Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Believing that one's rebbe is dead

A fascinating -- and potentially troublesome -- story told over at the Daas Torah blog. believing one's rebbe is dead:
Rav Shurkin tells the following story in Megged Givos Olam:

Rav Moshe Soloveitchik first learned of the petira of his father Rav Chaim from the newspapers. Rav Moshe poskened that one should not believe anying published in a newspaper and thus it was not considered notification. As a result he did not sit shiva but rather took the dangerous journey [during World War I] to Warsaw where Rav Chaim had died. After 10 days he returned suddenly to his house with a pale face and a terrible appearance and said he had received reliable testimony that his father in fact was niftar and he started observing aveilus. After a number of days he received a letter of condolence from Rav Hirsch the son in law of the Chofetz Chaim who was a very close friend. He wanted to know why Rav Moshe had not believed the newspapers to sit shiva - since it was a matter which was readily verifiable? Rav Moshe wrote back the following. Concerning the verses describing the death of Eliyahu and the response of Elisha and the bnei neviim - despite Elisha seeing his rebbe going into Heaven and the bnei neviim reporting Eliyahu's death - they {J: this would be the Bnei Neviim} wanted to search after Eliyahu as if he were alive? Rav Moshe said you learn from this that one is prohibited to believe that one's rebbe had died. When Rav Hirsch received this letter he showed it to his father-in-law, the Chofetz Chaim and he agreed with it and praised it.
We thus have a position, approved by the Chofetz Chaim, that one is forbidden to believe another person that one's rebbe is dead. (The idea of not believing newspapers is another interesting bit.) Are we really maintaining this? If so, then there are repercussions. After all, there are many Lubavitch chassidim nowadays who also refuse to believe that their rebbe is dead. And this has profound theological ramifications.

The answer, of course, is that this his point was not to disregard any and all testimony. After all, "he had received reliable testimony that his father in fact was niftar and he started observing aveilus." There was just a level of testimony that was required, and absent that, one was "forbidden" to believe.

I am unconvinced that one can go off deriving novel halachos for oneself based on interpretations of pesukim, and events, in Neviim. I do not believe that this is the way halacha works. The Chafetz Chaim may have taken pleasure in the dvar Torah, but would he really apply it in the general case as halacha? I have my doubts.

What is peshat in this narrative in Neviim. Indeed, earlier, the Bnei Neviim told Elisha that his teacher was going to leave him that day, and Elisha told them he know. Thus, in II Melachim 2:
א וַיְהִי, בְּהַעֲלוֹת יְהוָה אֶת-אֵלִיָּהוּ, בַּסְעָרָה, הַשָּׁמָיִם; וַיֵּלֶךְ אֵלִיָּהוּ וֶאֱלִישָׁע, מִן-הַגִּלְגָּל.1 And it came to pass, when the LORD would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal.
ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-אֱלִישָׁע שֵׁב-נָא פֹה, כִּי יְהוָה שְׁלָחַנִי עַד-בֵּית-אֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלִישָׁע, חַי-יְהוָה וְחֵי-נַפְשְׁךָ אִם-אֶעֶזְבֶךָּ; וַיֵּרְדוּ, בֵּית-אֵל.2 And Elijah said unto Elisha: 'Tarry here, I pray thee; for the LORD hath sent me as far as Beth-el.' And Elisha said: 'As the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.' So they went down to Beth-el.--
ג וַיֵּצְאוּ בְנֵי-הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר-בֵּית-אֵל, אֶל-אֱלִישָׁע, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, הֲיָדַעְתָּ כִּי הַיּוֹם יְהוָה לֹקֵחַ אֶת-אֲדֹנֶיךָ מֵעַל רֹאשֶׁךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר גַּם-אֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי, הֶחֱשׁוּ.3 And the sons of the prophets that were at Beth-el came forth to Elisha, and said unto him: 'Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to-day?' And he said: 'Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.'--
That is not necessarily the same as death. Rather, his master would be "taken" from him. A bit later in the same perek, we have the Bnei Neviim standing from far off, across the Yarden, so that they do not witness the next events, though Elisha does. Then,
יא וַיְהִי, הֵמָּה הֹלְכִים הָלוֹךְ וְדַבֵּר, וְהִנֵּה רֶכֶב-אֵשׁ וְסוּסֵי אֵשׁ, וַיַּפְרִדוּ בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם; וַיַּעַל, אֵלִיָּהוּ, בַּסְעָרָה, הַשָּׁמָיִם.11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both assunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
יב וֶאֱלִישָׁע רֹאֶה, וְהוּא מְצַעֵק אָבִי אָבִי רֶכֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפָרָשָׁיו, וְלֹא רָאָהוּ, עוֹד; וַיַּחֲזֵק, בִּבְגָדָיו, וַיִּקְרָעֵם, לִשְׁנַיִם קְרָעִים.12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried: 'My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!' And he saw him no more; and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
and then the Bnei Neviim want to search, or send people to search. They search and do not find. Thus:
טו וַיִּרְאֻהוּ בְנֵי-הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר-בִּירִיחוֹ, מִנֶּגֶד, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, נָחָה רוּחַ אֵלִיָּהוּ עַל-אֱלִישָׁע; וַיָּבֹאוּ, לִקְרָאתוֹ, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ-לוֹ, אָרְצָה.15 And when the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho some way off saw him, they said: 'The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha.' And they came to meet him, and bowed down to the ground before him.
טז וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו הִנֵּה-נָא יֵשׁ-אֶת-עֲבָדֶיךָ חֲמִשִּׁים אֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי-חַיִל, יֵלְכוּ נָא וִיבַקְשׁוּ אֶת-אֲדֹנֶיךָ--פֶּן-נְשָׂאוֹ רוּחַ יְהוָה, וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הֶהָרִים אוֹ בְּאַחַת הגיאות (הַגֵּיאָיוֹת); וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תִשְׁלָחוּ.16 And they said unto him: 'Behold now, there are with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master; lest peradventure the spirit of the LORD hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley.' And he said: 'Ye shall not send.'
יז וַיִּפְצְרוּ-בוֹ עַד-בֹּשׁ, וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁלָחוּ; וַיִּשְׁלְחוּ חֲמִשִּׁים אִישׁ, וַיְבַקְשׁוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה-יָמִים וְלֹא מְצָאֻהוּ.17 And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said: 'Send.' They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not.
יח וַיָּשֻׁבוּ אֵלָיו, וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב בִּירִיחוֹ; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, הֲלֹא-אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם אַל-תֵּלֵכוּ. {ס}18 And they came back to him, while he tarried at Jericho; and he said unto them: 'Did I not say unto you: Go not?' {S}
What is peshat here? Didn't these Bnei Neviim themselves say earlier that Eliyahu would take his leave of Elisha? Rashi addresses this:
Perhaps a wind from the Lord has carried him off: Is it possible that on the day before, they said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master from you?” (v. 5) and now they did not know where he was? This teaches us that since the day when Elijah was hidden, the holy spirit departed from the prophets, and the holy spirit was no longer widespread throughout Israel.
But this is just addressing the peshat question, of why they did not know. This is not the same as refusing to believe him.

Even if we take it exactly as proposed, a simple reading of this perek is that the Bnei Neviim were wrong to not follow Elisha on this point. And furthermore, we saw that
Rav Moshe Soloveitchik was willing to take evidence from a trustworthy witness. Is Elisha not a trustworthy witness?! Thus, even if we take this reading in the text, and try to derive halacha from it, it does not work out.

There are further flaws in this approach. For one, if we are following Rashi's interpretation of the perek, the Bnei Neviim were not necessarily students of Eliyahu. Thus, on pasuk 3:
your master: but not our master. This teaches us that they were equal to Elijah.
If so, nothing can be gleaned from their unwillingness to believe Elisha. He was not their rebbe!

Furthermore, there are many other interpretations of the events here. See here in a Mikraos Gedolos. For example, Ralbag maintains that they thought he had hidden himself in one of the caves, comparing it to where Ovadia said to him that a Divine wind will carry him to some place he does not know. The implication is that they knew Eliyahu would be taken that day from Elisha, and perhaps they were even privy to the idea of a fiery chariot. But they did not think that Eliyahu had died. And then, this has nothing to do with it somehow being forbidden to believe somebody about this.

Radak writes similarly, that they thought he had been carried away from bnei adam by the wind, but not to heaven. And he similarly cites the words of Ovadiah.

And Metzudas David suggests that they did believe that Eliyahu had died, but that it was his spirit which ascended, while his corpse was cast somewhere on the mountains. Elisha knew that Eliyahu had ascended in body as well, but held back this information from them, because of humility, that they should not know that he had seen this wondrous sight (which had implications as to his prophetic status). Here as well, there is no matter of them disbelieving in Eliyahu's death. Indeed, they believed he died, and wanted to search for his corpse!

As such, I do not believe that such a derivation of halacha is warranted. Then again, I do not totally believe that halacha was indeed being derived here.

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