Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Hareidi-promoted understanding of emunat hakhamim is not only rejected by significant rabbinic authorities, but is deeply offensive to those who insist on the right to think for themselves and make their own decisions. To ascribe quasi-prophetic powers to a small clique of Talmudic scholars is intellectually unsound. It undermines a thinking faith and condemns the public to sheepishly follow the opinions of an unelected group of “gedolim.”

  I'm not one to mince words. Officially I retired from my "highly paid" blogging job. But I can't help myself from commenting on the present crisis. Why? For the same reason I blogged for almost 15 years!

TO TEACH YOU THAT YOUR WORLDVIEW IS MESSED UP, and give you an opportunity to get it right! And NOW It's not only killing people emotionally, but it is bringing death to your doorstep!

The bitter reality of Covid-19 has forced you to rethink just about everything you believed before the deadly virus started killing your friends, neighbors, family members and someone you know. Yes, some of the people were elderly and maybe their time was up anyway. But the facts are if they died of Covid-19, they died of an unwarranted, tortured, suffocating death, prematurely.

So how do we process the present crisis? What should we learn from this pandemic? What mistakes were made that could have prevented this calamity, or at the very least reduced the amount of illness and death?
The day before Purim, on March 9, Agudath Israel posted a Q & A that advised individuals to continue going to shul for minyan, attending synagogue Megilla readings, and carrying on with their Purim celebrations, unless they were actually ill. And on that same day, a large group of Rabbis and leaders gathered to discuss what they deemed a pressing issue for their community: the matter of preventing government enforcement of education standards in their yeshivas. Coronavirus, which had already begun to quietly spread throughout New York, was not their prime concern.

In 1990, I met with the Chief Rabbi of a major city in Israel, a man who was known for his great erudition and who authored a number of volumes of halakhic responsa. He told me that a military leader of Israel had asked him to encourage yeshiva students to serve in the army. He had responded to the general:  instead of getting yeshiva students to serve in the army, all the soldiers should put down their weapons and start studying Torah.  He quoted a Midrash that God will protect the Jewish people if they all study Torah. I asked the rabbi if he would risk the security of Israel based on that Midrash. He told me without hesitation: “yes, of course! We don’t need an army, we need everyone to study Torah. We have the words of hazal, and our Sages spoke truth.”
     When I expressed my astonishment that he actually thought Israel did not need military defense, he expressed his astonishment that I doubted the truthfulness of the words of the Midrash. The two of us were operating on different sets of assumptions.
     The Chief Rabbi was living in a pre-modern spiritual/intellectual bubble. He relied faithfully on the words of our ancient Sages; they knew the real truth. Their words were uttered in pure holiness. The teachings of our Sages are absolutely reliable, far more trustworthy than anything that could be said or taught by military, political, or governmental experts—especially those who were not religiously observant.
     The Chief Rabbi thought it was a lack of faith on my part to give more credibility to the experts than to statements made by our Sages. For my part, I was horrified that an intelligent and pious Chief Rabbi would genuinely think that Israel did not need military defenses if everyone simply studied Torah and kept the mitzvoth. We sat in the same room, we believed in and observed the same Torah…but we were in different spiritual/intellectual worlds.
     The Chief Rabbi was an advocate of emunat hakhamim, requiring us to have absolute faith in our Sages and their teachings. All genuine truth existed within the ken of our Sages. All “outside” information was not credible…unless the Sages themselves gave it credibility.
     This kind of thinking has gained traction within Orthodox Judaism in recent decades. It has led to an Orthodoxy that fosters authoritarianism and obscurantism. It has relegated immense power to gedolim who are supposed to have a monopoly on truth. It has fostered negative attitudes toward secular sources of knowledge, since the Sages have the keys to all real knowledge themselves. It discredits those fine Orthodox Jews who do not share their worldview, and ostracizes Orthodox rabbis who do not fall into line with their faith in the almost infallible wisdom of the gedolim.
     A venerable exponent of the emunat hakhamim view was Rabbi Avraham Karelitz,(1878-1953) popularly known as the Hazon Ish. He taught that “everything written in the Talmud, whether in the Mishnah or in the Gemara, whether in halakha or in aggadah, were things revealed to us through prophetic powers…and whoever deviates from this tenet is as one who denies the words of our Rabbis, and his ritual slaughtering is invalid and he is disqualified from giving testimony. (Kovetz Iggerot 1:59. This is cited by David Weiss Halivni, in The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought and History, ed. Michael Fishbane (Albany: State University of NY Press, 1993, p. 40, n. 13)
     Not only are we instructed to believe in the prophetic powers of ancient Talmudic sages (even though they never claimed these powers for themselves), we are asked to suppress our own minds to the opinions of the sages. Even if we think their statements are unreasonable, we should assume they are right and we are wrong. Thus taught Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, an influential Hareidi leader of the 20th century:   “Our rabbis have told us to listen to the words of the Sages, even if they tell us that right is left and not to say, heaven forbid, that they certainly erred because little I can see their error with my own eyes. Rather, my seeing is null and void compared with the clarity of intellect and the divine aid they receive….This is the Torah view [daas Torah] concerning faith in the Sages. The absence of self-negation toward our rabbis is the root of all sin and the beginning of all destruction, while all merits are as naught compared with the root of all—faith in the Sages.” (Mikhtav me-Eliyahu 1:75-77, cited by Lawrence Kaplan “Daas Torah; A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority,” Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, ed. M. Sokol Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, 1992, pp. 16-17).
     Proponents of emunat hakhamim ascribe divine powers to the sages of all generations, including our own. They not only know Torah better than anyone else; their Torah knowledge gives them the right and authority to guide the Jewish people in all areas of life. In the words of Rabbi Bernard Weinberger:  “Gedolei Yisrael possess a special endowment or capacity to penetrate objective reality, recognize the facts as they really are and apply the pertinent halakhic principles. This endowment is a form of ru’ah haKodesh [Divine inspiration], as it were, bordering, if only, remotely, on the periphery of prophecy. ….Gedolei Yisrael inherently ought to be the final and sole arbiters of all aspects of Jewish communal policy and questions of hashkafa.” Cited by Lawrence Kaplan, p. 17).
     Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich has pointed out that emunat hakhamim actually has a very different meaning and intent (“Emunat Hakhamim, Mah Hi?”, in Darka shel Torah, Maaliyot Press, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 206-214). We are expected to respect the wisdom of our sages, but not to assume their infallibility or their quasi-prophetic status. Rather than blindly following their words, we are expected to examine their comments carefully; to try to understand their intent; to accept or reject them only after careful consideration. “True emunat hakhamim requires deep analysis to seek the reasons for the words of the sages; this entails an obligation on the part of the student or questioner to a very careful and critical examination, to determine if there is place to dissent. Certainly their words have reason, but one is still obligated to clarify whether to follow [their words] in actual practice” (p. 213).   
     It is up to each individual to make informed decisions; it is wise to consult the advice and teachings of sages. But one is not allowed to suspend personal judgment. “There is a difference between one who seeks advice and then ultimately acts based on personal responsibility, and one who relies on a “great tree” without independent thought. There are those who ascribe this childish behavior under the name emunat hakhamim, whereas this is a perversion of this important virtue. Instead of acquiring true Torah, people who cling to this mistaken notion of emunat hakhamim thereby distance themselves from the light of Torah, and in the end don’t know their right from their left” (p. 214).
     For Rabbi Rabinovich, emunat hakhamim does not foster an attitude of blind obedience. On the contrary, it demands careful attention to the words of our sages…followed by a personal evaluation of whether those statements ought or ought not to be accepted. His views are very much in line with a long rabbinic tradition that calls for respect for the words of our sages, but not a belief in the infallibility or divine inspiration of their words.
     The Talmud and Midrashim are replete with statements by great sages on various topics…medical cures, demons, seemingly far-fetched interpretations of biblical verses. It is not a religious virtue to ascribe “truth” to all their statements, although it is important to try to understand the context of their words....

 Rabbi Abraham, son of Maimonides, in an important essay concerning aggada, maintained that one may not accept an opinion without first examining it carefully. (See his Ma-amar Odot Derashot Hazal, printed in the introductory section of the EinYaacov.) To accept the truth of a statement simply on the authority of the person who stated it is both against reason and against the method of Torah itself. The Torah forbids us to accept someone's statement based on his status, whether rich or poor, whether prominent or otherwise. Each case must be evaluated by our own reason.

 Rabbi Abraham stated that this method also applies to the statements of our sages. It is intellectually unsound to accept blindly the teachings of our rabbis in matters of medicine, natural science, astronomy. He noted: "We, and every intelligent and wise person, are obligated to evaluate each idea and each statement, to find the way in which to understand it; to prove the truth and establish that which is worthy of being established, and to annul that which is worthy of being annulled; and to refrain from deciding a law which was not established by one of the two opposing opinions, no matter who the author of the opinion was. 

We see that our sages themselves said: if it is a halakha (universally accepted legal tradition) we will accept it; but if it is a ruling (based on individual opinion), there is room for discussion."
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