Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Role of Chiddush

The Role of Chiddush: The View of One Paragraph in Iggerot Moshe YD 1:101, and His Explanation for the Modesty of Zecharya ben Avkulas

(A Thought for Tisha Be’av)

by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde

Every year, in anticipation of Tisha Be’av I find myself drawn to re-read a particular paragraph in a particular teshuva (responsum) of Iggerot Moshe, as I find it to be one of the few times that Rav Moshe zt”l expressed systemic thoughts about the role of chiddush. In the previous three teshuvot (responsa), this one and the next two[1] -- all written in the midst of the Great Depression under Communist rule, and before Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s fortieth birthday -- Rabbi Feinstein presents a novel analysis of the question as to whether a woman may immerse in a mikvah with earplugs inserted. Contrary to all prior analysis of this issue, he concludes that such an immersion is permitted. One respondent asked Rabbi Feinstein whether it is proper to rely on Rabbi Feinstein’s own understanding of halacha, since it reaches a novel result and all other authorities disagree.

Click here to read moreIf you think about it, the question is itself interesting. Essentially, the question is “when should a posek rely on his own novel understanding of the halacha against the consensus”. That is a weighty and important question. Rav Moshe gives it a Tisha Be’Av flavor by closely connecting his view to that remarks of the Mahartz Chayot in his criticism of Zecharya ben Avkulas. Essntially, I have always understood Rabbi Feinstein to be insisting on a balance between innovation and tradition, albeit one that does not stifle innovation in time of need. I present it below with some brief footnotes that I wrote.

The final section of the paragraph is one that I have always found particularly moving on Tisha Be’av. Rav Moshe posits that the distruction of the Beit Hamkidash could have been avoided if the rabbinic leadership at that time would have been more willing to assert what it thought the halacha really was, and not stay silent. In times of urgent need, it is role of every Torah Scholar to step forward and advance his ideas as to how to solve the urgent problems we confront, Rav Moshe writes. Silence – and particularly deference to greater poskim -- is not a proper approach.

שו"ת אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק א סימן קא

ומש"כ ידידי איך רשאים אנו לסמוך על חדושים כאלו שבארתי למעשה ובפרט שהוא נגד איזה אחרו' הנה אני אומר וכי כבר נעשה קץ וגבול לתורה ח"ו שנפסוק רק מה שנמצא בספרים וכשיזדמנו שאלות שלא נמצאים בספרים לא נכריע אותם אף כשיש בידנו להכריע, ודאי לע"ד אסור לומר כן דודאי עוד יגדיל תורה גם עתה בזמננו ומחוייב כל מי שבידו להכריע כל דין שיבא לידו כפי האפשר לו בחקירה ודרישה היטב בש"ס ופוסקים בהבנה ישרה ובראיות נכונות אף שהוא דין חדש שלא דברו אודותו /אודותיו/ בספרים. ואף בדין הנמצא בספרים ודאי שצריך המורה ג"כ להבין אותו ולהכריע בדעתו קודם שיורה ולא להורות רק מחמת שנמצא כן דהוי זה כעין מורה מתוך משנתו שע"ז נאמר התנאים מבלי עולם שמורין הלכה מתוך משנתם בסוטה דף כ"ב עיי"ש בפרש"י. ואף אם הכרעתו לפעמים נגד איזה גאונים מרבותינו האחרונים מה בכך הא ודאי שרשאין אף אנו לחלוק על האחרונים וגם לפעמים על איזה ראשונים כשיש ראיות נכונות והעיקר גם בטעמים נכונים ועל כיוצא בזה אמרו אין לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות כמפורש בבבא בתרא דף קל"א עיי"ש ברשב"ם, כיון שאינו נגד הפוסקים המפורסמים בעלי הש"ע שנתקבלו בכל מדינותינו ועל כיוצא בזה נאמר מקום הניחו להתגדר בו וכרוב תשובות האחרונים שמכריעין בחדושים כמה דינים למעשה. אך אין להיות גס בהוראה וצריך למנוע כשאפשר אבל במקום צורך גדול וכ"ש במקום עיגון כעובדא זו ודאי מחוייבין גם אנחנו להורות אם רק נראה לנו להתיר ואסור לנו להיות מהענוים ולעגן בת ישראל או לגרום להכשיל באיסורין או אף רק להפסיד ממון ישראל. ועיין בגיטין דף נ"ו ענותנותו של ר' זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו שקשה למה אמר ענותנותו מה שייך זה לענוה ועיין במהר"ץ חיות דבר נכון וג"ז ממש כיוצא ומוכרחין אנו להורות גם למעשה כשנראה לנו בראיות ובהבנה ישרה ובפרט במקום עיגון כזה ולהציל ממכשול כזה
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:101

And that which my dear correspondent wrote asking how we are permitted to rely in practice on such innovative insights as those I have presented, particularly when such a view contradicts the position of some latter-day authorities, I say: Has there already been an end or boundary set for Torah study, God forbid, that we should only rule according to what is found in existing works, but when questions arise that have not been posed in our traditional works we will not decisively resolve them even when we are able?! Certainly, in my humble opinion, it is forbidden to say this, as certainly Torah study will continue to flourish now in our time; therefore, everyone who is able must rule decisively on each halachic question posed to him, to the best of his ability, with diligent investigation in the Talmudic sources and the works of halachic decisors, with a clear understanding and valid proof, even if it is a new application of the halacha which has not been discussed in our Jewish law works. And even for a halacha which has been discussed in our Jewish law works, the one issuing a ruling must certainly understand the issue, too, and reach a conclusion in his own mind before issuing a ruling, and not rule solely based on a ruling that can be found on the topic in other halachic works, as that is considered as one who decides points of law merely from reading law books, about which it is said, “Those who merely recite the Mishnah bring destruction upon the world, for they decide points of law from their recitation of the texts” (Sotah 22a; see commentary of Rashi there[2]). And even if one’s decisions sometimes go against those of eminent latter-day rabbinic authorities (acharonim, so what? We are certainly permitted to disagree with latter-day authorities, and sometimes even with medieval authorities (rishonim) when one has valid proofs, correct reasoning in particular -- on matters like this, our sages stated, “A judge has but only what his eyes see [before him]” (as explained in Bava Batra 131a; see Rashbam there[3]) -- so long as one does not contradict the undisputed opinion of the Shulchan Aruch and commentaries which have been widely accepted in our community; on these types of matters it has been said, “[our predecessors] left room [for us] to distinguish ourselves.”[4] Most of the responsa of the latter-day authorities indeed utilize innovative insights to decide numerous questions of practical import. However, one ought not be haughty in one’s instructive rulings – this should be avoided whenever possible, but in cases of great need, and certainly in serious matters regarding the ending of marriages as this case, we are certainly obligated to rule [leniently], even if we merely deem it plausible to be lenient,[6] and it is forbidden for us to be among the “humble” and [thereby] cause Jewish women to remain unable to marry, or cause fellow Jews to stumble in prohibited activities, or even simply cause a Jew’s financial loss -- See Gittin 56 which states, “Because of the humility of Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulas, the beit hamikdash was destroyed;” why does it say “his humility” and what does that incident have to do with humility? See the comments of Maharatz Chayot there for a correct interpretation[7] -- This indeed is what results [from these types of failures to act], and we are compelled to rule [leniently] even for practical application when we deem it appropriate with evidence and clear understanding, and particularly in a serious matter of leaving a woman without a husband or avoiding a severe temptation.

[1] This set of six teshuvot (Iggerot Moshe, YD 98-103) represents the longest collection of responsa on a single topic in all eight volumes of Iggerot Moshe.
[2] Rashi (Sotah 22a s.v. shemorin halacha mitoch mishnatan) states:
For they decide points of law from their texts -- this comes to [explain] that they destroy the world with erroneous rulings, since they do not know the reasoning behind the Mishnah, they are led to draw incorrect comparisons; furthermore, there are many Mishnayot about which [the Talmud] states, “According to whom is [this Mishnah]? So-and-so, a lone opinion and whom the halacha does not follow;” also, since they do not know the disputes of the early Tannaim and according to whom the halacha follows -- consequently they decide the law in error.
[3] Rabbi Shimeon ben Meir [Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson] (Bava Batra 131a s.v. ve’al tigmeru) states:
Do not draw conclusions -- to rule from [previous rulings]; rather, [rule] as your intellects are inclined, for a judge has but only what his eyes see, as was taught (Niddah 22b): Rebbi once examined some blood at night and declared it tamei; he reexamined it in the daytime and declared it tahor; he waited a while and again declared it tamei. He exclaimed, “Woe to me, I may have made a mistake.” And [the Talmud] asks: Certainly he made a mistake, as the Beraita teaches: A Sage may not say, “If this stain were moist, it surely would be tamei,” for a judge has but only what his eyes see[before him]. The same applies to matters dependent on intellectual reasoning, that one only has what one’s mind perceives. And elsewhere (Sanhedrin 6a), this principle was derived from the verse “and He is with you in matters of judgment” (II Chronicles 19:6) – a judge has but only what his eyes see before him.
[4] See Chullin 7a. What I think Rabbi Feinstein means in this paragraph is that as a matter of normative halacha one is not allowed to argue with the unanimous consensus of accepted poskim even if one has proofs, but in such a case one ought to distinguish the case at hand from the precident in the Shulchan Aruch.
[5] What Rabbi Feinstein means is that one should not be innovative (mechadesh) just to innovate, but rather to solve a problem.
[6] What Rabbi Feinstein means is that even if one is not completely certain that one’s innovative understanding of the halacha is absolutely correct, still one must assert it as normative Jewish law for the public to follow in cases of great need or import.
[7] Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Maharatz Chayot, Gittin 56a) states:
We see from this that the Rabbis thought that the manner of Rabbi Zecharya was not proper, as he felt that such sacrifices could be brought [and he should have so stated]... However, because of his great modesty, he did not have the strength to act according to his views halacha lema’aseh [and save the Jewish people]; rather, he was afraid that other rabbis would accuse him of permitting activity prohibited by halacha, and he did not think of himself as a great enough sage to permit people to act according to his understanding of the halacha. He thought that these types of decisions were left only to the wisest of the generation (gedolei ha-dor) [when in fact, he should have acted].

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