that the construct is not valid. Get used to it. We don’t have the answer for everything. I still can’t really describe an electron, but I have a pretty good sense that they exist

The argument here seems rather self-centered. He can't define an electron? Maybe, but lots of physicists out there can with great detail. It is they who write the definitions of electrons. Besides, how can he believe in electrons? Chazal never mentioned them. Isn't it beyond the pale to think we know something about the universe that they didn't?

The implications are also concerning. Consider:

Rav Ahron Feldman, shlit”a, said something similar about meshichistim. They are not heretics, and should not be treated that way. Yes, you can count them towards a minyan. But they believe in something very foolish, and we do not rely on the judgment of foolish people for matters that affect the community. They should not serve as mashgichim. (I assume that he leaves room to trust them if we determine that they do their job particularly well.

Now think about this: In the alternative universe of Chabad, it is so obvious that the Rebbe is Moshiach that not believing it is a sign of foolishness. So who's the real fool here? Who's beyond the pale?

One of the comments to the original post noted that Rav Adlerstein seemed to think that all invalidating, beyond-the-pale ideas came from the left while all those ideas that came from the right were considered acceptable. Naturally he took umbrage at this:

Is the right capable of coming up with some strange ideas? Sure. Does it seem to be happening with increased frequency? Yes. Is it as likely to come up with ideas that are so extreme that they lie completely outside the collective experience of Klal Yisrael, that they should be labled not just “not for me” or “not for us” but “outside the pale?” Not anywhere as likely as from the far left.
There are very, very few serious talmidei chachamim on the left; there are very many on the right. Talmidei chachamim can get things wrong. Great talmidei chachamim can get things wrong. But the “mistakes” they make seldom put them beyond the perimeter. It is not impossible, but less likely.

Get that? "Our" side has all the smart people so we don't come up with dumb ideas, like burning Israeli flags on Yom Ha'atzmaut, or banning strawberries because of invisible bugs, or creating a poverty-stricken society where men refuse to work and support their families, very often. But those on the left? Pfah! Wackos.

(Having said that, I will grant that Rav Adlerstein does make a very valid point in that he defines a Talmid Chacham:

I propose, as a rough guide, that minimally, a talmid chacham can explicate a Rashba well; has learned at least quarter of the Ketzos; could open a Pri Megadim and figure out what he is saying without getting sea-sick; can read from the Shev Shema’atsa intelligently in any perek. A talmid chacham should be able to do far more than that, but if he can’t, he is not a player. If you are not acquainted with these works, then frankly, you are not in a position to judge.

I can dispute some of the specifics of the above but his point is quite valid: an encyclopedic knowledge of the authoritative Jewish legal codexes is mandatory before going and mucking about with halachah. Certainly the chareidi world is better at producing such people.)

I would guess, without knowing him better, that Rav Adlerstein and I share many important Jewish values and conceptions. However, I do feel there is one different. With Rav Adlerstein, Rav Leff's rebuttal to Marc Shapiro was to be considered the final word. The Talmid Chacham has spoken and that's it. The thought that Shapiro not only didn't accept this but had a response to Rav Leff that contradicted all his important points, in effect showing as much if not more lomdus albeit from a position of scholarship, is not something Rav Alderstein can tolerate. There may not be many outside the black-hat or Mizrachi world who are baki in Rashba but some know their sources and know when they're been fed a bill of goods. The only way to refute Marc Shapiro is through intellectual scholarship, not self-righteous definitions of who gets to have the discussion in the first place.

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