Sunday 29 March 2015

050) The Ethical Halachist

Jewish Law, or Halacha, is often presented as a dry and matter-of-fact compilation of Torah related jurisprudence. Not having been raised in religious Zionist circles where the writings of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed were studied, I was nevertheless so delighted to have discovered his teachings. He writes and expounds Halacha, clearly, concisely and relevantly, making sure to always place a strong emphasis on morality and ethics.

                                                  Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series.

His iconic work, ‘Peninei Halacha’, means Pearls of Law. And I think I have discovered some of these pearls. Let me cite a few examples to give you some idea of what I mean:

1)      With regard to the laws of re-heating liquids on Shabbos, the Ashkenazim and Yemenites differ fundamentally as to its permissiblity.[1] So what happens when an Ashkenazi goes to visit a Yemenite on Shabbos, may he partake of his host’s food?
Now, I did a little experiment. I asked a number of my colleagues what they would say if asked the same question. They all said the answer was no. I also thought the answer would be no. But the Peninei Halacha says: “When an Ashkenazi visits a Yemenite on Shabbos, he may partake of the food because the host is following his own practice and his Halacha. Every single Jew may Lechatchila (in the first instance) eat that food (even though it may not be their practice to do so in their own homes).”

2)      In reply to a question about custom, Rabbi Melamed writes: “I was once a guest at a family whose custom is to wash their hands before Kiddush, and they asked me if I wanted them to alter their custom in my honor. I answered them ‘quite the opposite’.”[2] Custom is something we all take very seriously, but he was prepared to forgo his, in deference to that of his hosts. I wonder how often this scenario of respect plays out in the real world?

3)      It is more important to pray with a Minyan than to attend a Bris Mila (circumcision). However, Rabbi Melamed adds that if the family of the child would get upset by his non attendance, he may pray at home, miss the Minyan and attend the Bris.[3] Here again, human feelings were factored into his equation. 

4)      Regarding the question of whether or not a boy under BarMitzva can be counted towards a Minyan, the Peninei Halacha explains that it is actually a debate among the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemora period). Most views say the answer is no. However, after going through various sources, he says that (because the concept of a Minyan is only DeRabbanan – of rabbinical origin) where a community experiences difficulty with their numbers for a Minyan, they may rely on minority opinions and indeed include a young child.[4]  A functioning minyan is often a highly emotive issue, especially in dwindling communities. Once more, his empathy (not just his knowledge), clearly informed his decision.

5)      When it come to the custom of choosing a community in which to belong, he writes; “It would be good to move to a place where there is a synagogue with your minhag (custom). This is on the condition, however, that the community acts with a Torah attitude towards derech eretz, namely, they have a positive attitude towards earning a living and secular studies, or at the very least, do not object to it, as some Hareidim mistakenly do. This is because the right attitude towards work and secular studies is far more important and fundamental than the nusach (rite) of prayer.”[5]

6)      Concerning the very controversial debate in Israeli media as to whether civil, as opposed to religious marriages should be adopted by the state, Rabbi Melamed writes; “While we believe that the State of Israel must have a Jewish character, we also do not wish to cause grief to anyone. Nor do we claim the authority to interfere with one’s personal life and tell him who to live with, or how[6]. It should be established that any two people are entitled to sign a domestic partnership agreement that grants them all privileges derived from a shared life, like a family.”[7]

7)      This is what he says about conversions; “How many laws must a convert be taught before he is asked if he is ready to accept upon himself the commandments of the Torah?...It is clear to all that there is no need to teach him the entire Torah. It is sufficient to teach him some of its foundations, and if he accepts them, it is already possible to convert him. This is what the Shulchan Aruch says; ‘He is taught some of the minor commandments and some of the major commandments. But we do not overburden him and we are not overly strict with him.’[8]  He need not be taught all the fine details and stringencies...The reason for this is that even if he is sincere, if he is suddenly confronted with all these stringencies, he will recoil and change his mind about converting.”[9]

8)      When asked about his view concerning some the contemporary Gedolim (Torah leaders), he said; “Torah greatness necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious and non-religious...the attitude towards science and work, and contemporary social and economic questions...The simple answer is; I don’t consider them Gedolei haTorah.”[10]

9)      Rabbi Melamed also has a strong position on the thorny issue of segregating men and women on busses[11]. He believes that ‘Mehadrin’ busses undermine family structures, as men are unable to sit with their wives and daughters, and mothers are unable to sit with their sons. “There are very clear boundaries in halacha distinguishing between what is required and what is optional. When you try to obligate people to follow a custom that is laudatory but not actual halacha, you destroy the very foundations of Torah and halacha...It is important not to add additional stringencies when it come to matters of tznius (modesty).”[12]

10)   He is also very in favour of Christians who support Israel. He says; “We must battle missionaries, not moral Christians who respect our religion and support us. These are about 70 million citizens of the largest superpower in the world...Their moral stature is higher and more exulted that that of the Persian King Cyrus who assisted the return to Zion...American Evangelists are the most important and meaningful group supporting Israel nowadays.”[13]                                                                         

      It is so refreshing and exciting to follow the teachings of a leading rabbi who carries with him a general ethos of sensibility and social responsibility. This philosophy seems to flow through all his writings, and serves as a constant practical reminder to his students and readers, of the ethical imperative required of a Torah Jew. Far from being insular, he constantly reminds us that it is possible to function in, influence and contribute to, the society around us, without having to compromise our commitment to Torah. Although not without opposition, his work is fast becoming a major force to be reckoned with in the Halachik sphere today.
      It seems as if Rabbi Melamed is finally putting the ‘Jew’ back into jurisprudence.
      The Kotzker Rebbe said that there is no mitzvah to just become a scholar, amassing huge amounts of knowledge, if it is not directed to practical good. He said the sole purpose of studying Torah was to affect good[14].

His best friend, the Vurka Rebbe said that the most important thing he learned from the Kotzker, was that “ get to the inner garment, one first has to remove the outer garment”[15]. This means that before one overly concerns oneself with the ‘inner garment’ - the soul, and the theology that goes with it -  one has to work with the ‘outer garment’ – the social behaviour, which is the only real aspect of the religious persona that the rest of the world actually sees.        

[1] Ashkenazim, following the Ramo, do not permit re-heating a liquid (say soup), that has cooled down. Yemenites, however, following the Rambam, Rashba and Ran, maintain that it is permissible.
[2] How Binding is Minhag? By R Eliezer Melamed.
[3] Peninei Halacha, HaMinyan 5.
[4] Peninei Halacha, HaMinyan 6, note 7.
[5] How Binding is Minhag? By R Eliezer Melamed.
[6] In a similar vein consider the Bostoner Rebbe’s recent statement about being “afraid of a Halachik state” should the religious parties get a majority; “...I am afraid of the day we have 61 MKs because I don’t know how you can run a state with the responsibilities of keeping the modern world I don’t know how you can do that...Thank G-d no one comes to ask me these types of questions.” Quoted in 3/3/2015.
[7] R, Melamed quoted in The Jewish Week 06/242014. He does, however, insist on the caveat that not all domestic partnerships are called ‘marriage’.
[8] Yoreh Deah 268;2
[9] How Much Must the Convert Learn Before Conversion? R Eliezer Melamed.
[10] R. Melamed quoted in Israel National News August 13 2013.
[11] R. Melamed does, however, encourage separate seating at religious gatherings such as wedding etc.
[12] R. Melamed quoted in Vos Iz Neias, December 28 2011.
[13]R. Melamed quoted in Breaking Israel News June 29 2014.
[14] Amud HaEmet p 107, par 4. ‘Study it well (good)’ (Yeshayahu 1,17), means study it – not to be a scholar- but (lehaytiv) in order to do good. ‘Bechol haTorah kulo, lo matzanu shum mitzvah liheyot lamdan...vekavanato la’asot  et hatov ’
[15] Amud HaEmet p 191, par 7. The Gemora also speaks of ‘Tocho Keboro’, where the ideal state is for the ‘inside’ to reflect the ‘outside’. Not the other way around. So that, ideally the first thing to change in any religious encounter should be the ‘outside’.