Here is the third response to my last week’s interview with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper about his new book Divine Will and Human Experience The first response was by Rabbi Yitzchak Roness- here. The second one here is by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz-here
This one is by Rabbi Johnny Solomon who teaches Halacha and Jewish Thought at Matan and Midreshet Lindenbaum, and he works as #theVirtualRabbi – offering online spiritual coaching, halachic consultations, and Torah study sessions to men, women, and couples around the world.
DIVINE WILL and HUMAN EXPERIENCE: Review by Rabbi Johnny Solomon
‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ is a soft back book which has been self-published by the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, of which Rabbi Klapper is Dean. On its front cover is an image of a glass pyramid where a black beam of light, labelled as ‘Divine Will’, is refracted into four different light beams labelled ‘Freedom’, ‘Dignity’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Responsibility’.
Perhaps mentioning the style of the front cover of a book appears to literally fall into the trap of judging a book by its cover. The issue, however, is that unlike most books, there is no Preface or Introduction to ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, and similarly, there are no approbations which oftentimes feature in books relating to Jewish law.
Instead, following the title page and copyright page are four pages detailing the contents of the 39 chapters of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ (which themselves are divided into six categories: ‘MetaHalakhic Principles’, ‘Equality as a Torah Value’, ‘Halakhic Methods’, ‘Long Covid and Yom Kippur’, ‘Halakhic Illustrations’ and ‘Biblical Portraits’) which is then followed by the 39 articles (spanning approximately 230 pages).
Admittedly, there is a paragraph titled ‘About the Book’ on the back cover of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ which is seemingly intended to inform its readers about the purpose of this book which, for the sake of considering the goals of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, I’d like to quote in full:
Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry is generated by the pressure of reality on imagination. Along the same lines, practical halakhah at its best is generated by the pressure of reality on Torah. ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ illuminates every stage of that process in a wide variety of contexts and genres. You’ll find the halakhot of art and the art of halakhah. You’ll find an authoritative responsum, and a psak that failed; an explanation of how a beit din practice became oppressive, and an explanation of how rabbinic powerlessness enables oppression. This book is for everyone who wants to understand halakhah deeply and share responsibility for the Torah that constructs and governs our personal and communal religious lives.
The problem is that while some of this paragraph is descriptive, some of it poetic, and some of it (specifically the statement that ‘‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ illuminates every stage of that process’) are bombastic, it actually doesn’t tell the reader who this book is for, or whether readers should treat each essay as being exhaustive, or anything about the role that ‘Freedom’, ‘Dignity’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Responsibility’ – which, on the basis of the image on the front cover are the four principles that make up the ‘Divine Will’ – play in halakhah. In fact, it is only by reading the essays in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ and paying close attention to some brief remarks made by Rabbi Klapper in some of those essays, that the reader gets any sense whatsoever about the nature of this book.
Unlike many books incorporating halakhic essays, the halakhic essays in this book different from most others, in that, on two separate occasions Rabbi Klapper informs his readers that what he is writing is neither comprehensive nor conclusive, while the tone of writing used by Rabbi Klapper clearly points to the fact that he intends that these essays will help foster further discussion.
For example, in Chapter 11, titled ‘When Torah Clashes with our Values’, Rabbi Klapper writes that:
‘this essay is a collection of raw, first-level interpretive observations – they provide ways of thinking through the Torah narrative without (I think) imposing any conclusions… You’re welcome to send me your thoughts about what these interpretations could mean for these issues, or to politely post them (and equally politely critique such posts), and of course to challenge or support them at the level of the text’ (p. 69).
What this suggests is that the essays in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ are not actually halakhic essays per se. Instead, they are thoughts on points of halakhah which Rabbi Klapper shared or presented at some point to members of his Center for Modern Torah Leadership.
In fact, this point is made even clearer in his remarks in Chapter 12 titled ‘Learning Torah we Disagree With’ where he writes,
‘I’m writing stream-of-consciousness to model the idea that there is value in thinking about challenging interpretations of Torah, and in sharing our understanding of such Torah, even if we won’t necessarily agree, or at least not agree fully, with the hashkafic perspectives that emerge from them’ (p. 74).
What this tells us is that while, as noted on the back cover, Rabbi Klapper is ‘a posek, lamdan, and though-leader’, the reader of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ doesn’t encounter Rabbi Klapper-as-posek in the sense that his role isn’t to present fully reasoned halakhic thoughts and rulings. Instead, they encounter Rabbi Klapper-as-mentor-and-teacher to budding Torah scholars whom he has taken under his wing and whom he feels a responsibility to teach them about the importance of ‘Taking Responsibility for Torah’ (which, as he writes in Chapter 13 in his essay titled ‘Purely Theoretical Halakhah’, is ‘the motto of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership’, which ‘was formulated to oppose the claim that halakhah can be discussed in the beit midrash without considering real-world consequences’ (p. 83)).
Having said all of the above, I would now like to more closely examine some of Rabbi Klappers’ insights by reflecting on four of his essays:
a. ‘Chazakot and Changing Realities’
Even a quick glance at ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ leads the reader to the conclusion that Rabbi Klapper enjoys offering insights about the development of halakhah. As he writes at the beginning of Chapter 2, titled ‘Chazakot and Changing Realities’:
Practical Halakhah exists in constant dialogue with the world around it. Competent poskim know and respond to the social, political, and economic realities of their communities. In turn, halakhah shapes those realities in important ways. Consider for example the effect of capitalism on the halakhot of ribit (usury), and the effect of halakhah on the price of ungrafted citrons’ (p. 14).
Having provided readers with this background, Rabbi Klapper addresses the chazakah attributed to Rav Hamnuna (as mentioned in Gittin 89b – although for some reason Rabbi Klapper does not provide this basic Talmudic reference), as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 17:2), that ‘a woman is believed if she claims to be divorced while in her presumptive husband’s presence’, because, “a woman is not brazen in the presence of her husband”.
Yet the Rema rules ‘that because of societal changes, this chazokoh (sic) no longer generates the credibility necessary to allow remarriage’, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe EH 1:49) ignores, and as Rabbi Klapper adds, ‘I suggest deliberately’, the question of ‘whether changes specific to his own time and place have weakened the latter chazokoh’ (p. 15). He writes in his concluding remarks to this chapter:
while chazokoh’s are influenced by social changes, there is no straight line from a change in circumstances to a change in law. The legal presumptions that Chazal created via chazakot resulted from an interplay between their evaluation of reality and their sense of what halakhic outcomes were necessary or desirable. A competent posek must consider how changed circumstance affect the reality underlying the chazokoh and also whether allowing those changes to affect the chazokoh would yield undesirable halakhic outcomes’ (p. 17).
What Rabbi Klapper does here is reveal some of the considerations that inform and inspire poskim to reach various halakhic decisions, which is particularly valuable given that these considerations are rarely made explicit by poskim.
b. ‘Changing Realities and New Rabbinic Legislation’
In Chapter 3, Rabbi Klapper contrasts the approaches of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 1:16) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 4:50) regarding the question of whether new decrees may be established in the modern period, with his argument being that while ‘discussions of halakhic innovation often revolve around an asserted need for new leniencies.. it stands to reason that changed circumstances will require just as many new stringencies’ (p. 19). However, as he continues, ‘if today’s halakhists are judged incompetent to issue new stringencies, they are unlikely to succeed in implementing new leniencies’ (ibid.). Given this, Rabbi Klapper notes that, ‘generating the authority to permit may require granting the authority to forbid’ (p. 24) and that, ‘my hope is that this essay opens space for serious discussion of the extent to which we wish to grant that authority’ (ibid.).
Here, Rabbi Klapper gives voice to a rarely addressed consideration in halakhic decision-making – although not one that is shared by all poskim. The question, however, is to what extent is his thesis about the need to issue new stringencies correct? While I’ll not answer that question directly, I believe that any answer demands significantly more research and consideration than reference to a singular responsum of Rabbi Feinstein (putting aside the fact that the subject of this specific responsum has been challenged by various halakhic authorities). Given this, I humbly suggest that the brevity of this and some similar essays in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ are insufficient for Rabbi Klapper’s students to truly have a ‘serious discussion’ on this topic.
c. ‘Defining Dying’
Chapter 25 opens with the same reference to Wallace Stevens as appears on the back cover of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ (see above), while Rabbi Klapper then continues to state that, ‘the practice of halakhah inevitably changes when reality does. But the ‘way’ in which it changes is often badly misunderstood’ (p. 155).
This statement is, to my mind, a powerful insight into what Rabbi Klapper primarily seeks to address in his book: not the ‘what’ of halakhic change, or necessarily the ‘why’ for halakhic change, but in fact the ‘way’ in which halakhah changes.
In terms of his treatment of Dying, Rabbi Klapper considers his teacher – Rabbi J. David Bleich’s – contention (see Tradition 30:3) that ‘any patient who may reasonably be deemed capable of potential survival for a period of seventy two hours cannot be considered a ‘goses’’ (p. 155).
As Rabbi Klapper then notes, under this definition, ‘many conditions categorized as ‘goses’ in past centuries would not be ‘goses’ nowadays, for example because mechanical ventilation might extend their lives. So the practical halakhah of ‘goses’ might change in response to technological change’ (ibid.).
As he concludes the chapter, ‘we might for instance argue that medical progress has created a new class of people regarding whom it is ethical not to provide life-extending treatment, even though they do not fit the category of ‘goses’’ (p. 160). Yet, whatever the case, while it may be ‘tempting to assume that poskim who reach results we dislike on issues of technological change must be ignoring the science or distorting the sources. The truth is that sometimes they are expressing very in-the-moment moral opinions that disagree with ours’ (ibid.).
d. ‘A Tale of Two Cities’
The final section of ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ deals with what Rabbi Klapper calls ‘Biblical Portraits’, and in Chapter 38 he examines the plea that Rachav makes to the spies that they spare the lives of her family (see Yehoshua Ch. 2).
One might wonder how this story aligns with Rabbi Klapper’s overall interest in halakhah. However, what Rabbi Klapper seeks to argue here is that moral examinations must precede halakhic decision-making.
He does this by opening this chapter with a quote from Rabbi Norman Lamm that ‘Halakhah is a floor, not a ceiling’ (p. 226), and by then asking a series of questions: ‘Can human decisions lower halakhic floors, and raise spiritual ceilings? How should we evaluate decisions that do both simultaneously? Can our commitments affect other people’s spiritual range?’ (pp. 226-227).
And then, through considering the approach of a number of commentaries on the Rachav story including Ralbag who draws a parallel between this event and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s petition to Vespasian (see Gittin 56a – although here too Rabbi Klapper does not provide this basic Talmudic reference notwithstanding the fact that he prompts the reader in the header introducing his essay to ‘Think of Rachav facing the spies as parallel to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai facing Vespasian’), Rabbi Klapper reaches a conclusion that:
‘The spies’ oath raised the halakhic floor to the level of the moral floor. But it seems likely that Rachav’s demand did not raise the moral floor – she merely enabled the spies to correctly perceive its level. They were halakhically obligated once they took the oath, but they were morally obligated to take the oath. In fact, they were obligated to take the oath even before (Rachav – nb. this is missing from the original text) made any demand, because without such an oath, halakhah was setting its ceiling below the moral floor’ (p. 230).
Having considered four different chapters in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, I would like to address just three further issues. One relates to the way Rabbi Klapper explains certain ideas, one relates to the role of Rabbanit Deborah Klapper in this book, and one relates to notable absences in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’.
i. Clarity of explanations
As previously mentioned, Rabbi Klapper’s ‘role’ in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ is that of a mentor and teacher, and his skill in explaining ideas in a fun and creative way is evident throughout the book. For example, he summarizes Yoma 85b as stating, ‘one should chai by them and not die by them’ (p. 94).
Less playful but certainly very helpful for a budding Torah scholar is where he explains the meaning and significance of certain halakhic terms. For example, he writes that ‘vadai is a legal term of art; it means that the exceptions are rare enough that the law does not need to account for them’ (p. 158).
At the same time, there are times when Rabbi Klapper chooses to be so expressive as to lose most readers, such as when he writes that, ‘the hypotheticality position is a Masoretic epiphenomenon’ (p. 83).
ii. Deborah Klapper
Oftentimes, authors reference their family, or spouse, or children, in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of a book. Yet while no such section exists in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’, the reader is treated to something altogether different – namely a number of insights of Deborah Klapper which Rabbi Klapper then includes in his book.
For example, towards the end of Chapter 5, titled ‘Halakhah and Reality Don’t Always Have to Agree’ which discusses the role of probability in halakhah, the reader is informed that, ‘Deborah Klapper suggests… [that] not everything is probabilistic; sometimes reality just is. If halakhah and reality always corresponded in probabilistic cases, we might mistakenly conclude that they always corresponded, period, and refuse to correct even the most egregious halakhic errors of fact’ (p. 35).
Additionally, in Chapter 21 titled ‘The Private History of a Psak that Failed’, where Rabbi Klapper expressed concern about the choice to rely on certain halakhic leniencies such as Megillah livestreaming during the ‘second COVID Purim’, the reader is informed that, ‘Deborah Klapper challenged my assumptions in two ways. First, she argued that my critique of our lack of preparation was overblown… Second, she thought that because many community rabbis had issued psakim, in reliance of major poskim, telling people that they could rely on the livestream this year, it would be wrong and irresponsible for me to make people feel uncomfortable doing so (p. 131)’. Interestingly, Rabbi Klapper nevertheless began writing a responsum suggesting that listeners of a livestream video combine this with a livestream dictation – which was subsequently challenged by Rabbanit Klapper. As he wrote, ‘That should probably have been enough to stop me. However, Deborah only got involved after I had already written several drafts of an essay arguing for this proposal’ (p. 132).
Personally, I would love to see a responsa volume reflecting the blend of idealism and pragmatism that are evident from the exchanges between Rabbi and Rabbanit Klapper. Beyond this, perhaps Rabbi Klapper could have further emphasized the role that a spouse, or peer, can play as a sounding board and as a learning partner in the development of a psak.
iii. Noted Absences
Lastly, while Rabbi Klapper is clearly fascinated by halakhic development and especially by the way in which halakhah responds to real-world issues, I did find it particularly unusual that while he often quotes certain modern responsa authors (eg. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef), there are a number of significant poskim who have made major contributions to these areas (eg. Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, Dayan Shlomo Deichovsky, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen) whom he doesn’t quote. As the Center for Modern Torah Leadership ‘was formulated to oppose the claim that halakhah can be discussed in the beit midrash without considering real-world consequences’ (p. 83), I would have imagined that a greater number of contemporary halakhists who wrestle with these kinds of issues would have been mentioned.
Rabbi Klapper has a penchant to philosophize about what is halakhah, and in many instances, his observations are incredibly incisive. At the same time, there were moments when I would have preferred the halakhic texts that he quoted to speak for themselves.
As mentioned, the omission of any Preface or Introduction made it considerably harder for me to understand what this book is and who it is for. Moreover, for those who are not participants of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, it is not entirely clear where to go next with the discussions that naturally spring from each of the chapters in this book (nb. unfortunately, Rabbi Klapper doesn’t even include his email address in ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ for readers to offer their thoughts – which I think is a missed opportunity).
Does ‘Divine Will and Human Experience’ ‘illuminate every stage’ of how ‘practical halakhah.. is generated by the pressure of reality on Torah’? No. Still, it is most certainly a stimulating read that touches on a wide range of issues relating to the intersection of halakhah and reality which many will find to be incredibly valuable especially when thinking about the ‘way’ in which halakhah changes.