Volume 10 Number 78
                       Produced: Wed Dec 22 20:14:39 1993

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Da`at Torah
         [Shaul Wallach]
Polemic versus reasoned discourse
         [Frank Silbermann]
Potok and Talmud Criticism
         [Aliza Berger]


From: Shaul Wallach <f66204@...>
Date: Wed, 15 Dec 93 17:29:57 -0500
Subject: Da`at Torah

     The discussion on Da`at Torah and rabbinic authority has been
difficult for me to follow because most of the concepts presented seem
to be divorced somewhat from their roots in halakha. It was therefore
satisfying to see several people cite the Mishna in Horayot (1:1)
which shows that even the Sanhedrin can err in judgment.

     With the limited time and knowledge I have available at this moment,
I would like to offer a modest starting point for the discussion from
basic principles, in which I will raise more questions than I can

     First of all, we have the Biblical injunction "lo tasur" (Deut.
17:11) - "... you shall not turn away from what they tell you right
or left." This verse is the basis of authority for all the Rabbinic
enactments, as the Talmud (Berakhot 19b) explains. The question
that arises in my mind is this - does this authority extend to the
halakhic authorities of our day, or did it stop with the passing
of the Sanhedrin and the sealing of the Talmudim, as the Talmud
says in Bava Mesi`a (86a): "Rav Ashei we-Ravina - Sof Hora'a"
(Rav Ashei and Ravina are the end of instruction; cf. Rashi and
the parallels)?

     Another question in my mind is the scope of what Rabban Gamliel
said in Avot (1:16) "`Ase Lekha Rav We-Histalleq Min Ha-safeq"
(Make yourself a Rav and remove doubt). At first glance it might
seem that only when one is doubtful on a matter should one ask a
Rav, but when one is sure there is no need. However, from the
commentary of Rabbeinu Yona it appears that even when one is
sure, one should consult another scholar, even if he not be any

     Another problem arises when one thinks his Rav has erred,
as in the case of Horayot 1:1. This Mishna tells us that if
a pupil "who is worthy to instruct" follows the erroneous
judgment of the Sanhedrin, he must also bring a sin offering.
The Talmud (ibid. 2b) explains that even a student who knows
only how to learn ("gemir") but not how to decide (lit. "sevir";
perhaps this means to form opinions) has to bring a sin offering,
because he acted on his own opinion and did not rely on the
judgment of the Sanhedrin. From this it appears that any scholar
who has the ability to make his own judgment should not follow
the advice of his Rav when he believes the latter is in error.

     This is brought into sharper focus in the Shulhan `Arukh,
Yore De`a 242. Thus in sect. 3, R. Moshe Isserles rules explicitly
in his gloss that a pupil may differ with his Rav if he has
evidence. Further, in his gloss to sect. 31, he gives details
about when one scholar may permit what another has forbidden and
vice versa. The Sifte Cohen (note 58) discusses at length what
constitutes an "error of judgment" that can be reversed by a
second scholar.

     These sources give us a firm starting point to discuss in
what circumstances one is required to follow the decision or
advice of one's Rav, and when such decisions can be reversed.


Shaul Wallach


From: Frank Silbermann <fs@...>
Date: Thu, 16 Dec 93 11:12:39 -0500
Subject: Polemic versus reasoned discourse

In vol.10 #63 Anthony Fiorino

>	I am skeptical that media abuses alone can account for the sometimes
>	huge gulf between the public and private statements of gedolim.
>	...
>	when issuing statements into the public sphere, complicated
>	positions may be simplified in order to make a point, or,
>	any given disscussion may be as much a polemic as a reasoned
>	halachic argument.

Pirke Avot warns sages to beware of error in teaching, for an
unintentional error in teaching amounts to willful sin.

I think this applies to any public pronouncement of a Torah scholar that
exagerates or overstates his position.  It can lead his followers to
Lashon HaRa and evil thoughts about innocent fellow Jews whom they
mistakenly believe to be transgressing.

>	We can see examples of this throughout Jewish history
>	-- rabbinic argumentation may take on tones which reflect not
>	the nature of the halchah, but rather the nature of the argument:
>	-- the burning of the Mishneh Torah,

which led directly to the burning of the Talmud (so said a previous post),

>	R. Yaakov Emden's battles,

which caused such a Chillul HaShem and disrespect for Torah that, I am
told, the cities involved shortly thereafter went over almost en masse
to Reform Judaism,

> --- the mitnagdim/chassidim controversies,

this polemic certainly contained a great deal of Lashon HaRa (e.g. false
charges of Avoda Zara -- i.e. belief in Pantheism).

>	Whether this is the most healthy route to choose for klal yisrael,
>	and whether the Jewish community as a whole is sophisticated enough
>	to live with an understanding of yehadut that is not black-and-white
>	and single-sided, is another debate entirely.

The behavior Anthony describes seems to parallel the way we often deal
with our children.  When instructing and guiding them we do not always
feel obligated to justify our decisions logically.  We may deign to
offer a partial explanation, but we do not expect our words to be
analyzed too carefully.  Also, we take for granted our right and duty to
monitor and control the ideas to which they are exposed, freely
withholding the views and arguments of people we respect but consider
mistaken.  Though it may be best to appeal to the child's growing sense
of reason, if the child's mind is too immature or the parent too
inarticulate it is better to rule in an authoritian manner than to
abdicate responsibility completely.

The Orthodox Jewish media, particularly the right wing Orthodox media,
frequently speaks to us as though we were children --- polemics which
shout out overstated positions, politically correct censorship,
scolding.  I believe that the resentment frequently expressed in this
group reflects a clash between different cultures.

In feudal society, the adult/child relationship also existed between
adult social classes, e.g. between king and lord, between lord and serf,
and between priest and parishoner.  In the Old South, all blacks without
regard to age had the social status of children.  The language itself
reflected this view -- higher status men referred to lower status men as
"boys."  It would not be surprising if Jews only recently emigrated from
backward or totalitarian nations should expect status differences
between adult Jews also to parallel the adult/child relationship.

In the modern Western world we assume the more republican model, one in
which all adults have the same _essential_ status, but which allows for
limited inequities in status and power only as is needed to accomplish
specific tasks.  For example, a corporation president expects deference
from his janitor while at work, but he cannot expect deference from all
janitors at all times and places.  (Children, in contrast, are expected
to show deference to all adults without regard to time, place, or

When religious writers dismiss our questions and objections without
bothering to respond to the point, we are indeed being treated as
children, and, having a Western perspective, we feel insulted.  We
expect halachic debate to follow the academic model --- reasoned
discourse between scholars of varying degrees of accomplishment, where,
in the frenetic competition to be heard, we give higher priority to
hearing those with a reputation for clear thinking.  This is how _we_
interpret "listening to our sages."  Though we take special effort to
listen to a sage's words, his words are expected to stand on their own

Those with a more authoritarian mentality believe the sage's authority
eminates not from soundness of his arguments but from his very
personhood.  They consider it outrageous for a low-status person to
challenge the reasoning of a high-status person, just as we would resent
being corrected by our children in public.  When they bemoan the
skepticism of the modern world, they have in mind not only theological
skepticism, but that even the religious have the impudence to challenge
the reasoning of their betters.

This only adds to the right wing's antipathy for secular education.
Admittedly, sexual morality in the university is abominable; atheism and
heretical ideas abound.  But even at its best, secular scholarship
unabashedly assumes that ideas stand on their own, without regard for
source.  This may be what the right wing finds most intolerable.

Frank Silbermann	<fs@...>
Tulane University	New Orleans, Louisiana  USA


From: <A_BERGER@...> (Aliza Berger)
Date: Mon, 20 Dec 1993 17:46:45 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Potok and Talmud Criticism

Yosef Bechhoffer writes:

>...not having yet a firm theological grounding, I was sympathetic to the
>heroes - just as Potok wanted me to be - the Malters...this relates
>not to their Zionism, as there is nothing pernicious or nor (sic) unorthodox
> in Religious Zionism, of course, but to their Talmudic method (which, if
> I recall correctly, is even more pronounced in The Promise).  
>It was not
> till years later that I realized that this was a Conservative bias that
> was being subtly perpetrated on the unsuspecting, naive reader... 

I'm not sure whether Yosef means to say that material about Talmud
source criticism is inappropriate for children or inappropriate at any age. 
I will address the equating the scientific study of Talmudic texts with
Conservatism, which I think is a misrepresentation.

I went back to look at *The Promise*, since I didn't remember it as
unequivocally advocating a Conservative position.  This is what I found:
The central character,
Reuven Malter, expresses doubts about two positions: (1) that of a
professor at the Conservative seminary who practices the commandments
for historical reasons although he doesn't believe that there was a
revelation at Sinai, and (2) the position of his own teacher, the
traditionalist Holocaust survivor rebbe in the Orthodox rabbinical school.
Reuven has learned Talmud criticism from his father, and believes in it,
but this method is forbidden in the yeshiva.  Matters come to a head when
Reuven uses Talmud-critical methods in his smicha (ordination)
examination. Conveniently, just then his Orthodox yeshiva/university
decides to establish a graduate school at which Reuven is invited to teach
Talmud criticism.  Since Reuven in the main character, I think that Potok
intends for us to be rooting for this position (although in the case of
Reuven's father, Potok makes it clear that without the "moderate
Orthodox" choice, he prefers Conservative over traditionalist Orthodox. But
even so, Reuven's father's position is a far cry from not believing in

Talmud criticism is studied under both Conservative and (albeit in
very limited cases,and, I think, to a more limited degree) Orthodox 
(university) auspices.  The meaningful differenc is probably in the practical 
implications, not the theory.  It seems to me that the Conservative scholars 
allow the methodology to affect practical halakhic decision-making, while the 
Orthodox Talmud scholars do not (this is a simplification).  

The Orthodox people who rule out Talmud criticism object
on theological and/or practical grounds. Some say that the Oral Law
(Talmud) was revealed in its entirely, in its order, at Sinai; thus,
tampering with the texts is sacreligious.  Also, implying that one
understands a Talmudic source better than a rishon or an acharon (early
and late interpreters of the Talmud and codifiers of Jewish law) is
problematic; in the halakhic system, earlier rabbis always know more than
later ones.  But the Talmud critic, like the scientist who
understands some medical fact better than the sages of previous
generations, does not disrespect the sages.  The question is what to do
with this knowledge (which has the additional problem of being less
subject to proof than medical knowledge; Talmud-critical scholars often disagree
with each other).  Here is where the approach is labeled "dangerous".  
Using the results of the critical approach to change
previous rulings on halakhic matters is a problem, because in the Orthodox
view (to tremendously simplify matters) late rabbis are not allowed to
contradict rulings laid down by early ones.   In the Conservative view
(again, to tremendously simplify matters) they are allowed to do this.  The
Orthodox Talmud scholar truly sometimes does have a practical dilemma,
e.g. thinking "this is the way the halakha should be", but, then again, so 
does the Orthodox scientist.  

The Talmud scholars, using the critical method to study the same or similar 
textual difficulties as those the rishonim and achronim struggled with (e.g. 
contradictions between various Talmudic texts, difficulties within texts), 
believe that this activity is worthwhile because it will increase Torah 
knowledge.  In the hands of a scholar who has emunah (believes) that the 
halakha is ultimately correct, there is no need to be afraid of the "dangers" 
of what the study might show.  Rather, it helps bring us closer to the truth.

Aliza Berger


End of Volume 10 Issue 78