Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hair covering: a 179 page article vs. an offhand comment by Rav Shach

Regarding one of the recent controversies, the Mostly Kosher blog writes as follows:
Allegedly a fake letter was sent to Tradition (the magazine which published the essay) where:

Someone claiming to be David Tzvi Keter wrote one of those letters to Tradition from a Gmail account, establishing a biography in which he claimed he had “moved to Israel in 1949 after graduating from Columbia,” and that he then went on to learn at one of the most prestigious yeshivas in the world at the time, Jerusalem’s Etz Chaim yeshiva, under a major sage of the time, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer.

The Keter character then goes on to provide a history in which he gathered the oral testimony of several prominent sages of the mid-20th-century on the topic of women’s hair covering. His letter provides their comments 60 years later to add them to the historical record Broyde had been analyzing in the Tradition article.

Simon Lerner on Twitter askes the following question:

This question reveals much about our current state of affairs. It would seem that people are more likely to accept a position, if they can ascribe it to Rav Shach's offhand comment, then if they can ascribe it to a 179 page study. 
I think the answer to this lies in Rabbi Broyde's initial apology and clarification.
Stories that were told using that pseudonym were all stories that one of us had heard as a child from a generation of torah scholars now gone; the stories about Rav Moshe are particularly so.
Namely, that these actually were the positions of Rav Shach and others, but were only heard second-hand, and so he did not put it into the 179 page paper. But still he thought it to be an important part of the conversation, and so he invented someone to give firsthand testimony to the Internet, corresponding to the firsthand testimony he had heard as a child. In this way, he promoted it from hearsay and still included it as part of the conversation. (Unless you take the position that he is lying even in this, which is certainly possible.)

As to Shimon Lerner's point, yup, that is indeed the current state of affairs, to accept an offhand comment from a Gadol (or hearsay of it from an 80 year old) more than a 179 page study.

I don't think that this attitude is necessarily a bad thing.

I am reminded of a joke. There are various formal methods of proving things in Computer Science. Proof by induction, proof by contradiction, etc. Then there is this one:

    Proof by eminent authority:
    "I saw Karp in the elevator and he said it was probably NP- complete."
This is Richard Karp:
Richard Manning Karp
Karp mg 7725-b.cr2.jpg
Richard Karp giving a talk at the EPFL on 13th of July 2009

Who is he?
Richard Manning Karp (born January 3, 1935) is a computer scientist and computational theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, notable for research in the theory of algorithms, for which he received a Turing Award in 1985, The Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science in 2004, and the Kyoto Prize in 2008.[2]
Of course, proof by eminent authority is not a really valid proof. But if I had a rather complex, written proof by a relative unknown, which might have a mistake somewhere, that some problem was NP Complete, and on the other hand, I casually met Richard Karp in the elevator and he said that it seemed probable that it was NP complete, I would feel much more confident, before further investigation, that there was a good likelihood that the problem was NP complete. If you add that to the complex proof, I would again feel more confident.

I haven't read the 179 page study about hair covering. I have my own position on hair covering. But as scholarly as Rabbi Broyde is, without a careful read of the study, I don't know if he is twisting sources to say something other than what he presents, or if his leaps are valid or invalid leaps, or if the authorities he cites are normative, or accepted lehalacha.

Meanwhile, many of the Big Name authorities live and breath Torah. While they may argue with one another, they still develop an intuition based on the many sources they have studied in depth. And that intuition, expressed in an "offhand comment" is something that many people will lend credence to. As well they should. The offhand comment reflects an understanding [one of perhaps many] of the "spirit of the law".

Rav Shach was quoted as follows:
But it was Rav Shach who startled me with his halachic view. Rav Meltzer had told me to listen to Rav Shach closely, as “Rav Shach was married to his [Rav Meltzer's] niece and she did not cover her hair.” Rav Shach met me at some length, and told me very clearly and directly that whether hair covering was obligatory or not when most modest women did not cover their hair was a dispute between the Shulchan Aruch and the Rambam, since Rambam called hair covering a dat moshe andMechaber called it a dat yehudit. Rav Shach told me that it was better to be strict on this matter, but one who was makilyesh al ma lismoch. When I pressed Rav Shach about explaining the basis for the Mechaber‘s view, he told me that the Mechaber is adopting the view of the Tur, which must have been his view the Rosh as well, although Rav Shach indicated that he did not see that view in the Rosh himself.
Of course, whether Rav Shach actually said this is now up in the air.

At a recent wedding I attended, a rabbi who felt the impetus to defend a certain Gadol's politically incorrect statement said that he did not know how to do so. "If I say that outside the world of Torah, this Gadol is still living in the 1950's, then they will turn around and ask how we can rely upon him for any pesak." Personally, I don't know that the Gadol's politically incorrect statement was necessarily untrue. [Maybe yes, maybe no. In today's environment, there is no room for nuanced discussion of politically incorrect statements, for fear of being tarred as politically incorrect oneself.] Political correctness or politically correct methods of expression do not necessarily equal reality. And we need not be so fickle, following the zeitgeist and declaring it as the basis upon which all halacha may be decided. Some level of conservatism may be desired, as a link to past attitudes and past ways of understanding halacha as applied to practical situations. (See Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who was the link to the past, and opposed the innovations of his colleagues, post churban. As the Mishna in Avos relates, he was the plastered cistern who never lost a drop, while Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was the innovator, the perennial spring.)

Yes, I indeed agree that incorrect grasp of metzius can impact on the validity of halachic rulings.  For example, rabbis reacting to the farce that was psychology in the past, and treating modern psychology as necessarily the same.

But is there really a good alternative? I am not so sure. We can rely on the 179 page articles by young whippersnappers, and discard the words of those who lived and live in the past, but then we lose the benefit of the intuition that comes from living and breathing Torah for so many years.


E-Man said...

I agree with you to a certain point. I trust Rav Moshe's (Feinstein) understanding of sources better than most modern scholars. For example, there are Rabbis that write articles about why women should be able to get aliyot in shul, but it is clear, even to me, that they misrepresent their sources. This is why I am cautious about new 179 page articles. However, I am not comfortable with random comments from "gedolim" I would prefer a 179 page article from gedolim.

Benjamin of Tudela said...

I agree that offhand comments CAN be the result of a deep intuition and the culmination of years of study. However, it slightly depends on the circumstances. Sometimes they really are passing comments, sometimes they are a few minutes talk.

The two are not equal.


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