Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Loving God More Than Halacha

It would seem to be old news. This past summer, the Petach Tikvah Rabbinate rejected the conversion of a young woman who was converted by Rabbi Lookstein. There were protests, op-eds and negotiations; and the crisis ultimately ended in absurdity and ambiguity, with the Supreme Rabbinical Court dodging the case, and instead pressuring the convert to undergo a flash reconversion. Rabbi Lookstein’s convert is now free to get married. One could say this is now over. But it’s not.

Unfortunately, many of the issues behind the disqualification of Rabbi Lookstein are still ongoing; and of greater concern is the religious philosophy that precipitated this crisis, a philosophy which promotes an unhealthy fixation on Halachic rules while forgetting the ultimate goals of Halacha.

This fixation is not new. The Talmud (Sotah 21b) talks about the “pious fool”. It says:

היכי דמי חסיד שוטה? כגון דקא טבעה איתתא בנהרא, ואמר: לאו אורח ארעא לאיסתכולי בה ואצולה

“What is a pious fool? a woman is drowning in the river, and he says: 'It is improper for me to look upon her and rescue her'.”

A pious fool looks only at the rules and never at the goals. A woman created in the image of God is dying, yet this pious idiot can’t even look at her in order to throw her a lifeline!

The discipline of Halacha is so intense that we must always worry about mutating into pious fools; and I believe the Lookstein case is a classic example of this phenomenon, of putting meticulous observance of Halacha before Jewish unity and serving God.
To understand this, we need some context. While it is unclear why Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion was rejected by the Petach Tikvah Beit Din, one suspects that it has a lot to do with an ongoing conflict in Israel regarding conversion. In 2008, Rabbi Avraham Sherman disqualified thousands of conversions by Rabbi Chaim Drukman. He did so because he felt Rabbi Druckman was no longer a qualified Rabbinic Judge. In his decision Rabbi Sherman wrote:

"שביה"ד לגיור של אבה"ד הרב דרוקמן הם בי"ד פסול,משום שמזלזלים בהלכה שנפסקה ע"י כל הפוסקים …...ונוהגים "בקלות דעת", שמכניסים גויים גמורים לכלל ישראל ומכשילים את הרבים בחטא גדול, ויש לראותם כמגלים פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה…... התנהלות זו הפכה להיות "שיטה", על כן יש לראותם קלי דעת שאינם נכנעים לפסק דין תורה והשו"ע, ובודים מלבם דברי הבל ומטהרים את השרץ בק"נ טעמים ומדמים בלבם שיש בכחם לעקור דבר מן התורה ולכן יש לראותם מזידים ו"אפיקורסים"

“The conversion Beit Din of Rabbi Druckman is a disqualified Beit Din, because they disrespect the Halacha as decided by all of the decisors…..and act with a lack of seriousness, should see them as  frivolous people who do not accept the decisions of the Torah and Shulchan Aruch, and fabricate on their own empty words….therefore one should see them as intentional transgressors and heretics…”

Rabbi Sherman is referring to a lenient view in the laws of conversion, one accepted by Rabbi Druckman. In response, he claims this view is fabricated, and any Rabbi who follows it is a transgressor and heretic. Therefore, not only are converts who are converted based on this lenient view disqualified, but Rabbi Druckman himself, because he holds this lenient view, is disqualified and considered a heretic and a sinner.

After all of the shenanigans this summer, I was left with the sneaking suspicion that a similar process was at hand with Rabbi Lookstein. After all, one could see immediately that this convert was quite meticulous in her observance of mitzvot; that was admitted by all. And the idea that a well known Rabbi was “not known” by the Rabbis in Petach Tikvah was also a smokescreen; why couldn’t they make a few phone calls and find out who Rabbi Lookstein was? Clearly, the rejection had something else behind it. And I suspected this was an attempt to apply the Sherman ruling to Rabbi Lookstein, to say that he is disqualified because he may be “too lenient” to be a qualified judge.

This attitude is disastrous. The age old etiquette of Halachic debate has been destroyed, replaced with a “my way or the highway” attitude. In the past, we could disagree passionately about serious halachic subjects, but we never allowed that to divide us. The Mishnah in Yevamot (1:4) writes about the debates of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel:

א,ד  בית שמאי מתירין את הצרות לאחין, ובית הלל אוסרין.  חלצו--בית שמאי פוסלין מן הכהונה, ובית הלל מכשירין; נתייבמו--בית שמאי מכשירין, ובית הלל פוסלין.  אף על פי שאלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין, אלו אוסרין ואלו מתירין--לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי כל הטהרות והטומאות שהיו אלו מטהרין ואלו מטמאין לא נמנעו עושין טהרות אלו על גבי אלו
“Even though these  prohibit (certain marriages) and these permit, these disqualify and these allow, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai. The utensils where these ruled pure and these ruled impure, still they (Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel) did not refrain from using utensils the other deemed pure.”

The way of Torah is to allow debate without division; without it, we cannot hold a diverse community together.  The tragedy of the Sherman ruling is that it cannot imagine another legitimate Halachic interpretation, and cannot see as legitimate Rabbis with differing points of view.

Disqualifying Halachic opponents is an ersatz piety. It is easy to define a community by it’s opponents and to manufacture passion by harping on an imagined threat to the Halachic tradition. This tendency is not new, and events like the disqualification of Rabbi Druckman were predicted over a 100 years ago by the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893).  He writes in his Meshiv Davar (1:44):

והנה המעריך הורו והוגו עצה להיות נשמר מדור זה להפרד זה מזה לגמרי כמו שנפרד אברהם מלוט, במטותא מן המעריך עצה זו קשה כחרבות לגוף האומה וקיומה, הן בשעה שהיינו באה"ק וברשותנו כמעט בבית שני נעתם ארץ וחרב הבית וגלה ישראל בסבת מחלוקת הפרושים עם הצדוקים וגם הסב מחמת שנאת חנם הרבה ש"ד מה שאינו מן הדין היינו בשעה שראה פרוש שאחד מיקל באיזה דבר אע"ג שלא היה צדוקי כלל אלא עשה עבירה, מ"מ מחמת ש"ח היה שופטו לצדוקי שמורידין אותו, ומזה נתרבה ש"ד בהיתר ולשם מצוה בטעות וכבר רמז ע"ז בתורה (ס' במדבר סי' לו מקרא ל"ד) כמבואר בהע"ד והר"ד, וכ"ז אינו רחוק מן הדעת להגיע ח"ו בעת כזאת ג"כ אשר עפ"י ראות עיני א' ממחזיקי הדת ידמה שפלוני אינו מתנהג עפ"י דרכו בעבודת ה' וישפטנו למינות ויתרחק ממנו ויהיו רודפים זא"ז בהיתר בדמיון כוזב ח"ו, ושחת כל עם ה' חלילה זהו אפילו אם היינו בארצנו וברשותנו:

“Thus, when a Pharisee saw someone being lax in a certain matter, even though he was not a
Sadducee but only sinning in this matter, because of unnecessary hatred he judged him to be a Sadducee…From this mistaken attitude numerous people justified murders (of religious opponents) …..”

It must not be like this; we cannot allow exaggerated piety to destroy our community. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein liked to quote the phrase “the traditions of civility”; and our community needs those traditions of civility desperately. We must learn how to respect each other’s religious perspectives and how to live together as one community. In medieval Europe there was a debate over the permissibility of caul fat, a fat found on the outside of the animal’s stomach. The Shulchan Aruch notes that it was considered prohibited. The Rama notes that this was ruling was accepted everywhere except for the Rhineland, where people ate caul fat. The Rama (Yoreh Deah 64) then adds:

חלב הדבוק לכרס שתחת הפריסה אסור.

הגה: וכן המנהג בכל מקום. מלבד בני ריינוס' שנוהגין במקצתו היתר ואין מוחין בידם שכבר הורה להם זקן (הגהת אשיר"י ומרדכי ורוב הפוסקים).
ובכל מקום שנוהגין בו איסור דינו כשאר חלב לבטלו בששים (א"ו הארוך) אבל אין אוסרין כלים של בני ריינוס הואיל ונוהגין בו היתר (חידושי אגודה).

“One does not prohibit the dishes of the Jews of the Rhineland (even though they eat caul fat), because they consider (this fat) to be permissible”.

This is an exceptional ruling!! In the Rhineland, people are eating a food that the rest of Europe considers to be absolutely prohibited. Yet even so, Jews from the rest of Europe would eat off of what they considered non-kosher dishes in order to respect the Jews of the Rhineland. In contrast, today it is far more common for one to dismiss those who accept an “unsuitable” hashgacha. We have sadly become pious fools, forgetting that our priority should be unity, not Halachic stringency.

Halacha is intended as a way to bring us close to God; but that can only work when we put God first. When we forget God, Halacha can become a heartless discipline. The Talmud (Yoma 23a) tells a tragic story that represents the worst of a Halacha-first attitude, where overzealous love for Halacha ends up leading to murder. The setting is the Temple, where two young priests are competing for the privilege of doing the service on the altar. The Talmud recounts:

תנו רבנן: מעשה בשני כהנים שהיו שניהן שוין ורצין ועולין בכבש, קדם אחד מהן לתוך ארבע אמות של חבירו - נטל סכין ותקע לו בלבו. ... בא אביו של תינוק ומצאו כשהוא מפרפר. אמר: הרי הוא כפרתכם, ועדיין בני מפרפר, ולא נטמאה סכין. ללמדך שקשה עליהם טהרת כלים יותר משפיכות דמים.

“Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were equal as they ran to mount the ramp (to do the service) and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. …. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: ‘May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions (alive) and the knife has not become unclean.’ [The father’s remark] comes to teach you that the purity of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood.”

The father’s statement is both chilling and telling; here is a man worried more about the purity of the Temple than the death of his own son. The Talmud includes the father’s words to underline that how widespread a halacha-first attitude was at the time.

But we must love God more than Halacha; and the greatest of Rabbis would put God first. In a famed case from July 1802, Rav Chaim of Volozhin grapples with a difficult agunah issue, of a woman whose husband was presumed dead but there was a dearth of clear evidence to permit her to remarry. (Chut Hameshulash 1:8). In page after page of careful legal reasoning, Rav Chaim disputes precedents, and allows the woman to remarry. He explains he did so because  וחשבתי עם קוני וראיתי חובה לעצמי להתחזק בכל כחי לשקוד על תקנת עגונות והשי"ת יצילני משגיאות “I have thought together with my creator, and saw it was my obligation to use all my might to find a solution for agunot; may God save me from mistakes”.  Rav Chaim recognized that to truly follow Halacha one must look to serve God, and he had to look for a way to alleviate the suffering of a bereaved widow.

I thought of this when the Rabbis in Petach Tikvah were busy rejecting Rabbi Lookstein’s conversion. They rejected his conversion without any due diligence: not one Rabbi from Israel called Rabbi Lookstein to discuss his conversion standards. From all appearances, the Petach Tikvah Beit Din did not consider the emotional turmoil they caused this poor woman. Clearly, they did not “think it over with their creator” before rejecting her conversion.

The ultimate lesson of the Petach Tikvah incident is this: we must learn to love God more than Halacha. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, who elsewhere writes about the importance of pure devotion to Torah, never forgets that God must come first in Halachic decision making. We need to think about morality and spirituality before, during, and after opening the Shulchan Aruch. If we don’t, we are doomed to become pious fools again and again.

Loving God more than Halacha requires spiritual sacrifices. Rabbi Abraham Twersky tells an inspiring story about the great Rabbinic leaders, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Meir Shapiro. He writes:

On the return from a convention in which many Torah sages participated, the train made stops in several towns, whose Jewish communities came out to greet the gedolim. The Chafetz Chaim, however, in his profound humility, never went on the train platform to meet the people. HaGaon Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin, although he was a young man, boldly approached the elderly sage. “Why aren’t you going out to meet the people?” he asked. The Chafetz Chaim answered, “Why should I go out? What is it that they want to see? I don’t have horns on my head. It is because they have this idea about me that I am a tzaddik, and if I go out to them, I am making a statement about myself that I am someone special.” Rav Meir Shapiro asked, “And what is wrong with making such a statement?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “What do you mean ‘what is wrong?’ It is ga’avah (arrogance).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “And if it is ga’avah, so what?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “Ga’avah is a terrible aveirah (sin).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “And what happens if one does an aveirah?” The Chafetz Chaim said, “Why, for an aveirah one will be punished in Gehenom (hell).” Rav Meir Shapiro said, “Throngs of Jews will have pleasure from seeing you. Aren’t you willing to accept some punishment in order to give Jews pleasure?”

From then on, every time the train pulled into a station, the Chofetz Chaim was the first one on the platform to meet the people.”

This attitude needs to inform every aspect of our halachic observances. If Halacha is to have any meaning, it must lead us closer to God, to love our fellow Jew, and to serve mankind. Simply put, we must love God more than Halacha.