Halakhic Independence vs. Conservatism
Our Gemara on Amud Beis engages in a discussion regarding posthumous challenges to the halakhic position of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Yehoshua addresses the group of questioners, including himself, stating: “אֵין מְשִׁיבִין אֶת הָאֲרִי לְאַחַר מִיתָה” (One does not refute the opinion of a lion after his death). This expression emphasizes that even if compelling questions arise, we cannot be certain that Rabbi Eliezer would not have provided equally compelling answers, thereby preserving his halakhic stance.
Similar to the complexity of human personality, Judaism encompasses conflicting tensions between opposing values. It is not always a matter of right or wrong, but rather what is right in a given time or situation. Halakha is widely known for its conservative nature and resistance to rapid change, as well as its deference to the rulings of earlier sages. Certain issues have been codified in halakha based on specific interpretations, which are considered binding due to the accepted agreement among the Jewish people. For instance, the Talmudic rulings are generally upheld as the accepted standard, and the Shulkhan Arukh has become a canonized source
Despite this conservatism, there are fascinating exceptions that promote halakhic independence and creativity. Some Acharonim were known for their ability to challenge the rulings of Rishonim. For instance, the Noda BeYehuda extolled the Maharshal (Rav Shlomo Luria, 1510-1573) though he argues with great Rishonim, stating he is the exception to the time to his heart of a lion. Our Gemara’s use of the lion metaphor to represent an elderly sage surely informs Rav Landau’s Leonine reference to the Maharshal.) Similarly, the Shach and the Gra were not hesitant to engage in debates with earlier authorities, showcasing the importance of critical thinking and independent analysis.
In this context, Rav Yosef Karo’s words in Avekas Rochal 155 hold significance: “Though the Ritva and the Rivash are far more knowledgeable than us in how they understand the earlier sages…but if there is compelling logic, we still refute them, for are we merely choppers of reed?” This statement emphasizes that later generations can gain insights surpassing those of earlier sages, particularly when new understanding emerges through rigorous intellectual exploration.
The introduction of Megillas Esther on Rambam Sefer Hamitzvos offers two compelling arguments supporting the ability of later generations to exceed earlier ones in knowledge. The first argument highlights the advantage of deep focus and effort invested in a specific subject by individuals from later generations. This allows them to surpass the breadth of knowledge possessed by earlier sages who had to cover a wide range of subjects. The second argument underscores that later generations have the advantage of accessing organized wisdom from the past, while earlier sages had to laboriously extract and comprehend knowledge in an era of incomplete and concealed wisdom.
Two additional quotes advocate for halakhic creativity and independence, although they do not specifically endorse overturning the rulings of prior accepted sages:
- Rav Yaakov Emden (Lechem Shamayim 122) cites the a tradition from his father in the name of Chelkas Mechokek, stating that one should not rule on halakhic matters until they possess the intellectual acumen to challenge and refute a ruling in Shulkhan Arukh. This highlights the importance of independence and the ability to critically evaluate established rulings. (This means he needs to have the ability and independence to be able to refute Shukhan Arukh. This is similar to the Talmudic tradition (Sanhedrin 17a) that a judge of the Sanhedrin must be able to give a credible Torah arguments that an impure dead sheretz is actually pure. It does not mean he should do so; it just means he must have the ability to do so.)
- Rav Chaim Volozhin (Ruach Chaim Avos 1:2) emphasizes that a student should not accept their teacher’s teachings uncritically if they have unresolved questions. This encourages thoughtful inquiry and exploration within the realm of halakhic study.
In conclusion, the tension between halakhic conservatism and the potential for halakhic independence creates a dynamic and intellectually engaging atmosphere within Judaism. It highlights the ongoing process of critical thinking, independent analysis, and the pursuit of deeper understanding within the framework of Jewish law
Thinking the Unthinkable
The Gemara on Amud Aleph presents an intriguing dispute between Abaye and Rava concerning the validity of a condition in a get (bill of divorce). If the husband stipulates a condition that is impossible, the Get is valid even when the condition cannot be met. What about a condition that is technically possible but unthinkable,.such as “on the condition that you eat pig meat”? Abaye argues that the get is still valid because the condition is void, being forbidden by Torah law. However, Rava contends that if the wife were to eat the prohibited meat, she could fulfill the condition and be punished for it. Thus, the condition is considered valid.
This dispute may be understood from different perspectives. One approach considers whether a person subjectively views committing a sin as a possibility or an impossibility. Is the thought of sinning seen as impossible, or is the possibility of committing a sin itself considered impossible? The example given in the Gemara is a sin that is both very possible and impossible at the same time.
Another way to interpret the disagreement is to relate it to their well-known dispute regarding inadvertent unaware loss (יאוש שלא מדעת) discussed in Bava Metzia (21b). Abaye requires specific intention and not presumed intention, while Rava considers presumed intention as actual intention. This may explain their differing views in our Gemara as well. Abaye views the condition of eating non-kosher as impossible because the person would not actually commit the sin, while Rava treats potentiality as reality, making the condition binding
Furthermore, this dispute could be connected to another famous disagreement between Abaye and Rava when they were young children (Berachos 48a). When asked by Rabba to whom one recites blessings, Abaye and Rava pointed to different locations to represent where the All-Merciful resides. Abaye went outside and pointed to the heavens, while Rava pointed to the ceiling. Abaye needed to step outside and point to the sky, suggesting that potentiality is not the same as actuality. In contrast, Rava was content to point to the ceiling, considering potential as already a form of actuality.
Rabba’s reaction, likening the recognition of potential in individuals to identifying a ripe cucumber in its early stages of development, also supports the idea that potentiality is actuality.
The Mishna on Amud Aleph defines the essential characteristic of a Get (Jewish bill of divorce): “You are hereby permitted to marry any man.” Lomdishe discussions consider whether this single declaration is sufficient to effect the divorce or if there are two distinct elements involved: the legal transaction of giving over the document and the declaration within the document that finalizes the unencumbrance.
While this may appear as a minute analysis, it is relevant in discussions surrounding “Reyach Haget,” commonly known as “the odor of Get.” Under certain circumstances, even if the divorcement is not entirely valid, it may have enough weight to disrupt the marriage and render the woman ineligible to marry a Cohen, even if she actually never obtained a valid divorce but instead became a widow (see Yevamos 94a, and some consider this to be deoraysa, see Arukh HaShulkhan EH 150:2).
Regardless, the straightforward statement granting freedom to marry anyone is a clear declaration of emancipation from prior marital ties and commitments. The principle of “אגידא גביה” emphasizes that any clauses or conditions significantly tying the woman to her ex-husband’s wishes invalidate the entire divorce because there are, in a sense, “strings attached” (see Gittin 78b and 82a-b).
In Shemos Rabbah 20:3, the Midrash questions an unusual phrase in Shemos (13:17): “and it was when Pharaoh sent the Jews out of Egypt.” The Midrash asks was it not God who extricated the Jews by force and not Pharaoh who sent them out? Sefer Eshel Avraham provides a psychological answer, suggesting that Pharaoh needed to release the Jewish people verbally from their master, as it wasn’t enough for them to be liberated through miracles.
Ibn Ezra (Shemos 14:13) also notes the lack of confidence and slave mentality exhibited by the Jews in their inability to fight back or tolerate the challenges of the wilderness.
Although one may be technically free after emerging from difficult circumstances or personal traumas, becoming emotionally free requires psychological work that operates independently of facts and circumstances. Historical cases of “Stockholm syndrome” illustrate how captives can adopt their oppressor’s ideology as a defense mechanism to protect their ego and preserve a sense of purpose and strength.
A person who is genuinely free can choose love and work, express creativity, playfulness, and lead a purposeful life with responsibilities balanced toward oneself and others. As we grow and extricate ourselves from psychological and emotional prisons of the past, we must introspect and ask whether we have truly attained freedom.
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses a unique feature of the dove, which has halakhic implications:
Rav Daniel bar Rav Katina raises a challenge: “All birds disqualify water of purification by drinking from it, because some of the water spills from the bird’s beak back into the basin after being disqualified by having been in the bird’s mouth. This is the halakha with regard to all birds except for the pigeon, because it sucks the water, which prevents it from spilling back.”
This statement about the dove invites deeper symbolic and homiletical analysis, especially considering that the Jewish people have been compared to the dove in the Talmud (Gittin 45a). What is the characteristic of the dove that seems to confirm extra purity upon it symbolically and upon the Jewish people in actuality?
The Sefer Ohel Simcha on Parashas Noach contrasts Noach’s selection of the ravens versus the dove. The raven was inherently mistrustful, circling and keeping a careful guard over its food. In contrast, the dove was able to follow Noah’s command and trust in God’s providence. This idea of satisfaction and trust with what is given to you is expressed symbolically by the dove only taking the right amount of water that it needs into its beak. Other birds seem to take a larger amount, keep some of it, and throw the rest back into the water, but the dove takes exactly what it needs.
From a psychological perspective, the way in which we relate to the world often induces a similar response from the world back to us. Our attitudes and expectations can affect others’ behavior or influence how we perceive opportunities. If we approach the world with scarcity and paranoia, we may experience similar responses. Conversely, if we relate to the world with trust, openness, and generosity, we tend to receive more positivity and generosity from others in return.
It is important to note that this is not about guaranteeing positive outcomes just by having positive thoughts; the physical world doesn’t operate with full predictability. Instead, this concept is about recognizing trends. By generally relating to others with trust and openness, one is more likely to experience positive and generous responses from others.
Taking Your Measurements
Our Gemara on Amud Beis delves into the practices of a group of scrupulous sages known as the “נקיי הדעת שבירושלים” or “those of pure intellectual and characterological disposition.” In this context, the Gemara discusses their preference for using precise words and avoiding unnecessary elaboration, especially when dealing with legal matters like a divorce bill. Rather than adding the descriptor “witness,” they simply sign their names, reflecting their desire to eliminate complexity and confusion in such intricate documents.
Hon Ashir, in his commentary on the Mishna, aptly describes this group as “clear-minded individuals” who speak concisely, as it signifies their freedom from confusion and folly. He cites the verse from Ecclesiastes 5:2, which warns that excessive words may reveal the voice of a fool.
Another Yiddish saying, originating from Gemara Bava Metzia (85b), further emphasizes this idea: “An empty vessel makes a lot of noise.”
Throughout the Talmud, we find similar references to this unique sect, highlighting their traits of brevity of speech, purity of expression, and discerning associations. Sanhedrin (23a) provides a glimpse into their practices: they would only sign a document, sit in judgment, or share a meal with individuals they knew and trusted.
Interestingly, Rashi in Chaggigah (2b) links phrase נקיי הדעת trait of conciseness with being obsessively hygienic and clean, hinting at a holistic approach to refinement.
An intriguing question arises regarding whether this idiom refers to two different classes of people—one spiritually fastidious and the other naturally fastidious—or if it encompasses the same category of individuals. Considering both perspectives is essential, as every character quality comes with its good and bad aspects. Some individuals may exhibit excessive scrupulousness and fastidiousness, leading to heightened spiritual purity and abstinence from sin. However, this can also manifest as obsessiveness and pedantry, with these individuals distancing themselves from those they perceive as not upholding their level of Torah discourse, or being too punctilious when relating to others.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for character trait, “Middah,” differs etymologically from the English words “trait” and “character.” While “trait” originates from the Latin word “tractus,” meaning “to draw,” and “character” comes from the Greek word for “stamping tool,” “Middah” means “measure” in Hebrew. This implies flexibility and fluctuation, much like different measures holding varying amounts. It also suggests that character traits themselves are neither inherently good nor bad; it is their quantity and balance that matter. Similar to using a pinch of salt or a half cup of sugar in a recipe, these traits can be thought of as essential components of a person’s character, each contributing to the overall composition in its unique way.
In our Gemara on Amud Beis, we encounter a verse from Shemos (21:1):
“וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃”
“These are the rules that you shall set before them.”
Be’er Mayim Chaim, in his commentary on this verse, draws attention to the phrase “before them.” He notes that it would be more linguistically consistent to say “placing the rules upon them” instead. So, what is the significance of “before them”? He explains that it hints at the attribute of justice serving as a protector for the Jewish people. When the Jewish people adhere to the rules of the Torah, it doesn’t evoke harsh judgment. Instead, it allows God to manifest His kindness and mercy towards them.
We observe a similar pattern in human behavior, where validation plays a crucial role. When a person feels validated, their emotional engagement tends to lessen. On the other hand, telling someone to calm down when they are angry or nervous usually intensifies their emotions. Most individuals seek validation when experiencing intense feelings. This concept aligns with the teachings in Pirke Avos (4:18), cautioning against trying to appease or comfort someone during their time of anger or grief.
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו, וְאַל תִּשְׁאַל לוֹ בִשְׁעַת נִדְרוֹ…
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Do not try to appease your friend during his hour of anger; Nor comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him; Nor question him at the hour of his vow.
The final directive in that Mishna is as follows:
וְאַל תִּשְׁתַּדֵּל לִרְאוֹתוֹ בִשְׁעַת קַלְקָלָתוֹ:
Nor strive to see him in the hour of his disgrace.
What is the connection between this last behavior and the prior three? I believe the sages brilliantly were aware of an unconscious, sadistic motive. The person appears to care, and that is why they are seemingly engaging the person in distress. But it shows an unconscious, voyeuristic wish to see their suffering. How do we know this? Because if the person was empathically attuned with the other person’s need, they would not bother with such a foolish thing as trying to comfort them when they are so emotionally aroused.
The sages wisely emphasize empathic listening, as demonstrated by the derash on a verse in Mishley (Yoma 75a):
“דְּאָגָה בְלֶב אִישׁ יַשְׁחֶנָּה…יְשִׂיחֶנָּה לַאֲחֵרִים׃”
“When there is care in a man’s heart, [yashhena]…One who worries should tell [yesihena] others his concerns.”
Empathic listening is a reflection of the dialogic nature of the human personality, and it leads to different responses when there are caring and involved observers of another person’s feelings. This phenomenon reflects a deeper pattern in the universe, seemingly informed by a godly quality. Rabbi Avigdor Miller ZT’L, drawing from mussar teachings, often emphasized that the human experience of material matters in this world serves as lessons for deeper spiritual truths. For instance, the pleasures of the world teach us about the ultimate bliss of the World to Come.
The concept that one human is meant to help bear the emotional burden of others signifies God’s desire for humans to join Him in His concerns. When we value and take upon ourselves His concerns, it evokes more positive reactions. Pirke Avos (2:4) captures this idea beautifully:
“הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה רְצוֹנוֹ כִרְצוֹנְךָ, כְּדֵי שֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה רְצוֹנְךָ כִרְצוֹנוֹ. בַּטֵּל רְצוֹנְךָ מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנוֹ, כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל רְצוֹן אֲחֵרִים מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנֶךָ׃”
“He used to say: do His will as though it were your will, so that He will do your will as though it were His. Set aside your will in the face of His will, so that He may set aside the will of others for the sake of your will.”
Taking upon ourselves attributes of law and justice in an appropriate manner “frees” God to exhibit merciful qualities. This interconnectedness between human and divine empathy highlights the profound relationship between God and His creation.
Seeing is Feeling
Our Gemara on Amud Beis introduces an intriguing idiom used to describe a precocious young child: “Flagos Reuven” (פלגות ראובן).
This idiom finds its origin in a verse from the song of Devorah (Judges 5:15-16):
“And the princes of Issachar were with Devorah,
As Barak, so was Issachar—
They rushed at his heels into the valley;
Among the flagos of Reuven
Were great decisions of heart.
“Why did you stay among the sheepfolds,
To hear the piping for the flocks?
Among the flagos of Reuven
Were great searchings of heart!”
While the word “flagos” has multiple translations, some commentaries, supported by our Gemara, suggest that it refers to a tradition about Reuven’s precociousness as a young child. Over time, this term evolved into an idiom used to describe a precocious child or a bright budding scholar, depending on the context.
However, certain commentaries and Midrash interpret this reference as a criticism of the tribe of Reuven. Devorah wonders how they could have remained indifferent and not joined their brothers in the battle against Sisera. She questions how such wise and insightful individuals could be blind to the urgency of the situation.
Rav Henoch Leibowitz ZT’L (חידושי הלב שמות כ״א:ח) delves into this idea and follows an interpretation (see Ralbag) that the crying out of the flocks was not a literal reference to Reuven tending to their own flocks and staying on their side. Instead, it symbolizes turning a blind eye to the cries of torment and suffering from the “flock” of the Jewish people who were suffering on the battlefield across the Jordan. According to Rav Henoch, their ability to hear these cries compounded their sin. He emphasizes the difference between intellectually knowing about something and actively hearing or seeing it. The power of empathy is heightened when one sees and hears the actual suffering of others.
Rav Henoch’s insight offers a valuable lesson in empathy and concern for others. Merely knowing about someone’s predicament should not lead us to help from a distance. Instead, we should take the time to visit and listen to the person, as this fosters a deeper level of empathy and compassion.
Furthermore, Rav Henoch’s interpretation aligns with the biblical language, where God is described as “going down to see” the people of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5) and the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:21). Additionally, this idea finds support in neuroscience through the discovery of “mirror neurons.” These neurons are activated in the observer’s brain when watching someone else engage in an activity, leading to a degree of empathizing with the observed experience. This neurological phenomenon highlights our inherent inclination to empathize with others when we witness their experiences.