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Email Letter to a Friend Getting S’micha: Watch What You Say

February 9, 2015

Dear ****,

I am glad to hear that you will be taking your final s’micha exams this spring, and that the the RIETS placement people are already looking to find you a shtell. I hope you have noticed by now that with regards to basic Orah Hayim halachoth, specifically Mishna B’rura volumes I, II, V, and VI, you have not been officially trained to render rulings. It is assumed that if you studied enough shabbos, kashrus, and family counseling that you have also gotten a decent handle on tallis, tefillin, prayer, and holidays. As you know, many of our colleagues are not actually equipped to deal with real questions that may come up in those fields, i.e., questions that are not easily found in the usual commentaries. It’s a problem. I can only tell you that because most of the shailas you will get pertain to shabbos, kashrus, and nidda, it is up to you to find your own time to make those other orah hayim halachoth your own. I found a lot of satisfaction myself from them, and for many years now I only wear tzitzith I tied myself or tefillin knots I tied myself, or eat matza that I baked myself. And I found that by exhibiting an enthusiasm for hands-on-mitzvah observance, you can get other laymen to also take an interest in practical halacha. Most so for the matza baking.

You asked me about giving speeches. I can’t say much in addition to what they taught you at YU, except for watch out who is listening. You should never write or say anything that can be misconstrued, so speak and write very clearly. Qal wa’homer, don’t write anything that is actually hurtful, or ad homonym, or purposely controversial. Be smart about it. I would also like to tell you that no matter how hard you try, as a pulpit rav the laymen will always find a way to misinterpret or just plain get your words wrong. Most rabbanim, for example, do not expound the halachoth of m’hiyath amaleq in public, and for good reason, and even if l’maaseh they have no application today.

Looking back, I am now amused at something that happened a while ago. As you know, I dabbled in the rabbinate some years ago, and in the last few years I have taken to blogging. I wrote this piece about Rabbi Bar Hayim’s crusade for a one-day observance of Rosh Hashana, at least in Jerusalem. I did not take sides with anything; I merely brought up some points concerning the Ba’al Hama’or’s opinion. That opinion is sometimes mentioned in the yeshivas, certainly whenever the discussion about the halachic dateline comes up. However, there was a laymen around who, for whatever reason and as is typical for himself, expressed his personal frustration over keeping two-day Yom Tov to one rabbi, and in so doing also expressed his disdain for the rabbinical establishment. That rabbi then censured me for writing what I did. I thought little of it at the time, because I do not know how to tell that same rabbi about the doozies his congregants say over in his name concerning hilchoth yihud. I have no doubt that he did not permit such things, and that it is probably the laymen who can not properly comprehend the difference between l’chatchila and b’diavad, but the point is that he himself has caused much more harm then I ever did by not watching his words. This disgruntled fellow is not about to find a community wherein he can observe one day of Rosh Hashana, definitely not with me, as I usually lead the services on the second day of the holiday, but I most certainly would be worried about those laymen going and acting on what they “heard during the rav’s shiur.”

My advice to you then, is that yes, when you write about (unfortunately) non-practical theory behind the Sanhedrin’s establishment of the dates of the holidays or the necessary monetary contributions to the Temple or how much silver is to be used for redeeming the firstborn, be very clear what your actual position with regard to practice is. If you find a proof to Beith Shammai’s opinion, or any opinion that is not practiced as halacha, say that explicitly: you do not endorse that opinion, but you do you see an argument for it. But, and this is the big but, if you are discussing the halachoth that are up to the regular people to put into practice on their own, even if you are using a mainstream halacha text like the Qitzur Shulhan Aruch, which does not present any significant arguments over matters of halacha and which is growing less and less reflective of the standard practices in Israel, be more than clear about what is actually prohibited, and also give your recommendations for humroth. For example, it is best to make it clear to your congregants that they should play it safe, and to speak as little as possible to any married woman.

This all brings up another matter: I am not that old, but I have seen too many times, especially among the new generation of rabbis, a reactionary trend. Ideas that were once taken for granted are now considered radical, bordering on reform, or just not politically correct enough. When I read Rabbi Soloveichik’s writings, I see how much his hashqafoth have informed my own, and how much the younger Rabbis, men anywhere from 20 years my elders to my age, are so not in sync with his. Just yesterday, one of the blogs noted an article from Rabbi Soloveichik’s daughter about her father’s confidence in his beliefs and how he

was never seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-a-vis the scientific story of evolution nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man. I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. Moreover, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism.

I have not either. Elsewhere on the internet, you can find all of the reasons why none of us are. However, and this is the big however, the modern-day rabbanim, usually those who were not given the opportunity to properly understand the rest of God’s creation outside of the few tractates they were allowed to study, are scared out of their minds by these difficulties. Despite their outward piety, they are deeply disturbed by these issues, and know that if they were to delve into these matters, their faith would be too weak and their intellects too puny to not begin to doubt the very basic fundamentals of the Torah. These issues can knock them straight off the derech. And because they look down on the laymen even more, they run from any discussion of these matters and seek to protect any one they can from these issues. Thank God, using a tube for metzitza caught on when it did, because the new rabbis are diametrically opposed to the logical arguments for doing so, the logical arguments Maimonides made a thousand years ago and accepted by the rabbanim already in the 1800’s, and they readily reject any other application of halacha that is based on modern scientific understanding, unless it had the good fortune of being written in the right book. Consider this: we take inoculation for granted, but because “great rabbis” have gone on the record declaring their belief that vaccinations are nonsenses, there are even lesser rabbis who will inevitably, analyze the question to inoculate one’s children or not in terms of a mahloqeth hapos’qim! I gave you the example earlier: ask them, “do demons exist?” The old school rabbis would answer “of course not,” and the new ones will give you a shiur about how long ago some rabbis believed they did and some didn’t, and therefore the question is still unresolved.

If it were not bad enough that the ideas we cherish have become so not en-vogue, there is a new inquisition. If you make your mark as a rav who tries to get his congregants to think about how the Talmud and halacha actually affect their lives, like Rabbi Soloviechik did, you will get yourself in trouble. You read about the “slide to the right” and “charedization,” but lately it’s become much worse. I think Slifkin does the best job at keeping track of this: he has shown how not only have the rationalist ideas become out of style; they have become forbidden. and rabbanim are playing along out of fear. Unlike Rabbi Soloveichik, they are seriously troubled by those issues, and they do not even want to begin to hear a discussion about why they should not be. Qal wahomer they don’t want their congregants to hear about any of it.

Along similar lines, although you may recall that the old Ashkenazi rabbanim did not consider the Zohar and other qabbalistic works to be either ancient in origin or relevant to halacha, suddenly everyone is Sefardi or Hasidic, and you can take your life into your hands if you even suggest that the traditional Ashkenazi practice in some realm of halacha does not take the qabbala into account. It’s best to just avoid the topic altogether, and not just with your congregants. Beware of discussing these issues with your colleagues, because some of them could be self appointed inquisitors, and before you know it, you can be branded a heretic for believing that which our masters believed. I found that in Israel today, even though my grandfather and my rebbi were both holocaust survivors and testified that no one ever ate as much matza as those who espouse the new shiurim do, you will find yourself on the wrong side of the Kosher aisle if you advocate for a reversion to the old ways. Do you understand how serious that is? There are places where if you tell your congregants that they only have to eat a few actual olives’ worth of matza at the seder, which is both the logical way to understand the halacha and the traditional way, say that again, the traditional way, then, because the extremists have made the new, much more larger shiurim the minhag among certain yeshivas, you can be branded a trouble maker? I recall one rabbi telling me how dangerous it is to tell congregants they don’t have to eat so much matza “they might not be yotzei because of you!” We can only pray that the situation on the ground changes.

Rabbi Marc Penner, who is now the dean of RIETS, told us some nine years ago about making Sabbath sermons the best they could be: “for many of the men in shul, your drasha is the only Torah they will hear all week, so make sure it has substance.” Many rabbanim choose to consistently take the fluff route, but Rabbi Penner is right. Your drasha should have some actual halacha. It should be relevant to their daily lives, and should contain some sort of moral and ethical instruction. But more importantly, you should, like Rabbi Soloveichik did, offer your congregants as many opportunities as possible to study on an adult level, and to let them ask as many questions as possible. Let them learn to read gemara, and see how the rishonim understood the gemara. See how all of the commentaries until today actually discussed the practical halacha. The way we study gemara b’iyun is entirely alien to anybody who lived before the 20th century. There are two approaches to this. The first approach is to avoid, at all costs, your congregants ever realizing that the practices with which they are familiar do not exactly fit the logical conclusions of the halachic evolution, and the second approach, that of our teachers, is to allow them to realize. It will get them more involved and more interested in their studies. If you are so fortunate, you can encourage many of them to make aliyah after learning enough about the commandments associated with the land. Or take hilchoth tzitzith: study them in depth for a few weeks, and watch how you’ll suddenly have your people become big m’daqdqim, and maybe some will even start wearing t’cheileth. I know many rabbis who will look with dismay and point at how, inevitably, some one will enthusiastically adopt the position that cotton is 100% d’oraitha obligated in tzitzith and another will become mahmir for only wool tzitzith, and think that some horrible damage has been caused. That’s the ultimate in pessimism, because they fail to see the benefit in their increased observance. If only it would be that way all the time. And I understand why they take it so badly, also. When the ba’al habos suddenly becomes a hasid of this way to do the mitzva or that, the rabbi usually becomes alarmed if it is not his, i.e. the rabbi is a wool tzitzith man, and suddenly the congregant is all for cotton tzitzith, or vice versa, and the rabbi sees that the congregant’s new knowledge has only gotten him to adopt the “wrong” opinions. As for yourself, you should be happy about anything that gets your congregants more excited about observance. And if they do things differently than the way you would prefer, then go and study that opinion and learn the arguments for it.

That’s all I can think of right now, but if I come up with anything else, I’ll send it to you.


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  1. avraham yeshaya permalink

    please create a “recent posts” category on the site so i can be sure i have not missed something. thanks!

    • can you show me how to do that?

      • avraham yeshaya permalink

        no. can you get a friend to show you how to do that? you are in the business of selling ideas, not me.

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