Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Concept of Mehadrin

In a recent essay, Jonathan Rosenblum responds to an Op-Ed that declares that "Heter Mekhirah" represents a manifestation of "religious Zionist ethos" (link). I cannot discuss the original Op-Ed because I have not seen it. Instead, I prefer to offer my perspective on why I think that "Heter Mekhirah" does, indeed, represent important Religious Zionist ideals.

The Gemara (Chullin 112a) discusses the kosher status of bread upon which raw meat was cut with a knife and the bread became red from the blood. Some prohibit the consumption of such bread because of maris ayin, it looks like one is eating forbidden blood, but others permit it. The Gemara relates that Rav Huna had such bread and gave it to his servant to eat. How could he give it to someone else if he thought it was forbidden, and if he thought it was permissible then why did he do so? The Gemara answers that he held the bread to be permitted but nevertheless chose not to eat it.

Click here to read moreR. Eliyahu Ragoler (Responsa Yad Eliyahu, 55) attempts to deduce from this Gemara that one is not allowed to issue a ruling one way for others and differently for oneself. If one would be allowed to do so, what is the question about how Rav Huna acted strictly for himself but leniently for his servant? Rather, says the Yad Eliyahu, a rabbi must rule consistently for all people and follow his own halakhic conclusions. The Kesav Sofer, in his chiddushim, disagrees and says that a rabbi is allowed to follow a strict ruling even though he tells others to be lenient. This case was different because the prohibition under discussion is maris ayin and that would apply equally to eating it or giving it to someone to eat. In respect to other prohibitions, however, a rabbi is certainly allowed to rule leniently for other people but follow stricter practices himself.

In the introduction to the Kesav Sofer Al Ha-Torah, the Kesav Sofer is quoted as explaining homiletically the reason that a king has to have two Torah scrolls, one at home and one he brings with him when he leaves home and visits with the people. One Torah represents the stringent halakhos he keeps for himself and his household and the other represents the leniencies he has for others.

The question remains: Why? What reason could a rabbi have for personally following a different practice than what he teaches to others? There are many possible answers for the widely varying situations in which such a case would be appropriate. Perhaps he has a family tradition that is strict in this area, or has personal ascetic tendencies, or has social reasons to be strict. Or maybe the person who asked the question is under severe financial stress for which halakhah occasionally calls for leniency, or is someone still struggling towards full halakhic commitment and this leniency will help him on his way. There are many other reasons why a rabbi might legitimately find himself in such a position, including the need of functioning on a national level.

In a 1952 essay "Life Problems in Light of the Halakhah" (Ha-Rabbanus Ve-Ha-Medinah, p. 53), R. Shaul Yisraeli explains that the contemporary situation of building a state in Israel requires lenient halakhic rulings. The journal he edited, Ha-Torah Ve-Ha-Medinah, offered halakhic analyses of real governing situations and proposed how a Torah-based government could function in the real world. This requires, at times, great leniencies. In a prior essay (p. 48), R. Yisraeli referred to an article by R. Yitzchak Herzog that discussed how a police force can halakhically function on Shabbos -- driving to investigate reports, traveling a "beat" to prevent crime, writing reports of incidents, etc. All of this, claims R. Herzog, can be done properly and according to halakhah but requires the use of various leniencies. In response to those who asked whether we want to create a State of Torah or a State of Heter, R. Yisraeli replied:

However, this argument, also, despite the good intentions of its proposers, is not according to the Torah view. If we accept this then we would have to follow one of these two paths, neither of which are good: either we determine our actions outside of the concerns of halakhah, thereby removing from under our legs the the traditional grounding of Torah, or we refuse [to participate in] a Jewish state entirely.

We need to become accustomed to and prepare ourselves for the path of the Torah view of the Sages and the nation throughout the generations, whose religious awareness was not diminished by the use of leniencies. This was because they knew that the path of leniency, as long as it is according to the Torah, is also Torah. However, along with this, we may not stop looking for the way to fulfill the mitzvah in its fullest way
In order for a country to function according to halakhah, we sometimes need to use leniencies like operating hospitals and police forces on Shabbos (with various limitations), utilizing a heter iska to allow lending with interest, using a heter mekhirah to sell the land and ensure that there is sufficient permissible produce, and more. We might not even be comfortable following these leniencies ourselves. However, due to the unfortunately unrighteous situation in which we find ourselves, much of this (e.g. police) is necessary. Therefore, we must continue looking for ways to improve our spiritual wellbeings to avoid the need for these leniencies as well as other halakhic ways to fulfill these national needs.

This is also, to a degree, the concept underlying the two levels of kosher certification by certain local Israeli Rabbinates, at least as I understand it. One of the levels is the plain Rabbinate certification and the other is Mehadrin. Mehadrin follows a fairly standard, albeit strict, interpretation of the kosher rules while the standard certification is more lenient than is accepted in many communities.

Why would the Israeli Rabbinate establish a kosher certification that, while in compliance with legitimate halakhic views, does not reflect standard, mainstream practice? I believe that the reason is to make kosher food as widely available as possible in Israel. Israel contains a large population that is not overtly religious but prefers kosher food when available, and a large population that is entirely indifferent to the kosher status of food. Making available food that is kosher at least according to some views enables large groups of Jews to eat kosher, even if unintentionally. The concern for the religious well-being of non- and semi-religious Jews is an important Religious Zionist ideal. I mean here not just outreach but genuine concern for the religious needs of those who are not moving in any religious direction. They, too, are Jews and we must work towards enhancing their religious lives in any way we can. This is surely a noble cause and the baseline kosher certification is a legitimate way in which to pursue it.

The same applies to Heter Mekhirah. While I and many (most?) Religious Zionist rabbis fully support alternatives to it, there currently is no other way to ensure that large groups of Jews observe the Shemitah year without utilizing the Heter Mekhirah. Abandoning the Heter Mekhirah means that many farmers and many more consumers will simply do away with Shemitah entirely and consume produce in violation of Shemitah laws. Religious Zionist ethos tell us that we should be concerned not just for our Religious Zionist community or for the Orthodox community in general, but for the Jewish community as a whole. In that respect, Heter Mekhirah is the current representation of a noble ideal.

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