Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A School in Beit Shemesh

The Agudath Israel of America released a statement concerning the violence in Beit Shemesh. Read it here. Here is my response:

many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps – in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others – to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads.

If increased modesty is expressed by individuals' attempts to avoid situations they feel are improper, that is one thing. If a man feels unable or uninterested in walking on the same sidewalk as a woman, and he switches sides, no one will complain. If a woman chooses to not speak with a man out of a sense of modesty, again, no one will complain (although people may question the motives, value and repercussions these types of behavior have on the individual and on the community).

However, if "special steps" taken include gender-segregated buses, signs asking women to walk on the other side of the street, and an unwillingness to vociferously reject the more radical embodiment of these strictures (such as assault (insults and taunts against adults and, more horrifically, children) and battery (spitting, brick throwing, etc)), then, far more than the "atmosphere of licentiousness" the charedi community wishes to avoid, they contribute to the degradation of humanity.

The true irony is found when considering the very concept stated above in my first paragraph: the idea that as long as one does not impact others with his "special steps" in modesty (or other strictness), one should be allowed to take them. This idea of personal autonomy and freedom comes not from the Torah, but from liberal philosophy.In the past, the danger posed to society from overly strict individual behavior was viewed as damaging no less than overly lax individual behavior. One who deviated too far off the golden mean, the societal norm, in either direction, was herded back to the norm. It is ironic that only in the context of modernity and the liberalism it engenders that the charedi world can support "special steps in their own lives", steps that have no basis in normative Halacha and derive their validity from modernity's "individual freedom".

Finally, while Aguda's condemnation of the violence is welcome, it comes belatedly, at a time when the media has picked up on an old story in Beit Shemesh. This has been going on for months, the segregated buses (and violence in their defense) has been going on for years. Why is the vast majority silent? Why is it only when the media pick up a story that the leaders of the charedi world in Israel feel the need to begin to condemn? Was there nothing to condemn months ago, when the heckling of little girlds started? Was there nothing to condemn years ago, when women were assaulted on buses for not moving to the back?

Could it be that the majority supports the goals of the violence, and therefore, they ignore the means?

Finally, I want to point out that there is a troubling view of today's society as extremely licentious. Judaism has existed and survived in cultures far more explicit and licentious than today's. Just think about ancient Greek or Roman culture, or the 18th century dress and behavior across Western Europe.

Later, Rabbi Yaakov Menken posted a comment responding in part to me. I fisked it, and this comment has yet to be approved by Cross-Currents, even though Yaakov Menken has commented since. Here is the unapproved comment from me:


Daniel Weltman
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
If you condemn the charedi separate buses, and do not condemn those in Korea and Mexico City, you are a bigot.
I guess I am not a bigot then, at least by your standards.
I know you don’t mean to sound this way, but you sound as though you are trying to defend the indefensible. And so:
They didn’t speak fast enough.
They sure didn’t. Women have had bricks thrown at them, been physically (!!) assaulted on buses that are segregated, and little religious girls (albeit not charedi) have been called whores and prostitutes, and yet there has been no backlash from official charedi organizations until now, until the media blitz. In fact, rabbis have said that they refuse to speak out against these activities, because they are not related to them at all. It is sad that it takes what you call a “deliberate provocation…media tactic” to get the ball rolling on some much-needed, sadly missing public charedi outrage.
They dare to operate gender-separate buses.
No, Egged does. They do not operate the buses. If this were a private bus company, things may be a bit different, don’t you think…
They dare to help their own values by suggesting opposite sides of the street before Sukkos, when the crowds and tiny sidewalks of Meah Shearim make physical contact mandatory.
Suggesting? Or enforcing? I think your comment suffers from pollyanism. How about the mob-style forcing of stores to keep the placards about “please only enter modestly dressed” in their windows? What happens to those who refuse, Yaakov? How about Manny’s bookstore? If these actions are really only those of fringe elements, then the complaint of the mainstream charedim is much too late, and too little besides. If not, then I do not really know what point you are making.
All of that means the charedim (including Rav Lipman, who is in Beit Shemesh and has vociferously opposed the Sikrikim) condone their behavior.
שתיקה כהודעה – Silence implies consent. I doubt that anyone would say that any rabbi who “vociferously opposed” the hooligans condones their behavior. Let’s discuss without the false choices.
Deliberate provocation is an acceptable media tactic against them.
See above.
or present a verbal confrontation as violence.
Yaakov, spitting at someone is considered נזיקין in Halacha. It is ironically listed with one who “uncovers a woman’s hair in public”, and has the same compensation to the victim — 400 zuz (quite a sum of money). See Bava Kama 8:6.
Screaming obscenities in public is certainly against the law, and not covered by Free speech when it is disorderly conduct. Particularly when directed at a person in a threatening way, it is assault. It is assault. Throwing feces, rocks, bricks, and other objects at a person or a home is battery and property damage.
When you say “present a verbal confrontation as violence”, do you mean to imply that the above occurrences (some recorded) did not occur?
truly the Jews’ Jews
If by “Jews’ Jews” you mean, finding a demand to react against fringe elements of their society vocally and consistently, and not to allow evil and thuggery to fester in their midst, yes they are Jews. If you mean the colloquial usage, that they are the scapegoat for the people who serve as scapegoats for the rest of the nations, you are simply wrong, and throwing around loaded terms will do nothing to help anyone in the Beit Shemesh situation today.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rav Soloveitchik and Historical Positivism

In this post on TorahMusings, Rabbi Wurzburger is quoted as saying: "The Rav’s objection to the employment of modern historic and textual scholarship to ascertain the meaning of halakha reflects not naive traditionalism but highly sophisticated post-modern critical thought. He insists that halakha operate with its own unique canons of interpretation. According to R. Soloveitchik, scientific methods are appropriate only for the explanation of natural phenomena but have no place in the quest for the understanding of the normative and cognitive concepts of halakha, which imposes its own a priori categories, which differ from those appropriate in the realm of science. It is for this reason that the Rav completely ignores Bible criticism and eschews the “positive historical” approach of the “Science of Judaism.”"

Perhaps the use, in the passage quoted above, of the term 'post-modern' is to simply refer to a category of thought that is "after" modernism. After all, Rav Soloveitchik is clear in Halachik Mind that (as pointed out in the passage), to the extent anything can claim the title "true" or "valid" in a post-Kantian world, there are many parallel systems of cognition, which are valid for their field of application. A key element of this is that, within their fields, these systems are valid. This is far from the standard definition of post-Modernism, that apparent realities are nothing more than social constructs, and that narratives take the place of the search for truth.

In fact, Halachik Mind ends up vouching for a methodology of religion and by extension, Halacha, which is essentially scientific: " would be fallacious to apply the method of independent philosophy in the field of religion. It would inevitably result in a labyrinth of mysticism. If modern philosophy, in it quest for "independence", has become arbitrary, then religious thought, which is particularly prone to abstruseness, needs be all the more wary of such an alignment. The student of religion, starting from the principle of cognitive pluralism, would act wisely in taking his cue from the scientist rather than the philosopher. The structural designs of religion cannot be intuited through any sympathetic fusion with an eternal essence, but must be reconstructed out of objective religious data and central realities. The uniqueness of the religious experience resides in its objective normative components." (62) We must go from the objective to the subjective, and not the other direction.

However, the scientific method wielded in Halacha must be based on different data points than in common scientific inquiry: legal ones. In Part Four, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the very data points of the scientific exploration of religion must be the normative objective components, the legal rules themselves. We start not from an ethical question of "why" but the descriptive question of "what". Instead of putting Halcha up to be constructed out of extra-religious considerations, he claims that Halacha contains the data from which we reconstruct our subjective activity. We blow the shofar, not because it (and only it) reminds us of teshuva; rather, we do teshuva because we recognize that as the subjective origin (and a non-necessary result which we are expected to glean) of the objective commandment (94-96).
This view of Rav Soloveitchik is not, to my mind, necessarily at odds with historical positivism. Nothing in this view fundamentally eschews the historical approach to legal theory and Halacha. Rav Soloveitchik's unwillingness to engage in the "science of Judaism" is much more a function of the prevailing mood in Weimar Germany against historicism. See Gordon's Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy 195n5, and see his reference to David Myers' Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought. This tendency is aptly summed up: "By the late nineteenth century and into the Weimar period, historicism was seen by many as a grinding force that corroded social values and was emblematic of modern society's gravest ills." (I am not here judging the merits of historicism or the dangers articulated by its critics.) Additionally, the realization that historical positivism would be a tremendous innovation and revolution in standard yeshiva study, to wit, the controversy over Wissenschaft des Judentums, probably also tempered the willingness of many rabbis to engage in it (as commenters point out on the post) . Thus it is not at all his post-Kantian view of reality that led Rav Soloveitchik to reject the historical positivist approach to Halacha, but, ironically, historical, sociological and cultural considerations.


After discussion with two friends, I realize that there is a need to differentiate between historical positivism as a theory, and historical necessity as an explanation of data points. Historical positivism as a theory states that the historical realities results in the creation of legal principles. For example, the shortage of wood leads to the creation of the Halachik concept of lavud, and the reticence of lenders leads to the creation of the concept of prosbol. The very concept is created out of historical necessity, and Halacha is in a large sense, a function of reactions to socio-historical events instead of a unified legal theory.

On the other hand, even one who rejects these theories on the grounds that Halacha is an objective, conceptual system which is unchanging at its core, would still accept historical data as explanations, not for the creation, but for the development (or discovery) of latent halachik principles into halachik tools or takanot. For example, the concepts at the root of lavud were part of the core halachik system from the beginning. The rule that loans owned by the courts are not subject to cancellation in the sh'mitta year, and the idea that one can pay a partner a certain amount and thus purchase the responsibility for fluctuations (up or down) in the business venture (the foundation of the heter iska), are concepts that are not groundbreaking; they existed in halacha from the very beginning. However, this viewpoint would not discount that the process of the development of halacha is historically contingent. Socio-historic necessity is valid as an explanation as to why the Rabbis decided to innovate the idea that one can give his personal loans to the courts, thus turning them into court-held loans which are not cancelled. The innovation lies in the willingness to turn a personal loan into a court-held one. Once this development is accomplished, application of the age-old idea that court-held loans are not subject to shemitta cancellation is non-controversial. Similarly, once social changes necessitated the chiddush that we may view interest on a loan as a business venture in which a partner purchases responsibility for fluctuations in the business venture's profitability in exchange for a fixed percentage, the application of the heter iska becomes non-controvesial as well.

Thus, historical considerations play a part in the development of the application of core halachik ideas, but they do not engage in the creation of these ideas. This is the point at which Rav Soloveitchik and historical positivists would diverge in principle, ideologically.