Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Defining Acceptable Halachic Autonomy

I have also read Rabbi Cordozo's "On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity" and, as did Rabbi Wolpoe, found it most interesting albeit I have hesitations with much of his thesis. My main concern, though, is somewhat different that Rabbi Wolpoe's and for this reason I thought that, rather than just commenting in this regard on Rabbi Wolpoe's post, I would present my own post because it takes the question in a different direction.

The specific thing that bothered me in regard to Rabbi Cordozo's article was his use of the word autonomy. There is no doubt that the modern world stresses the value of autonomy and that an absence of any autonomous element within Orthodoxy can be a challenge to many individuals brought up within the consciousness of modern thought. This in its own right, though, can not be an argument for making Orthodoxy more open to autonomy for who is to say that this value is one shared by Torah. On one level one can ask: so what if Torah is not autonomous and as such loses many potential adherents? It could be argued that this argument is similar to arguing that Torah should have more permissive views on sexuality for then it would be more attractive to members of our society who see open sexual expression as healthy. An argument that Torah is not autonomous and therefore is not as attractive as it could be simply is weak.

The point is, though, that Rabbi Cordozo must believe, as do I, that there is actually a value to autonomy and the problem is not solely a marketing one but a substantial one. If Torah values autonomy then its lack in modern day Orthodoxy is a problem. Then the fact that people are "turned off" Torah because it lacks autonomy becomes more real. What is really being said is that people are turning away from Torah because what is being presented to them as
Torah is not really Torah. As such there aversion is actually positive. While I think that Rabbi Cordozo could have presented a stronger argument for the value of autonomy, he may have wished to write this article with this recognition as a given. That is acceptable.

What is problematic, though, is that Halachic autonomy is still different than the value of autonomy that is advocated within Western thought. Halachic autonomy does not give the individual the right to choose his/her beliefs but the right to be involved in the intense intellectual endeavour of searching for the correct belief al pi Torah. On one level, Halachic autonomy means that we must value divergent opinions of scholarship. It does not mean that anyone can choose a view based upon their own perceptions of what they think is right within Torah. I believe that Rabbi Cordozo does not clearly state this and, as such, gives the impression that Halacha is like a smorgasbord from which any person can choose what they like. This is indeed problematic because the realm of the objective and thought is ignored. Clearly the reality of eilu v'eilu points to a reality that Torah is not singularly objective but it also does not advocate a total acceptance of subjectivity. It is the complexity of advocating eilu v'eilu within a realm of intense thought that often is furthermore ignored.

The only right, and this is clear from the gemara in Eruvin, that a non-scholar has is to be able to choose between systems. One can pick to follow Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai but cannot pick and choose between them (unless one is in the scholarly process of developing one's own scholarly system). Of course the words of Asei lecha Rav is precisely on point. Amongst the numerous possibilities of Rabbinic scholars, you can choose -- based on your subjective criteria -- which one to follow. After that choice, all choices are subject to scholarship.

This point I believe is not stressed by Rabbi Cordozo and that is an essential fault. To argue for Torah autonomy must include a clear definition of what this term means -- and the fact that it does not just grant an individual a right to make decisions but still insists on decisions based on scholarship. Once that is recognized, the whole nature of the choice also changes -- as will the whole perception of Torah. It is towards this perception that we must move.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Garnel Ironheart said...

I've read the article and it's very nice.
There are two reasons why nothing ever comes from these kinds of essays.
1) Encouraging a person to be autonomous ruins your chance of building a following. After all, by expecting autonomy you're telling people not to follow you.
2) Great, he's got some ideas. Is he building a movement? A yeshiva that will teach Torah in this fashion? An outreach program? No, what's the point? He remains a voice in the wilderness that can be safely ignored by the authorities doing all those things.

Rabbi R Wolpoe said...

Garnel has hit the nail on the head

in a similar Fashion, I have warned radical anti-Traditionalists that by rejected their predecessors, they are thereby generating their OWN Rejection future rejection - which seems to parallel the case of generating autonomy...


micha berger said...

Here's a repeat of what I recently commented on the RCA's blog, R' Gidon Rothstein's response to the same essay:

I think there is a major failing in not clearly distinguishing between codification and the need for codification. When we say that Rebbe’s decision to codify the mishnah was an instance of overturning a specific law for the sake of the whole, we’re clearly saying the situation was a step down. BUT, that doesn’t mean that codifying — whether the Mesrashei Halakhah, the Bishnah, the Tosefta, the Talmuds, the Beha”g, the Rif, the Rambam, the Tur, the Shulchan Arukh, the Levush, the Rama, the Shulchan Arukh haRav, the Chayei Adam, the Qitzur, the Arukh haShulchan, the Mishnah Berurah, the Ben Ish Hai, etc, etc, etc.. were themselves a bad idea. It is sad when we reach an impasse that requires a new round of codification. But when we do need it, producing a code is the right response.

The formula the Rambam uses to describe the what gave the Talmud Bavli its binding nature is that it was accepted by “all of Israel”. Not in every one of its rulings, but as the point of origin for further study. And today, across the gamut, semichah studies center around the Shulchan Arukh (with the exception of Bal’adi Teimanim who center their pisqa on the Rambam). The same concept which gives the gemara the authority R’ Angel attributes to it gives the Shulchan Arukh its authority.

I also find an interesting point of commonality between the two positions. R’ Marc Angel questions the binding nature of evolution to halakhah since the gemara. R’ Gidon Rothstein questions the significance of the evolution of aggadita since the rishonim. Both are therefore
calling for some sort of roll back to an earlier state that was more to their likely.

All this said, I am afraid that R’ Angel, by going further than most of his audience would be willing to, loses that audience with respect to the primary problem. Orthodox Jews today are under the impression that the job of religion is to provide answers; and moreso, easy-to-understand answers that can resolve life’s dilemmas in one sitting — all tied up with a nice bow.

In reality, life’s problems are hard. Let me give a story from personal experience. Someone close to me is a baalas teshuvah. The only one in her family in a few generations to embrace observance. And she, like most baalei teshuvah, was presented a worldview in which, if you just believe enough, the only airplane one would miss is the one that was going to crash. (Many of you are familiar with this genre of story that I’m trying to portray.) But she, alone among all her siblings and cousins, went through the crashing pain of losing a daughter. So, where is the “better life” the kiruv professionals led her to expect? Life is not simple, and we do ourselves a disservice pretending it is.

Religion’s job isn’t to resolve life’s struggles, but to give us a meaningful way to grapple with them. Whether we’re talking about our perspective on life, or about pesaq halakhah.

Quick and cut-and-dry one-size-fits-all rulings isn’t how halakhah is supposed to work. While I’m arguing that a ruling that “all of Israel” accepts is binding, we have gone well beyond that with the current proliferation of English halachic guides. There is a feel to the give-and-take of halakhah, to its responses to the costs to the individual, to their personal talents and emotional proclivities, where they stand spiritually and how they view life, that one really not only needs a human halachic decisor, but preferably one who knows the asker and can help them coordinate a spiritual journey through life.


Rabbi R Wolpoe said...

" religion’s job isn’t to resolve life’s struggles, but to give us a meaningful way to grapple with them. Whether we’re talking about our perspective on life, or about pesaq halakhah."

I see Micha as on target.
Torah is a tool for a better life
Talmud and Codes are tools for better Halachah

I believe there is a supernal Torah that is immutable, but that the one given to us is only a reflection of that Torah. Our goal is to struggle with it as best as we can.

A rabbi might ask himself " what would Hashem do? But the decision is down to eareth - lo bashamayim hee.