Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Un-Halachic Halachah

I swear this blog is not going to be one long anti-Haredi screed. That’s really not what we started it for. And I promise I will sing a new tune in the next posts I make. But I had to say this. Look at this article I saw in the Forward today:

For the tl:dr (too long: didn't read) crowd, the long and short of it is a Haredi rabbi who basically said that frum (Orthodox) guys-- he was talking to soldiers in Tzahal (the IDF), but the implication seems wider than that-- should leave anywhere a woman can be heard singing, even if they have to get shot and die for leaving. Better death than kol ishah (listening to a woman singing).

This is insane.

This is so crazy there are no good words for it. It’s nuttier than a Rosh Hashanah honeycake. It’s Chock Full o’ Nuts. You get my drift?

Halachah (Jewish Law) is quite clear on the subject of martyrdom. Basically, the rule of thumb in Jewish thought is “Choose life.” Living is good, and one should do whatever is necessary to stay alive, and keep others alive. That includes breaking any and all mitzvot (commandments) in order to do so. This principle is enumerated by the Rabbis of the Talmud as pikuach nefesh docheh et ha-kol (Saving a life trumps all other responsibilities). The only exceptions that they make to this principle are:
  • that one is not permitted to murder an innocent person to save one’s own life, 
  • or to publicly practice avodah zarah (idolatry) to save one’s own life, 
  • or to commit incest to save one’s own life. 
And the Rishonim (the great halachic scholars of the middle ages and Renaissance) say that if a person in those three situations finds themselves unable to choose martyrdom at the critical moment, does what they have to do to survive, and then expresses remorse, and makes it clear that they did what they did only to save their life and not for any other reason...we accept their statements, and we do not consider them apostates, heretics, or sinners.

In other words, the tradition-- which originally made the most limited exceptions possible to the idea that one should save life at any cost, even breaking the mitzvot-- became even clearer with time that in fact, there is never a moment where martyrdom is truly preferable. Obviously, there have been some brave martyrs in our tradition who chose death over apostasy, or chose death in order to save many other lives, and we respect their courage and convictions. But for the most part, we are crystal clear that life is so valuable, there is nearly never anything extreme and unusual enough to justify throwing it away. That is the halachah of the matter. End of story. And I would have thought, until today, that every halachically educated Jew would have agreed on that matter.

But to find that not only is this not the case, but that some Mad Black Hatter rabbi has said that listening to a woman sing-- which is not halachically prohibited!-- is something a person should choose death to avoid...I am just sickened. The prohibition that the Haredim use concerning kol ishah is a chumra (legal stricture) based in aggadah (non-binding Rabbinic parable) and in mussar (ascetic homiletic philosophy). At best it can be taken on by individuals as a stricture over and above the law, but it cannot be applied as a halachah for all Jews. That's just not how halachah works.

What truly sickens me isn’t just the stupidity of the proximate issue (kol ishah, listening to a woman sing), it’s the gross and audacious abuse of the halachic process and paradigm that this pronouncement represents. And not just represents in and of itself, but as an exemplar of how Haredi Judaism is abusing, perverting, and twisting halachah while claiming their “observant” status as a mantle of authenticity.

I have said elsewhere, and will say it again, that much of the Haredi problem boils down to an increasing lack in Orthodoxy of the principle of machloket l’shem shamayim (“dispute for the sake of Heaven,” cf. BT Eruvin 13a and other places): we are supposed to tolerate viewpoints different from our own, so long as those views come from a place of legitimate struggle to embrace Judaism more effectively, to better develop our understanding of what God wishes from us. We don’t have to agree with the viewpoints of others; just tolerate them, even if we disagree with them. And this is simply not being done.

There have been several promising voices from the Orthodox world that have come out recently and noted that it is deeply un-Jewish to do some of these things-- to shame people publicly, for example, or to assault them or verbally abuse them, or to threaten their lives or health, based on a belief that their Jewish practice or their understanding of halachah or their theology is incorrect. But so far, no one that I have read has properly contextualized the issue as a lack of machloket l’shem shamayim-- although I have been pleased that some have raised the mitzvah v’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha (“you must respect your fellow person as you do yourself”) which would certainly also preclude publicly shaming and abusing one’s fellow Jews.

But in any case, part of the issue here is that non-Haredim, and yes, non-Orthodox Jews also, have a right to their interpretations. Even if one believes those interpretations are incorrect. The tradition dictates that they have a place in the House of Jacob also. Instead of tolerance, the reaction of the Haredi world is to attack, and to delegitimize not only anything non-Haredi, but any shitah (Jewish practice) that doesn’t include the latest round of chumrot (legal strictures) to be followed. And that includes the increasing focus on halachic non-starters like kol ishah or much of the way that Orthodoxy currently interprets the idea of tzniut, as I mentioned last time.

These chumrot would be problematic in and of themselves for their divisiveness, and the way the Haredim are attempting to force their observance of said chumrot on everyone else; but most infuriating is that the chumrot in question are often beyond ridiculous.

Far too much is made in Orthodox halachah today of the principles minhag k’halachah he (“A custom can become like law”) and hilcheta k’vatrai (“one should reinterpret the law according to the latest interpretation”). These principles, if one studies the halachah, if one looks at its development from the time of the Gemara (first five centuries CE or so) through the time of the Rishonim (medieval period) to the early Acharonic times (post-Renaissance period, more or less), were always guidelines. They were never intended to be either universally applied or inflexibly applied. And they both come from times when it was infinitely more difficult to gather Jewish text and learn enough of it to make every halachist fully qualified. We tend to forget that for every Rabbenu Gershom (R. Gershom b. Yehudah, 11th c.) or Rambam (R. Moshe Maimonides, 12th c.), every Rosh (R. Asher b. Yechiel, 13th c.) or Meiri (R. Menachem Meiri, 13th c.), there were hundreds of guys running around the Jewish world being called rabbis who had very slim educations indeed, and hundreds more acting as dayanim (halachic judges) with even less knowledge than that. They needed interpretive guidelines that heavily influenced their decisions, because not only did they lack training, they had few facilities for research to make up for their lack of knowledge.

But today, even if some of our rabbis could stand extra training in halachah and its nature, uses, and history (and I count myself on that list, don’t worry), we at least have the benefits of having instantaneous communication with other, more erudite rabbis; of having searchable, electronic collections of texts like the amazing Bar Ilan Database; of having, for God’s sakes, printed books of Jewish text that are both readily available anywhere and (despite what Julie might say about our library) readily affordable to even working-class Jews interested in scholarship. It’s not only a different game, the playing field barely even looks the same. We don’t need the same interpretive guidelines anymore-- or at the very least, we don’t need them to be so strong.

And in the Haredi community, instead of loosening such guidelines, to allow their highly halachically educated scholars freer rein to use their training and talents, they are instead tightening them, setting them in stone. And what results is not only excessive stricture without any balance of leniency, it is bad halachah. A chumra imposed on a chumra is self-invalidating by halachic rules; one does not impose chumrot on the people that do not have their core bases in halachah, but instead in aggadah (parable) or kabbalah (mysticism) or mussar (ascetic homiletics), or anything else: these are basic precepts of halachic interpretation. And yet the vast majority of cases, including both issues surrounding relating to the non-Haredi world, and surrounding tzniut, kol ishah, the treatment of women in general-- these precepts are ignored, if not entirely flouted.

Halachah is an amazing system. It was designed to be innovative, evolutionary, flexible, realistic, fostering of justice and fairness, and creative of spiritual development. Haredi halachah is none of these things: it is rigid, completely unrealistic, creative of gross injustice and misery, and profoundly unspiritual, innovating and evolving only ever-increasing stricture and zealotry.

This is not what halachah is supposed to be. It is becoming closer and closer to the antithesis of what halachah is supposed to be.

And, to my mind, what is worst is that not only does Haredi halachah create insane chumrot like this “death before kol ishah” nonsense, and not only does it pervert the halachah in Orthodox communities, but it blackens the name of halachah in the non-Orthodox world. Liberal Jews, especially those with limited or nonexistent halachic education see these actions, these pronouncements, and they hear them called “halachah,” and they believe them to be authentic examples of halachic jurisprudence! And, we can hardly be shocked to see, they then come to believe that halachah is crazy, full of reprehensible injustices, utterly unsuited to either life in the modern world or to Liberal Jewish observance. And I cannot blame them for thinking so, because Haredim claim the mantle of halachic authenticity, and we do nothing to dispute it.

But it must be disputed. People must be told, this is not what kosher halachah is-- it's not even worthy of being called halachah. Whether in matters of life and death, or whether in matters of who sits where on public transportation, this is not Jewish Law. This is Haredi insanity. And the two are not the same.


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