When a turkey is not just a turkey
To paraphrase a witticism about mysticism by Prof. Saul Liberman, z”l: “Turkey is turkey, but the philosophy behind hilkhot turkey is challenging Torah.”
Several leading luminaries of our generation were asked THE Thanksgiving question, and the divergence of their responses is rather surprising.
They were asked: May one celebrate Thanksgiving?
Rav Henkin, z”l, answered:
Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l, paskened (over the course of several responsa about this issue, which makes clear that he was conflicted about it):
—-“Yes, but only occasionally, not on a regular basis.”
—–“It is assur because of chukat hagoy.”
—–“No, it is not chukat hagoy, but it is nevertheless forbidden because of ba’al tosif, the prohibition against adding new obligations.”
Rav Hutner, z”l, proclaimed:
——“It is possibly a capital crime, punishable by death, because the practice has semi-idolatrous connotations. I am, however, not keen on publicizing my opinion, because such a view might have detrimental social consequences. Sharing this view publicly might cause pikuach nefesh.”
(Rav Moshe and others critiqued Rav Hutner’s view in very strong terms.)
Much has been said about the individual opinions of the poskim as regards celebrating Thanksgiving, but nobody has yet taken the aerial view.
Taken collectively, this debate raises interesting questions about the halakhic process: What does it mean for halakha that a random softball question like this one can generate such diametrically opposed views, going from “absolutely mutar” to “one perhaps has to die rather than having some turkey on this day”?
The fact that there is a variety of opinions is of course in and of itself not surprising; it happens all the time. But this is unique. To have the views run the gamut from “it is allowed” to “it is a borderline cardinal sin” is not very common and therefore demands explanation. The radical degree of disparity we see here must be teaching us something significant about the halakhic process. What that is, I am not sure.
My inkling, though, is that it is evidence that extrajudicial social, theological, and communal considerations are a significant variable when determining psak. Poskim do not decide psak exclusively on textual merits. When the texts on their own are not dispositive, poskim allow other considerations to help point the outcome in a particular direction. Therefore, even though Rav Henkin, Rav Moshe, and Rav Hutner had the same set of sources in front of them, external non-halakhic factors led them to arrive at such incredibly different conclusions.
That’s my hunch, but I am not sure that this is what is happening here – i.e., that their respective social and communal realities indeed informed their radically divergent views.
However, if my hunch is in fact correct, it begs the question: What does that mean for us? In which instances should those considerations be a variable when we today deliberate halakhic questions? In cases where the letter of the law is ambiguous or inconclusive – with some sources suggesting lenient adjudication while an equal number of sources point in the direction of stringency – may the contemporary posek allow social, communal, or spiritual considerations to inform the direction they take, whether to be lenient or stringent? Furthermore, what are the precise parameters of those external variables? What are valid social, communal, or spiritual concerns that warrant having the power to tilt halakha in a certain direction, and what are invalid concerns?
These are important questions with which today’s poskim grapple constantly. For now, though, we are still… in the dark, lacking any clear guidelines for how and when to let non-textual variables take a leading role in guiding the halakhic process.
PS. The aforementioned list of opinions, of course, isn’t exhaustive; many more rabbis have expressed their views on this issue. I, however, only mentioned three that span the spectrum – a) absolutely allowed, b) maybe it is allowed and maybe it isn’t, and c) it is definitely not allowed – because my goal was just to illustrate the radical divergence on this issue among the poskim, from mutar to possibly יהרג ואל יעבור.