“Dear Reb Aharon”

Our spring edition included a review by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Rabbi Aharon Feldman’s recent book, The Eye of the Storm. On these pages is a letter received from Rabbi Feldman together with Rabbi Lichtenstein’s response.

Dear Reb Aharon:
The warm and friendly comments at the end of your intelligently wrought review (“Hands Across the Ocean: A Review of Rabbi Aharon Feldman’s The Eye of the Storm,” spring 2010) that were written directly to me compel me as well to address you in the same way.

I enthusiastically accept your invitation to go sledding, or at least meet together, once again. You deplore the fact that a wall separates us, which does not make this possible. I think you are being overly pessimistic.

If the wall consists of your criticisms of my book, I do not think this will be much of a problem. After all, there were only two faults that you found with my book. First, in my article on feminist halachah, you object to my statement that halachah solely depends upon the accepted decisions of previous generations, as “apodictic.” You argue that there have been exceptions to this rule, such as the Sha’agas Aryeh, where later generations did not accept the rulings of previous generations. I accept your criticism and agree I should have worded my statement to include these exceptions; however, I have no doubt that you will agree (and you say as much in your review) that the weak piskei halachos of the book in reference are not quite in the same league as the exceptions that you cite. You have other minor criticisms; otherwise you tend to agree with the rest of my article on this subject, as well as with my conclusion that women should not wear tefillin. This can hardly constitute a wall.

Secondly and more vigorously, you disagree with my contention that there is nothing Jewish about the ideology of secular Zionism. This might well be a formidable wall, but one that can be dismantled, once we get together to talk.

When we do, I promise to speak in a calm voice—which I thought I employed in my book, but which you claim is filled with “anger,” something of which I have yet to be accused (with respect to my book, that is). Forgive me, however, if I will speak with passion, for I am quite passionate about my contention—ki aichocho uchal veraisi be’ovdan moladti. I believe that it is this passion that, unfortunately, you (and the headline writer who trumpeted your words) mistook for anger.

Even though I agree, as you argue, that the Zionists utilized the wholly Jewish traits of self-sacrifice and chesed to build the State, it is a non sequitur to conclude that because of this, their definition of the Jewish People is correct. This definition makes no room for God or for Torah in Jewish life. Building the Jewish State with this definition is the equivalent of rebuilding the Jewish body while attempting to remove its head.

The Gaon Rav Yitzchok Hutner, your mori verabbi as well as mine, told me that he feared that the Jewish People will be taken to task for having concluded in the wake of the success of the Six-Day War that the Zionists were right all along. (Of course, forty years later no one entertains such thoughts.) This, Rav Hutner explained, is because Zionist ideology is, in his words, “pure apikorsus.” This view, as you well know, was shared by the vast majority of gedolei Yisrael of the past hundred years. Your own esteemed father-in-law, the Gaon Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, said, “I remember my father used to say, ‘leum’us [Zionism] is apikorsus’” (taped conversation in David Holzer, The Rav: Thinking Aloud [Miami Beach, Florida, 2009], 174), and, in his own opinion, that “to equate Judaism with statehood is blasphemy” (ibid.,p. 178). And yet what they all considered beyond the pale of Judaism, you describe as “certain lapses in religious motivation.” This is quite a wall.

Nevertheless, I still believe we will be able to overcome it. Both of us grew up and have been nurtured in the laps of gedolei Yisrael. Both of us have spent our lifetimes in a quest for the truth of Torah. How long can this wall withstand such force?

In the meantime, I am looking forward to our meeting.

With affection and deep respect,

Dear Reb Aharon:

I was gratified by the tone and substance of your response to my review, and am particularly pleased by your evident readiness to engage in a measure of dialogue. As you note, given our joint background, commitments, and priorities, that would, hopefully, be conducted in a spirit which could focus, constructively, upon our ability, and that of our talmidim, to foster our common cause of advancing avodat Hashem, personally and communally, rather than upon reciprocal and competitive fault-finding denigration.

As to your remarks regarding presumed different perceptions of Zionism and its place in the modern Jewish world, in Israel or in the Diaspora, I am, frankly, somewhat confused, and almost wholly astonished. Despite your use of the definite article (“the Zionists”), I don’t know to whom you are referring. Do you envision them as a homogeneous entity? Or, while recognizing that the movement is far from monolithic, are you nevertheless chagrined by everything every adherent to Zionism promotes or espouses? Likewise, I am befuddled with respect to the specific “definition of the Jewish people,” to which all of “the Zionists” presumably subscribe.

I am inclined to conjecture that the alleged definition is a formulation which categorically refuses to ascribe any uniqueness to Jewry; which rejects religious commitment or, perhaps, spirituality in general, as an intrinsic component of Jewish destiny and identity; and which affirms that geopolitical sovereignty is the unum necessarium, sole necessary and sufficient element which, as with other nations, characterizes our people. But what has this credo, indeed “pure apikorsus,” to do with our discourse? Need I cite chapter and verse from published writings, or citations from innumerable sichot at our yeshivah or elsewhere, to prove that this conjectured position is wholly contrary to my views? Does anyone even vaguely familiar with the Israeli scene imagine the assertion you concoct is preached as gospel truth at Yeshivat Har Etzion or, for that matter, at scores of yeshivot hesder, as the ani ma’amin of Religious Zionists? Why, then, must the memory and authority of gedolim be invoked, to refute what barely borders upon qualifying as fantasy?

In all likelihood, we do disagree with respect to the propriety and/or wisdom of acknowledging the partial merit of spiritual adversaries, or of cooperative endeavor in the pursuit of common cause. Surely, however, we harbor sufficient subtlety to differentiate between such limited recognition and a genre of total legitimization with which, out of misconception or passion, we are, evidently, occasionally charged.

I regret the confusion but it in no way dims my enthusiasm for continued dialogue. Quite the contrary, as we, and our respective associates, acquire greater knowledge of each other, we could deepen our understanding as well.

Bevirkat haTorah vehamitzvah,
In appreciation,

In his review of Rabbi Aharon Feldman’s book, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote:

Emulating Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rabbi Feldman asserts: “I, too, humbly submit that the criticisms in this book are directed towards those parts of the Jewish people which are not Jewish” (p. 4). In the interest of both accuracy and fairness, it should be added that the sequel reads, “My love for the Jewish people remains undiminished.”

This quote can give the impression that Rabbi Feldman is saying that those Jews who follow the ideology of the World Zionist Organization are not Jews; however, this is a false impression. The quote was taken out of context, as the paragraphs preceding the quote reveal that Rabbi Feldman is referring to parts of the Jewish people that have an “ideology” that is not Jewish. Rabbi Feldman speaks of “ideological aberrations,” and this is the theme of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld’s remarks, as well as the theme of the chapters on Zionism in Rabbi Feldman’s book. In addition, Rabbi Feldman defines an “authentic Jewish perspective” at the beginning of his book:

My definition is simple: this perspective is based on the definition of the Jewish People as a nation which entered into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai to be “a kingdom of servants of God and a holy nation.”

In the interest of both accuracy and fairness, I shall cite the full quote of Rabbi Sonnenfeld as it appears in the book Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the Parashah [New York, 2002]:

In one of his dialogues with Moslem leaders, a certain sheikh turned to Rav Yosef Chaim and commented, “You know, you also oppose the Zionists. You too fight them. So we really have something in common! We both battle the Zionists!” “It is true,” answered Rav Yosef Chaim. “We both oppose the Zionists– but for opposite reasons! You hate them because of the Jewish elements of their ideology. We oppose them because of the Gentile elements of their ideology! And thus there is a very great difference between us indeed.”

What I found missing in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s review was an expression of passionate anguish and pain at the very serious spiritual failings of the World Zionist Organization. These failings are due to the basic ideology of this organization, which adopted the following resolution in 1911: “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.”

These failings include the educational system which, with rare exception, fails to give young Jews a strong Jewish identity that includes an awareness of their spiritual heritage and of the strong spiritual bond we have with our sacred land.

There was also no expression of passionate anguish and pain over the very serious sins of the World Zionist Organization. For example, in the early days of the State of Israel, the Zionist establishment led by Ben-Gurion attempted to destroy the Torah culture of the Yemenite and Sephardic immigrants.

My love for our people includes an awareness of our great potential to become “a kingdom of servants of God and a holy nation.” I am therefore grateful for this new book by Rabbi Aharon Feldman, as it helps me to deepen this awareness and thereby deepen my love.

Jerusalem, Israel

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s erudite review touches in passing on a very central question of innovation: When can a contemporary authority argue with a Rishon? Rabbi Lichtenstein quotes Rabbi Feldman as stating:

It is a fundamental principle—although often unknown or ignored— in determining Jewish law that halachah is determined by the cumulative decisions of the generations of commentaries and decisors. Thus, an opinion of the Rishonim, when codified by the major later authorities is inviolable.

To which Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein replies in this review:

I vividly recall hearing the summary of mori verabbi Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik, zt”l, of this issue’s parallel controversy between the Ba’al Hama’oer and the Rabad, as to whether Rishonim could disagree with Geonim: “If one has broad shoulders, he can contravene Rishonim. The Sha’agas Aryeh disagrees with Rishonim in many places.”

It seems to me that this issue—how and when can we arrive at an understanding of halachah contrary to the ruling of the giants who came before us—is actually very central to many controversies raging within our community, and yet there is very little discussion of the classical or modern sources.

On this topic, I would like to highlight the view of the former foremost posek in America, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, in Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, vol. 1, chap. 101, s.v. “umashekatav yedidi.” Setting the stage for Rav Moshe’s comments is worthwhile, as this is nearly the only time (other than in his introduction) that Rav Moshe explains to the reader his view of the halachic process in general. The discussion Rav Moshe has about the role of innovation (chiddush) in halachah and when can one argue with Rishonim appears in the third teshuvah in a sequence of six about 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, in a situation of urgent need. In the course of the give and take with the questioner, Rav Moshe asks a surprising question: Is it proper (on a halachah lema’aseh level) to rely on Rav Moshe’s own understanding of halachah, since it reaches a novel result and all other authorities, including Rishonim, disagree?

Rav Moshe writes:

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? 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 halachah which has not been discussed in our Jewish law works. And even for a halachah 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). . . .

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, 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. 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.

Rav Moshe presents a very important model of process, which goes to the heart of how halachah ought to work in his view. There has to be a balance between innovation and precedent, and innovation should not be stifled in time of need, but no matter what the need, innovation can only be accepted when it is consistent with the Talmudic sources.

Rav Moshe’s citation of the Maharatz Chayot is central to understanding his view. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Maharatz Chayot, Gittin 56a) states, when reflecting on the story leading to the Temple’s destruction, that a well-known Ta’ana (Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulas) had a solution to this problem and did not voice it and:

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, saving the Land of Israel from destruction]. However, because of his great modesty, he did not have the strength to act according to his views halachah lema’aseh [and save the Jewish people]; rather, he was afraid that other rabbis would accuse him of permitting activity prohibited by halachah, and he did not think of himself as a great enough sage to permit people to act according to his understanding of the halachah. He thought that these types of decisions were left only to the wisest of the generation (gedolei hador) [when in fact, he should have acted].

The destruction of the Beit Hamikdash could have been avoided if the general rabbinic leadership at that time would have been more willing to assert what it thought the halachah really was, and not stay silent in the face of rulings or social condemnation by others.

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. Silence–and particularly deference to greater posekim–is not a proper approach when urgent matters are at hand. Such is the view of Rav Moshe. It is neither the rigid precedential system advocated by Rabbi Aharon Feldman where views of Rishonim are “inviolable,” nor the more intellectually open reexamination of halachah advocated by Rabbi Lichtenstein’s metaphor of “broad shoulders.”

Atlanta, Georgia
The writer is a law professor at Emory University and a dayan in the Beth Din of America.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein Responds

As to the other responses, herein published, each raises serious questions about the halachic process, whether as elucidation or implementation. Precisely because of their gravity, however, the relevant issues lie beyond the scope of an en passant remark. The right or the duty of a posek to challenge the consensus of predecessors or the prevalent view of contemporaries has been much debated and continues to arouse controversy. In certain respects, it resembles the contretemps which obtains vis-à-vis this phenomenon in the field of general law. However, in light of the theological and religious context, and the fundamental substratum of faith in Torah min haShamayim, the impact of our internal debate is both more significant and more vehement.

The discourse turns upon both the question of whether such a prerogative exists at all, and what, if it does, are the guidelines and parameters for its implementation. Broadly speaking, within the orbit of pesak, even the more liberally minded have been inclined to exercise restraint. Minimally, several variables require consideration.

Objectively, one notes the gravity of the issue as well as the potential impact of a deviant decision and the mode of its dissemination (although, due to technological innovation, the latter now carries less weight), and the degree and authority of prior consensus; and, on the other side of the ledger, the web of practical subjective circumstances which generate the need to cope with a social reality, personal or communal. In this vein, much depends on a posek’s mindset, as regards his hashkafic attitude, temperament, and spiritual stature on the one hand, as well as the tradition– religious, intellectual, and sociological–within which he has been molded and the mores to which he subscribes.

This is, however, at most, a thumbnail sketch of our issue. My review, in contrast, related to the book and the accuracy and historical veracity of some of its contentions, rather than to a comprehensive analysis and survey of this admittedly significant problem.

As to Rabbi Hakohen’s critique, my response is essentially similar, as, to my mind, it simply misses the mark. Obviously, any initiative, on my part, to assess Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld’s stature, saintliness, or lamdut, would be nothing short of brazen; but that is in no way an item on my agenda. If, as my critic contends, the quote was taken out of context, so that an erroneous impression was conveyed, Rabbi Hakohen should ask himself, first, where the responsibility for the misuse of the source lies; and, second, whether his correction nullifies the import of Rabbi Feldman’s formulation, in any way.

On the other hand, I do not plead “guilty” to the alleged sin of omission, the absence of any “expression of passionate anguish and pain at the very serious spiritual failings of the World Zionist Organization.” I fully agree that the failings are indeed serious; I reject, vehemently, the total W.Z.O. platform as a comprehensive credo. However, that assent does not preclude the enthusiastic adoption of any specific plank. In any event, my review was hardly the proper venue for assigning report cards to the cadre of Jewish organizations.

This article was featured in the Summer 2010 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at ja@ou.org.