Accepting Rabbinic Authority – Is The Individualistic American Outlook a Deterrent?

When we think of America, one of the core principles is freedom. The Bill of Rights enshrined and gave freedom a legal foundation. Much of American history, whether in the debates against slavery and its expansion, the protection of one’s right to think, speak and worship or not to worship and even an asserted right to privacy, revolve around an individual’s rights and his or her ability to push the envelope of society-whether intellectually or culturally-at the expense of what other elements in society would consider immoral, inappropriate or violently offensive to their sense of decency. Based upon these facts, it is no accident that the media, etc of 2008 are neither that of 1988 nor 1888.

The Torah and especially halacha, in my opinion (IMO), offer a different point of view (POV) on freedom. The Halacha is first and foremost a a system that is premised on both the individual and the community. Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (RYBS) pointed out that the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim incorporated this factor intentionally to highlight the discrete roles of the individual and the community. However, as an individual, halacha is premised on how one fulfills one’s obligation in a particular context called a mitzvah. In other words (IOW), the issue is not how one pushes the envelope to get away with fitting in with the system, but rather in fulfilling one’s obligations in a sense that one fulfills the spirit as well as the letter of the law. By comparison, a First Amendment based challenge or even far less seemingly significant cases are all based upon pushing the level of existing precedents or merely blindly defending them.

Given that premise and the American tradition of individualism, the demand that a Jew nullify his or her own will and rely on what a Rav says or after many years of study, what they think that their rebbe would say, is no small intellectual challenge. It requires rewiring your mind to think first and foremost-what does halacha require and how can I best fulfill my obligation as a Jew. IOW, I would suggest that attempts to manipulate halacha to accommodate those who view Halacha as either sexist , etc, fail to recognize that halacha is based on obligations, not rights.

In its most pristine and ideal form, all of halacha is built first and foremost on how each of us can best fulfill his or her obligations , whether on the individual or communal level. Seder Zeraim, beginning with Brachos and continuing thru the end of that seder that deals which deals wiith many of the Mitzvos HaTelyos HaAretz, reminds us that man may only consume from this world in a proper and Divinely permitted way. Seder Moed tells us that time is sacred. Seder Nashim teaches us to get married , be a better spouse and to use our mouths and minds in a proper manner. . Seder Nezikin tells us how to compensate an injured party, how to pay for one’s negligence, how to respect someone else’s property as well as how a court system should operate. Sidrei Kodashim and Taharos instruct us how to offer what we earn to God and how to act in a holy manner. The key is how do I fulfil my obligations-not how I can stretch the meaning of the law. Even the language of Halacha speaks of obligations-Yotzei, Chayav, Patur, Lchatchilah, meizid, shogeg. Once one has fulfilled their obligation, then and only then, can one speak of enhancing one’s fulfillment of any mitzvah via minhagim , etc.

The easiest contrast between the American values of freedom and how a Torah observant Jew views the world is in the realm of marriage . In this regard, just read any of the supermarket tabloids or even the NY Times Sunday Styles and contrast the wedding announcements with those in any media that is read in the Torah world ranging from the Jewish Press to the Yated. The contrast between the two is very palpable.

Let me suggest a relatively simple explanation.Obviously, the halachic view of the family neither is hedonistic nor one based on Victorian notions of prudery. However, IMO, there is a major factor that firmly accentuates the community’s right and obligation to sanction the creation of a Bayis Neeman B’Yisrael.

The Rambam in the beginning of Hilcos Ishus describes marriage before and after the giving of the Torah and the fact that Halacha demands that the marriage ceremony be held before a minyan. RYBS once commented that the Rambam was emphasizing that marriage is an act that requires communal approval and sanction, as opposed to the contemporary ethos that basically looks at marriage either as the consummation of a long “hook up” of two pieces of plumbing for convenience or a merger of assets to obtain economic benefits. While contemporary society almost venerates romantic love as the basis for marriage and worships at the holy grail of society, Halacha, in a revolutionary way, reminds us that marriage is the holiest of acts between a man and woman for a higher purpose that requires a communal approval. It is only after the vort, chasunah and sheva brachos that a couple can learn, on a day to day basis, to love and cherish each other.

I would add one small caveat, A system that is predicated on individual rights seemingly at the expense of the community invests all with the same abilities and rights to an opinion, regardless of their level of knowledge. Halacha insists that while all Jews are created in the Divine Image and our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, only those with the most knowledge of Torah and Halacha are entitled or should render an opinion, especially on cutting edge issues of halacha. It is akin to seeking medical or other specialized advice. Only someone with expertise in a subject can be counted on for an intelligent, albeit not infallible opinion.

10 comments on “Accepting Rabbinic Authority – Is The Individualistic American Outlook a Deterrent?

  1. Steve, well written. It is analagous to a laymen listening to an expert on the matter. From an academic perspective, the accomplished scholar of the field, should have his opinion’s treated as biniding, or at least, strongly persuasive authority, in comparison wihth the lay man.

  2. Dan-I don’t think that a novice or even a rav or RY or Admor whose expertise is not Psak, no matter what his Hashkafa or job description, is fit to render Psak on issues that are not within his job description and skill set.

  3. Dovid (post #5):

    1) The news media – especially broadcast media – have largely become entertainment vehicles.

    2) By the 1970s left-wingers had pretty well entrenched themselves in major news/media outlets, and were using their position to influence public morals and glamorize a new idea of adulthood based on being rebellious and independent/unattached.

    Shows like “All in the Family” are textbook examples of that.

    What’s changed is probably that you are less gullible than you were – having seen more of the real world, you are less likely to accept the mediated version as truthful. You (we!) didn’t know any better. But they were lying back then, too…

  4. Those who sincerely want to accept rabbinic authority often have to actively seek out an authority to accept. A competent authority who can understand you might not live in your community. You’re not likely to stay in one community your whole life. You might find that several authorities with different areas of expertise are necessary to cover your needs. You might find that your future spouse has developed a rapport with a different authority than your own. So accepting rabbinic authority is a dynamic process.

  5. You are entitled to an opinion even if you are not an expert. Just it may not be wise to implement the opinion.

  6. Ben-David…you’re so right! But not just the entertainment field (TV/Movies/Music)…the news media has a large impact on values, too.

    Why is it that I don’t recall being influenced so much by these industries when I was growing up (1970’s)? Something has changed drastically, but I don’t know what it is. Possibly its because there are so many more ways of becoming a couch potato? The internet, cable TV, satelite TV, satelite radio….all with thousands of channels to choose from 24-hours a day. No one has time to think things through anymore…

  7. Dovid (post #2) wrote:
    Since politicians are seen as our leaders here in the US, and we tend to assume that they know the law best, and what’s in our best interests.
    – – – – – – – – – –
    I think the bigger problem is that the materialist glamour culture has annointed models and actors as our “leaders”. I think that Hollywood has done more to cultivate the cult of the youthful rebel than Washington has.

    Regarding the original post, a Rabbi in YU once pointed out to me that what the Torah expresses as an obligation of the individual to others, Western democracy expresses as a right of the individual – often in defiance of others.

    The two systems often sound like their values are similar – both the Torah and (lehavdil) the Constitution both speak of inalienable, elevated qualities of being human, and of individual choice and conscience – but the essential difference between rights and obligations leads Jews towards adult responsibility (and even transcendence of self) while Western democracy (untempered by Judaid ethics) can lead to selfishness, narcissism and detachment.

  8. Nice post. Just a few comments:

    Based on what I’ve been learning in Seder Nashim, Chazal were very concerned about the economic aspects of marriage and not just the kedushah.

    The point about expertise is very well taken, however it should apply to rabbis as well; I’ve seen too many embarassing public pronouncements by rabbis who have not researched the area in which they are making statements.

    It is ironic that it is precisely the unique American insistence on “rights” that allows us to practice our religion with almost no constraints. But yet another reason why there is reluctance to surrender to rabbinic authority is that America is almost unique in that the Jewish community developed and matured with little input from rabbis: The first Jews arrived in 1654, while the first rabbi to settle permanently arrived in 1840. Although there were day schools even in colonial times, there was no real yeshiva until JTS (originally Orthodox) was founded in the late 19th century. As a result, lay Jews ran things and in most communities still do. I’ve heard far too many horror stories about a shul board overruling a rabbi on a matter of minhag or even halachah. (And it isn’t always where the rabbi wants to be machmir.)

  9. PS: Since politicians are seen as our leaders here in the US, and we tend to assume that they know the law best, and what’s in our best interests…it is easy to understand why it is difficult to bring ourselves to a high level of trust and rely on the authority of our Rabbinic leaders. We have been burned so badly by our secular “leaders”, that it can be hard to differentiate in our minds when it comes to the advice of our talmidi chochamim. When one is not raised to give the great respect that they deserve, it can seem quite unnatural to do so. Lastly, for many of us, it’s hard to really know who our generation’s leaders realy are. The Jewish media has a lot to do with this, I believe. I can count on one hand the major Rabbonim who I had seen doing kiruv outside the frum world when I was first discovering Yiddishkite. So, it’s no wonder that I myself am not so familiar with many of them…but I’m working on it.

  10. Nicely put, Steve. I enjoyed the read. It reminds me of the sad condition that has developed in the US over the last forty years, in that most folks do not know the difference between having rights and having priviledges. As observant Jews, we too have a similar condition, in which we frequently (sometimes with intent) misunderstand halacha. A common habit in our generation is to ignore the spirit of the law, and choose to stay “just inside the boundaries” of halacha. Anyone with eyes and ears can see that the world around us has undergone and is undergoing a moral upheaval. It is more critical now than ever before for Jews to come to grips with this. Only through the true spirit of the halacha and the values of our avos and emos will we safely pass this storm. The fences that our sages built for us are in need of repair and stregnthening, and sadly many don’t see this, nor are willing to give up their “rights” to do ride the fence…

Comments are closed.