Notes from New North London Learning, Autumn 2004
Halacha Through Masorti Eyes: Introduction to Masorti Halacha
What do you
do when the Rambam says, "Beat your kids with a leather strap"
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
[This was the first shiur I went to within the Masorti context; I'd just started attending Assif, and was beginning to suspect that, after years in the spiritual wilderness, here was somewhere where I might be spiritually at home. Having been impressed by livredor's level of knowledge of the reasoning behind the various Jewish laws, I was motivated to go along and learn more about Masorti Judaism... and the rest, of course, is history.
The notes here are quite terse; evidently I hadn't yet learned at this point to scrawl more on my handouts. :o)]
What is Halacha"You should go (תלכו) after the LORD your G-d." (Deuteronomy 13:5)
Why Follow Halacha?
- Because you are told to—payback for staggering gift of life and revelation
- The spiritual answer: imitatio Dei, discipline, observance, fitting a world of הבדלה [separation between holy and profane aspects of the world], תיקון עולם [helping "repair" the world through observance of the commandments].
- "Enforcement" בן אדם למקום— [commandments between humans and G-d] and בן אדם לחברו [commandments between humans and their fellow humans].
- Mordecai Kaplan on enforcement through ?commandments.
חומש and תנ״ך (Biblical)
"You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (Exodus 23, 34, and Deuteronomy 14) This is the foundation of the Jewish dietary laws of separating meat and milk, but only its foundation!
"And the king gave [select Jews] a daily ration of the king's food, and of the wine which he drank; and brought them up for three years, so that eventually they might stand before the king." (Daniel 1:5). What's the halacha on eating with royalty?
(The Karaite approach vs the Rabbinic approach)
"Hillel instituted a prosbul. For he saw people were unwilling to lend money to one another and disregarded the precept laid down in the Torah, 'Beware that there not be a base thought in your heart saying the seventh year is coming [probably best not to lend to my fellow]' (Deut. 15)" (Gittin 36a)
Open material—Mishna and TalmudConsider the opening of the Mishna (Berachot 1:1):
When can one start to say the Shema in the evening? From the time the cohanim come home to eat their teruma until the end of the first watch. So says Rabbi Eliezer. The sages say until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says until the dawn comes up.
A story: Once the sons of Rabban Gamliel came home from a party and they said to him, "we haven't read the Shema." He said to them, "If the dawn has not yet come up, you still have to read."
It's a comfort system: you can say the Shema from the time the cohanim come home to eat their teruma—but, with the destruction of the Second Temple, this already no longer happened! The world had changed but it wasn't the end of all worlds. Also note the three different answers given to the question—you study it; it's not a statement of what we do.
Closed material—codes of law
These exist because people wanted a straight answer. These codes go into what to do in extreme detail. This is because they held that G-d cares about everything, so the halacha reflects this, it embraces everything.
Shulchan Aruch OH 2:4:
First put on the right shoe, but don't fasten it. And then put on the left shoe and fasten it and then return to fasten the right shoe.
Rema [Rabbi Moses Isserles, adapting the Shulchan Aruch for Ashkenazim]:
And with our kind of shoes, that don't have fastenings, put on the right shoe first.
(The Rambam was the first to do this—and his Mishne Torah was burned at the time.)
Psak—the rubber and the road
(I can no longer remember what this was.)
Shabbat north of the Arctic Circle. What do you do for Shabbos times when the sun never rises in winter, and never sets in summer? This question was put to R. Feinstein [the foremost authority of twentieth century Orthodoxy]; his answer was, "Move—this is not a suitable place for a Jew to be living"!
"The poor widow with seven children came with a scrawny chicken before the Rabbi, ‘Rabbi is this chicken kosher?’ The answer, of course, has something to do with the chicken but also something to do with the woman—that is to say that Judaism doesn’t dream of an objective purity of legal clarity. It dreams of a genuine engagement with human beings and their individual circumstances, as they stand before God. Certainty is not, I argue, a religious legal goal." [Anecdote copied from a later blog entry of the speaker as I could not remember how it went when I originally took these notes.]
The Masorti Approach
The role of time: history versus religionAll the bad things that happened to the Jews occurring on Tisha beAv, or on Mt Moriah, versus the strict historical approach. Everything is locating yourself on the spectrum between "Abraham couldn't possibly not have worn a shtreimel!" and "everything has to be adapted to its historical context, time and culture."
Permeability of the system
- In the past—Hammurabi/Aristotle—so what? [I.e., I presume, if you regard it in its historical context, the Torah is influenced by the code of Hammurabi, and Maimonides was influenced by Aristotle, but, the fact it builds on human-written law codes does not take away or reduce the holiness of the Torah.]
- And in the present: R. Moshe Feinstein did not outlaw smoking—though the people would have paid attention to him—because his grandfather smoked, and he could not countenance the possibility of his grandfather having been wrong.
The meaning of the root מסר
"Masorti" comes from the first verse of Ethics of the Fathers—passing on: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and he passed it on to Joshua; Joshua to the Judges, the Judges to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly", and so on, [each generation receiving the wisdom of their antecedents and adapting and interpretating it for the needs of their generation.]
This name is not the same as "Conservative" [the name of Masorti Judaism in the States, which only makes sense when considering the movement from points further left, which is where it arose from in the States].
A Case Study: Beating Kids
The Masorti perspective is to say the Rambam is a creature of his time in advocating beating children—it would be false to expect him to outlaw it—but by saying you can only use a thin strap he is pulling people back from using more violence.
"Bring children in to learn at the age of six or seven... And beat them to set fear upon them, but don't strike them painfully or ruelly, so don't beat them with whips or staffs, only a thin strap." ויומכה אותן המלמד להטיל עליהם אימה, ואינו מכה אותם מכת אויב מכת אכזרי, לפיכך לא יכה אותם בשוטים ולא במקלות אלא ברצועה קטנה —Mishne Torah, Talmud Torah 2:2
The BIG questions in Masorti Halacha
In-the-box, out-of-the-box and edge-of-the-box solutions (values/אגדתא).
Masorti rabbis aways have to make a decision when paskening about which of these to use. But occasionally even out-of-the-box is halachic even according to Orthodoxy, for example the institution of the prosbul [releasing people from having to give up debts come the Shemittah year].
Normative practice and normative authority (sema omru/puk chazi [what?])
The BIG challenge to Masorti Halacha
What do you call a posek whose pesak is ignored [because it's viewed as being unacceptably liberal]?