Yitzchak Roness responds to Aryeh Klapper

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper discussed his new book Divine Will and Human Experience here in last week’s interview last week. There will be several responses -here is the first of the several responses.

Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Avi Roness is a lecturer in various colleges [Michlala, Orot, Givat Washington] and a communal Rav in Beit Shemesh.  His Phd is on the halakhic method of Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and he writes on contemporary issues such as family planning

Review and Response to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper – Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Avi Roness

Rabbi Klapper’s book of explorations Divine Will and Human Experience touches upon a wide range of diverse topics from the specific to the conceptual. At times he explores the Halakhic minutiae surrounding specific narrow questions, while other explorations are dedicated to explicating some of the overarching metahalakhic questions regarding the underpinnings of Halakhic Discourse.

Thus, one essay takes the reader on an interesting ‘behind the scenes’ tour of R. Klapper’s own educational, and communal, considerations and motivations which led him to reject the accepted halakhic view regarding ‘Megillah Livestream reading’, and how he set out to establish a viable competing Halakhic alternative.

And in the interview R. Klapper explains that his unusually lengthy discussion of the Halakhic attitude towards Long Covid, stemmed from his seeing this as an opportunity “to model in real time the values of transparency, respect for autonomy, and textual/legal integrity” within Halakhic discourse.

R. Klapper’s fully candid, and wholly transparent, relationship with his readers is most apparent in his open admission of ultimately having failed. The author self-describes this attempt as a failed P’sak. He even gives a detailed description of how and why the author would choose to present his readers with a chronicle depicting the details of this type of a ‘failed’ endeavor.

Turning to the broader metahalakhic questions, I found a special interest in the attempt to clearly articulate the exact dynamic by which a Posek finds his way amongst the confusing maze of Halakhic opinions. Seeing as there are a multitude of Halakhic opinions, and various Halakhic precedents’ to draw upon, a veritable Seventy Face to Torah (Shiv’im Panim Latorah), how does any given Posek navigate his way around? Why is it that two contemporary Halakhic authorities presented with the same problem rule so differently from one another?

Two Types of Halakhic Decisors

Rabbi Klapper speaks of “two kinds of halakhic decisors” (See Divine Will and Human Experience, p. 63). He distinguishes between Poskim who rely heavily on procedural rules, as opposed to those whose decisions are animated by their attempt to weigh the respective merit of each opinion in order to arrive at the ‘correct’ Halakhic answer, based on their own subjective evaluation of the Halakhic possibilities.

Klapper proceeds to analyze the matter further, by distinguishing between different types of ‘merit’ which a Posek may prioritize in deciding upon the correct, or best, answer in any given case: Some Poskim may choose the opinion which they feel manages best to integrate the various Halakhic details into one unified, and coherent, conceptual structure, while others may evaluate the merit of any specific Halakhic opinion primarily as a function of its perceived fealty to Halakhic precedent. This Posek will attribute the most importance, and give added weight, to the Halakhic avenue which fits in best with accepted Minhag, or communal practice.

R. Klapper is well aware that these options do not even begin to exhaust all of the theoretical possibilities by which a posek will weigh, and ‘grade’, competing Halakhic pathways. Perhaps, R. Klapper proceeds to suggest, the chosen Halakhic outcome will be determined by an innate, almost intuitive, sense of propriety. In other words, the P’sak may be influenced primarily by the Posek’s asking himself which of the various opinions makes ‘more sense’ than any other? Which of the options simply ‘feels right’?  

R. Klapper’s discussion of images fits nicely into this schema. He describes a specific case where we find communal adoption of the Halakhic opinion which dovetails most closely with the community’s set of values: “Most of us live in Jewish cultures… (where) even non-philosophers instinctively agree that neither G-d nor angels look like anything in particular… “. “We also live in Jewish cultures that instinctively accept virtually every halakhic leniency regarding the production of images… It seems clear to me that these realities go hand-in-hand…” Our not considering angels as images dovetails with our leniency regarding the production of images. [page 128].At this point in his essay, Rabbi Klapper moves on to describe additional differences between Poskim.

Halakhic Intuition

As a reader I was left hoping that he would have paused a little longer to ponder this last point. I would have enjoyed if he would have allowed himself to try and untangle, and unpack further, this last claim:

What exactly constitutes, contributes to this intuitive feeling? What stands behind the subjective feeling that a given Halakhic position is more authentically true than any other?

When can we determine that it is the Posek’s subjective moral worldview that is at play? and when can we justifiably claim that some ideological tendency, or another, lead him to intuitively adopt one Halakhic path from amongst the various options laid out before him?

In any event, R. Klapper does not let himself get mired in endless theoretical philosophizing.

He quickly returns to reality and points out that no typological description can truly be seen as a full description of the practical approach adopted by a flesh-and-blood Halakhist.

A real life Posek will move back and forth between various pathways of decision making:

“Actual decisors”, he writes, “like actual human beings, are generally hybrids rather than ideal types”. To this he adds another insightful caveat: “Even decisors with generally strong and self-aware methodological commitments, may override them roughshod when dealing with issues that activate them ideologically”.

Halakhah, Ethics, and the Broader Community  

One of the additional metahalakhic questions dealt with in the interview is the relationship between Halakha and ethics, and more pointedly, situations in which Halakha stands in opposition to a person’s ethical intuitions. R. Klapper’s reply is nuanced. On the one hand, he celebrates the declaration that “Halakhah should be heavily influenced by ethics”, and believes that “students have the responsibility to challenge their teachers… especially when they are taught Torah that conflicts with their deepest intuitions about what G-d wants”.

On the other hand, R. Klapper openly acknowledges the teacher’s own limitations as a result of their membership in the broader community of Halakhically obligated individuals.

Just “as in every political system, one can be ethically bound to respect the outcome of a communal decision process even when one finds that outcome to be substantively unethical”.

This association with Halakhists of a different moral and political ilk leads to the conclusion that rulings issued by communally accepted Halakhic authorities may reflect ‘narrow perspectives’, ‘mechanical’ or even ‘magical’ thinking, and may express ethically problematic views. Nonetheless, such decision are binding for the simple reason that they were ‘made by people to whom the halakhic community gives authority’.

Thus, the harsh reality is that the teacher himself does not have the power to solve ethical conundrums. The Teachers too, no less than their students, inhabit a position of ‘uncertainty and discomfort in the context of unwavering commitment’, as they too find themselves to be “bound by halakhic outcomes that they consider unethical”.

I would add the following observation: A Rabbinic authority who sees himself as part of a community is constrained not only insofar as he must reject his own conclusions when they are contradicted by those made by ‘accepted authorities’. The actual constraint runs far deeper than that. Such an individual is held back in the degree to which he can allow himself to stray from the accepted view, in order to even propose, if only provisionally, a differing opinion, without fearing that this itself will lead to his being labeled as one who has strayed afield and broken away from the fold.

Who has authority? How do Rabbis relate to Gedolim & Chief Rabbis?

Who is the community and who are the accepted authorities invested with authority?

The current ‘working model’ grants Halakhists broad authority as a result of general acclaim and regard. However, this system tilts the scales rather heavily in the direction of certain types of individuals. Sadly, it seems that the current model highly favors those who espouse ‘narrow perspectives’, ‘mechanical’ or even ‘magical’ thinking…

The willingness on the part of individuals like R. Klapper who pay a heavy price in the sense of self-censorship in order to remain a part of the broader Orthodox community, can only exist if there is a sense of reciprocity in the guise of a minimal amount of recognition afforded by this same community.

Writing from the standpoint of an American born, yet Israeli bred communal rabbi, my thoughts naturally turn to the realities of the Israeli scene, the world that I am most intimately aware of its contours.

For many years the Religious Zionist Rabbinate gladly accepted the overarching authority of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. And yet, something has changed. Over the past ten years or so a number of different independent organizations have sprung up, Whether it is in regard to matters of Kashrut Supervision, private Conversion Batei Din, and even independent Kiddushin more on the fringes.

The reason for this change is easy to discern: For over seventy years the Chief Rabbinate was led by Rabbinic figures who openly identified as Religious Zionist. Currently, neither one of the two acting chief rabbis is seen as such then there is an unbridgeable gap between the Rabbinate and Religious Zionist rabbinic figures.

This reality certainly has evolved over time, and yet the case may be made that the present chief Rabbis are more distant from the traditional image embodied by figures of former chief rabbis such as Rabbis Kook,, Herzog and Nissim.

But perhaps more importantly, I believe that the shift may be traced back to the way R. David Stav was treated when he ran as a candidate for this position some eight years ago:

R. Stav who was seen as a leading Religious Zionist rabbi, of the more liberal and open minded bent, was roundly derided by leading Rabbinic authorities of the day such as R. Ovadia Yosef as well as many others.

I believe that this was a watershed moment for many in the Religious Zionist rabbinic mainstream: Simply put: If you are unwilling to even accept my candidate as someone worthy of even participating in the process, than I’m sorry, but I’m opting out… I no longer feel bound by your accepted Halakhic authorities [i.e. the Chief Rabbinate]. From that point onwards many felt free to set out on their own path and try to influence Halakha in the way they saw appropriate, unfettered by the bonds which had previously held them back.

Rabbi Klapper & Authority  

This leads me back to think of R. Klapper himself, and to wonder what would happen if he were to reach a similar conclusion: If he were to decide to ‘throw off’ some of the social restraints currently holding him in check, and set out on his own path of paskening practical Halakha in an unrestrained manner, what novel Halakhic positions would he then espouse?

On a practical level I wonder what could possibly trigger such a move on his part: Would a personal affront in the guise of a Cherem lead him to decide that ‘enough is enough’?

What about the possible realization that community-wide accepted Halakhic authorities are deciding fundamentally important Halakhic questions with complete disregard to the principles of freedom equality and dignity which he values so dearly: Would this ‘do the trick’?

I suggest that I would not find this possibility to be overly objectionable, the reason is simple:

Although our community is well served by a modicum of social conformity on part of its rabbinic leaders, at the same time this constant need to compromise with their inner sense of truth comes at a high price.

When a Halakhic scholar on R. Klapper’s level constantly holds himself back, the entire world ends up losing out on words of Torah we might never hear…

As R. Kook describes in his classic work Orot how social divisions and separations may inadvertently be seen as a source of blessing. If this social process ultimately provides each independent group with the spiritual environment needed to properly develop their respective positions in full, then in the sum total we are all better off. (Orot Yisrael, 4:6)

R. Kook explains that the greater abundance of ‘Lights’, and perspectives involved in the translation of the Divine Good into practical life, ultimately serves to elevate the entire world.

To conclude, I would like to thank R. Klapper for his current explorations and bless us all so that we merit to enjoy many more explorations in the future!

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