Thursday, February 28, 2008

Listening to Rebbeim

My friends tell me "You have to pick a Rabbi, and then listen to everything he tells you."
I reply" Ok, what if I think he's wrong?"

Friend A responds with "It says in (I dont remember where it was, sorry) that if a Rabbi says your right hand is your left hand and that your left hand is that your right hand, you still have to listen to him, because when a Rabbi is wrong it says in (ofcourse I forgot cause I don't particularly care) That if the rabbi is wrong, Hashem will change the nature and make the rabbi right."

Friend B adds with "Also, if you understand that the rebbeim have your best interest in mind, and are not out too hurt you, you'll realize that if they seem to be wrong, they really aren't."

I've had many debates over this issue way too many times too count. So here I would like to recap some of the arguments I usually tend to use.

I usually respond to friends A & B with something like "You're both wack"...after they realize that YES I had directly slightly offended them, I continue:

"What separates Judaism from Christianity?" (aside from stuff like Jesus and the concept of trinity) They usually respond with something along the lines of " Jews do not believe in blind faith, Jews are supposed to use intellect and are able to ask questions, and aren't deemed heretics if they do so. Jews also have a one-on-one relationship to hashem, they do not need a priest or a pope as an inbetween."

I reply "If we're supposed to blindly follow rebbeim because of the sources that were originally qouted or because we somehow assume they have our best interests in mind, where is the room for questions?"

Their reply to me is usually something along the lines of "1st you follow THEN you ask."

For that particular reply I had friend C (was just listening but mostly remains neutral) do the work for me. She said "What if he tells you to jump off a bridge and then Moshiach will come, when will you have time to ask aside from after death of terrible injury?"

Both A & B reply "Rebbeim wouldn't do that!"

And with that, the conversation gets really interesting:

"Really?" I reply "the Chofetz Chaim (as well as many other rebbeim) did just that. Don't you remember in HS when we learned about assimiliation that the Chofetz Chaim was specifically asked by the Jews if they can move to the US (programs and pre-ww2) and he said no. He justified himself by saying that it is better to die as Jews and remain that way through life, than assimilate and die spiritually"

A & B "But it says in the Torah death is better than assimilation"

"Right" I say "but what you forget to realize, is that assimilation is not something that occurs because Jews are not in Europe. It is something that occurs because Jews are away from each other. I would understand his fear if one family left at a time, but at the time the Jews approached him, it was fairly easy to leave for the US, which meant that MANY Jews would have gone, and ended up in the same neighborhoods. Not only that, but there WERE frum Jews in the US already in the Bronx, UWS, UES etc., would they really have assimilated more than they would've had they just led normal lives and moved to a smaller less-populated Jewish town somewhere else in Europe? The rebbeim basically did just that, they told us to jump off a bridge and no one cared to ask, we just agreed, and blindly jumped off the bridge like lemmings would if their leader happend to lead them off a cliff. Countless numbers of Jews could have been saved from the tortures the Nazi's brought upon them."

They usually reply with something like "but the Jews that didn't listen and did go to the US DID end up assimiliating."

And to that I tell them "You are right. I'm not denying that. But what you forget to consider is what I said about community, and the fact that more Jews would have gone, and therefore the community would have been more than 2-3 families, but rather an entire community, similar to what we see today. We would've had a butcher or 2, a Rabbi or 2, a merchant or 2, and so on. If majority of each community left, and ended up in the same places (and usually immigrants of the same ethnicity end up in the same areas), then they would not have assimilated."

Then, at that point. The convo stops, and my friends say something like "lets talk about the Purim story"

And I hate the Purim story,for many reasons. There is no way anyone can get me to beleive that ONLY Mordechai understood that the reason to not go to Haman's party superceded the kashrus of the wine?

But thats for another post. But generally, my friends usually recommend a rabbi that they know that basically "specializes" in the Purim story, because they cannot answer me themselves.


Anonymous said...

I could not agree with you more. These exact same thoughts have been going through my head. The real problem is that rabunim are not interested in individuals for individuals, they are only interested in individuals as part of the greater community. When you ask a question to a Rav you wont get an answer geared toward what is best for you, some time just the opposite. You will get answers that fit with the continuity of the community. It is fort his reason the concert ban as well as others have come out. Even though for most individuals, had they asked about going to concerts, going would have been ok. When making rulings though a whole new set of rules get thrown into play. It is for this reason people have to think for themselves.

Jessica said...

I think friend A and friend B are totally missing the point of a rabbi. A rabbi is there to guide you, yes, but you are still allowed to question them. if they are a good rabbi then they'll answer your questions and continue to answer them until you feel satisfied with the answers.
as for the purim story comment, i'm not sure what you mean. i learned megilas esther in full last semester (at college, not in a shiur) and, surprisingly, there is no mention of Mordechai or the Jews actually getting invited to a party. Maybe there's some underlying thing that I'm not remembering from high school classes, but in the p'shat the only party that included any jews was Esther's (and Mordechai was not invited to that party).

Lubab No More said...

You've really hit upon an important point in this post. Orthodox Judaism is presented as a religion that doesn't require "blind faith" and "encourages questions". But the fact of the matter is blind faith is asked all the time (take your question about the Rabbis). And questions are allowed, BUT only if you already agree with certain assumptions. For example, you can question why the Torah writes a particular passage a certain way but you need to assume that the Torah is TRUE and that the only possible explanation for the unusual passage is to teach us a lesson.

Good post!

abandoning eden said...

i gotta add my agreement. Rabbis, however well meaning they are, are also humans...they can give the best well meant advice in a situation and still be totally off, cause there's something else they did not consider, or they did not understand the entirety of a situation.

And there is definitely not a lot of encouragement for questioning....i went to high school in monsey, a supposedly more modern high school at that, and when i questioned teachers and rabbis they would answer me for a bit, and then decide I was "disrupting class" by asking questions they had no answers to. I actually got in trouble (and got letters sent home) because I asked "to many" questions!

also, my ancestors moved to the US pre-world war 2 (pre world war 1 even) because of pogroms, and while I'm not religious, the majority of their descendent's are (all my cousins and second cousins are very religious, not even MO- more religious than that)

mlevin said...

AE - I feel bad for you. You were treated in a Jewish school as if you were in a Catholic school. Questions=evil. What a bunch of crap.

I went to BY for elementary and Solomon Schechter for high school. We were encouraged to ask questions, all the time. One teacher who did not allow questions was fired after three weeks of teaching.

AE - please do not lie about pre WWII Jews who are still frum. That is impossible. Rabeinu told us so. And Rabeinu do not lie.

{Intelligence Deficient: above was sarcasm)

Yehudi Hilchati said...

I think there’s a more fundamental problem behind your friends’ thinking regarding Rabbis who forbade Jews to come to America before the Shoah. Implicit in their defense of the Rabbanim’s decision is that death in Europe is preferable to assimilation in America. That’s a morally reprehensible position. I would much rather have had Jews live assimilated then die as frum Jews, and I think most people with a solid moral center would agree.

I suspect, had the Rabbanim known what we know now, that the Shoah was coming they would have allowed Jews to emigrate to wherever they could, irrespective of dangers of assimilation. But they weren’t Nevi’im (prophets), and could not have known the magnitude of what was coming. They had always experienced pogroms and persecution and they had survived it. Never in their wildest dreams would they have suspected that 6 million Jews would be slaughtered. If they had known, their answer would be very different. For your friends to defend the decision, knowing what happened afterwards, means they have a serious moral perspective problems, and is also an insult to the memory of those Rabbanim, to assume that they would have let 6 million Jews stay to meet their deaths even if they had known.

mlevin said...

Yehudi hilchati - How could you even defend such a position? Yes, these rabbis weren’t navaiim, but they saw what was going on at the time. Jews were killed on the regular bases from the pogroms, these numbers were not in the millions but they were in thousands. Let me remind you of Kishinev pogroms, Odessa pogroms, Dnepropetrovsk pogroms and etc. Solzhenitsyn sites there were 887 mass pogroms in Ukraine alone. That is not including Odessa, because Odessa was considered part of Russia at that time and of course Kishinev was never Ukraine. And we are not even mentioning Poland. And please note that he sites mass pogroms only, therefore little attacks on the Jews did not even count. Also, these pogroms did not mean life or death, there were other side affects: Rape, loss of body parts or organ failure, crippling of people both physical and emotional, total loss of property which led to death from one or all of the following: elements, hunger, contaminated water, lack of clothes, lack of heat and etc.

According to you all of these were negligible compared to the horrors of assimilation in America.

Anonymous said...

I'd differentiate b/t halachik questions and hashkafah. We do not presume our rabbis are neviim -- so why assume that what they say is necessarily the only option for hashkafic questions. In contrast, for halachik issues, even if they are mistaken, we have a halachik process which they are a part of...and to that extent we might beleive their psak.

Yehudi Hilchati said...

> According to you all of these were negligible compared to the horrors of assimilation in America.

Please show me where I wrote that? I was analyzing the positions of the rabbanim. While the threats they knew about were terrible, the rabbanim who ruled against leaving probably felt that those threats were not communally existential and felt assimilation in America was a worse threat. I happen to find that quite problematic as well. But I don't think they would have ruled the same way had they known of the extermination campaign by the Nazis that was coming. The pogroms were something they were used to over the centuries and the larger Jewish community survived until then. Furthermore, while many innocent Jews were killed, the law of averages was still on the side of any individual Jew. I suspect that these Rabbis thought that the chance of death by pogrom was less than the chance of assimilation in America. They didn't know of the systematic murder plans that were being made for all European Jews. If they had, I can't imagine they would have told people to stay.

I'm not defending what I believe their position to have been. I'm just saying that frumskeptic's friends were advocating and believing that the rabbanim held a position far more warped and morally reprehensible.

Orthoprax said...

Ironically, the whole "don't deviate to the right or the left" thing (Deut. 17:8-13) is only talking about contested court cases to be arbitrated by priests or judges.

How that translates into Rabbis and the power over personal life choices is far from clear.

The simple rejoinder to blindly following rabbis is simply to note that rabbis are people too and rabbis can be wrong. Maybe they are wiser than you, but then they ought to be able to explain themselves. Then you can decide based on what they tell you.

frumskeptic said...

Jessica: There's a Midrash on the Jews being invited to the party and Mordechai not allowing them too. He told the Jews "the wine will not be kosher."
Haman forsaw this dilemma, and told the Jews that the wine will be kosher. Mordechai still told them not to go, yet they went anyway, they got drunk, and sinned. and apparently this some sort of ammunition to Haman. And from this we learn we should listen to Rebbeim, becuase if the Jews had, the Purim story would not have occured.

Lubab: Thanx :)

Yehudi: I feel that the assumption that the Rebbeim felt the threat of assimiliation was far greater than the threat of the pogrom is still not a normal defense. I dont know if thats what you're trying to do.

mlevin said...

Yehudi- you said
"Please show me where I wrote that? I was analyzing the positions of the rabbanim. While the threats they knew about were terrible, the rabbanim who ruled against leaving probably felt that those threats were not communally existential and felt assimilation in America was a worse threat."

The way I see it you are trying to defend positions of Rabbanim where they felt that constant pogroms was an acceptable way for Jews to live.

Instead, these rabbis should have realized that in USA there are no pogroms, therefore we should send people to USA build Yeshivot and communities there and let Europe with their anti-semitism go to hell.

Holocaust was the end result, something that never would have happened if the number of Jews in Europe was a lot smaller. Why? Because in the begining Hitler did not intend on killing all Jews, he just wanted to expel all German Jews, but no country wanted to take Jews in. (Including USA). Had Jewish numbers in USA been greater...

frumskeptic said...

Orthoprax: Thanx for the source on that. I remember teachers and friends reciting that quote all the time, yet always failed to give a source. I never had the patience to ask someone for it on my own.

Yehudi Hilchati said...

frumskeptic & mlevin,

You're both claiming that I'm defending Rabbanim that forbade Jews to leave Europe. Please read what I wrote more carefully. I am not defending these Rabbanim, and I think they were short-sighted and made a terrible decision.

You need to learn to read and think critically. Attempting to understand what someone's thinking is is not the same as approval or their decisions. The problem is that when people condemn others, there is far too much misrepresentation going on, especially in the blogging world.

When laying judgment on these Rabbanim, it is important to understand where they were coming from & what their true position was. They were reacting to a long history of pogroms and danger and apparently felt that the danger of assimilation in America was a worse one. The had no idea that Judaism would grow & thrive in America and they felt that people shouldn't leave the vibrant Jewish community that existed in Europe for a place that they thought would never have anything close to the Torah community infrastructure that existed "at home" and that the possible danger of pogroms was worth weathering.

My main point, (and please pay attention this time, mlevin,) is the friends of frumskeptic, who, according to her post, indicated that the Rabbanim felt it was better to face certain death in the Shoah than face assimilation in America. My point is that this is a warped notion of the Rabbanim's positions! As wrong as their original positions were, I cannot imagine that they would have ruled the same was had they known a Holocaust was coming. But they couldn't even imagine a holocaust. It was off their radar.

So fine, condemn these Rabbanim. But condemn them for what they DID say and think, not for some imagined obscene thought process, which apparently frumskeptic’s friends in her post think is OK.

Yehudi Hilchati said...

Sorry if my previous comment came out too strong. I should have worded it more politely.

frumskeptic said...

Yehudi: No worries. I also get frustrated when people misunderstand what I'm talking about, or just simply CHOOSE not to see it.

David said...

Think for yourself. It ought to be the 11th Commandment. Except the Jews who would follow it wouldn't be frum...

Anonymous said...

Orthoprax & FrumSkeptic -- Note that R' Elchanan uses that source in Devarim as part of his general argument that Rabbinic leadership has a divinely inspired element (or, at least, that we MUST assume that rabbinic leadership has divine inspiration). In the previous century, it was this formulation of R' Elchanan's that became the basic foundation for Daas Torah (as applies to hashkafah as much as halacha...but he only mentions this source to enforce Halacha).

Orthoprax said...


So? Why am I noting this? Daas Torah is about as real as Papal infallibility.