Friday, March 17, 2017

The Antinomian Implications of Gedolim: Are You Willing to Put Your Traif Where Your Mouth Is?


A prominent feature of Haredi society today is the belief in the infallibility of their rabbinic leaders, the Gedolim. These Gedolim are supposed to be miracle workers, whose knowledge supersedes that of ordinary mortals like you and me. In essence, Haredim took halakhic Judaism, premised on textual authority, and replaced it with charismatic authority in which religious leaders are assumed to receive some kind of divine revelation. There was a good sociological reason for this. It was charismatic authority, ironically, that was best suited to defend religion against modernity's challenge to religious authority. As a simple Jew, why should I not listen to the Conservative rabbi, who says that it is ok to drive to a synagogue on Shabbat if I live far away and would otherwise not be able to celebrate Shabbat as part of a Jewish community? Even to make a halakhic argument against driving on Shabbat will be counter-productive. You might fail to convince me and I will, therefore, go drive. Even if you succeed this time, you will have implicitly conceded to me the premise that, in the absence of any religious authority with coercive powers, I am my own ultimate halakhic authority and am free to rule however I wish.

The Haredi solution was to declare that there was a body of men whose opinions, a priori, cannot be challenged. It is not just that these Gedolim are really smart and have good arguments for their positions. I like to think that I am a smart person too so tomorrow I will come back with even better arguments, at least to my mind. The Gedolim must not just be smarter than me, their intelligence must be of such a different kind that I could never imagine being in the right against them.

A large part of Haredi success has been due to its ability to claim for itself the mandate of being the defenders of Jewish Law; are not Haredim the strictest in terms of religious observance? This is in large part due to the Haredi world's clear lines of authority. But as with any Faustian bargain, the price to be paid is high. Part of what of I find fascinating about Haredi use of Gedolim is that their practical use in the defense of ritual orthodoxy does not change the fundamentally antinomian implications of charismatic authority and may come to serve as the perfect cover to destroy halakha.

For those who would defend the absolute authority of Gedolim and also claim to be loyal to halakha, I propose a thought experiment. Imagine that the Gedolim were to call you into a secret room and order you to eat the ultimate traif sandwich. Would you listen to the Gedolim or would you, in your "arrogance," dare to place your limited understanding that there is such a thing as kosher over their wisdom and refuse to eat it? Some simple Jew, who recalls that, according to Leviticus, a pig is not kosher as well as stories about Maccabean martyrs, is going to think he has the right to lecture the Gedolim about kosher and accuse them of not following the Torah? Does he not know that without the Gedolim we would all be lost like sheep without a shepherd, prey to Reform and Conservative Judaism with their women rabbis?

Note that there may be a very good reason for the Gedolim to want you to eat traif. Eating traif is a useful signaling device as to who really is loyal to  Haredi Judaism. A person who is not willing to listen to the Gedolim and eat traif, but prefers to follow his own understanding of Judaism today might turn around tomorrow and not accept that Judaism opposes women rabbis. Alternatively, a failure to eat traif on the command of the Gedolim might endanger Judaism by opening up the possibility that some Jews might, at some future point, question the rulings of the Gedolim regarding kosher and refuse to eat in the homes of other Haredi Jews. An Orthodox Judaism in which members are not united in eating each other's food is liable to fall apart. Such a divided community would lack the moral standing to defy the liberal denominations on women rabbis. Clearly, it is better to eat a pig than to accept women rabbis. (Or at least that is the impression I get from the OU.) We can even add "who made men and women in their places" in addition to the traditional blessing for traif: "who permits the forbidden." Only a godless heretic could be against saying more blessings when we all know that a single amen has the power to change worlds.

One might take support from the story in Rosh HaShanah in which R. Gamliel forced R. Joshuah to violate the day of Yom Kippur as he calculated it. Allowing there to be two Jewish calendars risked destroying the religion and needed to be stopped at all costs, even violating the religious conscious of R. Joshuah. (Perhaps the Dead Sea Sect supported women rabbis in addition to their solar calendar.)  I should note a distinction between R. Joshua violating his Yom Kippur and our traif case. R. Joshuah had every reason to believe that R. Gamliel was acting in good halakhic faith, adhering to the principle that one is not allowed to travel with a stick and a money belt on Yom Kippur. R. Gamliel might be wrong in his astronomical calculations, but he made his mistake as part of a legitimate halakhic process based upon textual analysis and not charismatic authority. In our traif case, the Gedolim want you to eat what they acknowledge to be a pig on the assumption that they are not bound by any text-based halakhic process. In fact, their goal is to destroy the practice of text-based halakha as a heresy that would allow any person with a Judaica library to become their own halakhic authority.

A Judaism in which every person is free to do what is right in their own eyes as long as they can point to a Jewish source cannot be called Haredi. A Judaism in which it might be ok to eat traif, even in secret antinomian rituals, cannot be called Orthodox. Take your pick, text or charismatic authority. I vote for there to be such a thing called halakha even if that puts me in charge of my own religion.

No comments: