Preserving our Mesorah in Changing Times: Emanuel Feldman

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Photo: Vosamo Photography

The Story of the Robe
When I first arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fifties, the president of the shul immediately suggested that I wear a black robe on the pulpit on Friday nights and Shabbos. Why? He was open about it. Ours was a small Orthodox shul, we needed to grow; the local Conservative rabbi wore a black robe, and he had a huge congregation; ergo, it followed that if I followed suit, we too would attract many members (we had only forty at the time). His logic was hardly impeccable, but this was not the only reason I resisted. One did not have to be a gadol/posek to realize instinctively that this was the beginning of a slippery slope: whatever the non-Orthodox were doing—beyond their vestments—would eventually be expected of me.

I never wore the robe, although my well-meaning president asked the inevitable question: Where is it written that a rav may not wear a robe on Shabbos? I was hard-pressed to give an intelligent answer, though perhaps a case could have been made concerning “uvechukoteihem lo teilechu,” “thou shalt not walk in [non-Jewish] ways” (Vayikra 18:3). But I tried to explain that not every jot and tittle of life is covered by the Shulchan Aruch, that there are certain behaviors that are so obviously off track—what we call muvan me’eilav, and lawyers call “res ipsa loquitur,” something that speaks for itself and is self-evident—that it need not be recorded in a code of law.

The robe incident was my first encounter with that amorphous and indefinable framework (about which more below) that focuses on the spirit and intent of the law. That framework serves as an invisible security fence that preserves the integrity of the Torah, even in those areas not explicitly covered by the halachah itself, and helps guide us as to what is and what is not appropriate behavior. We call that framework “mesorah,” a tradition handed down through the ages that helps keep inviolate the sanctity of the Torah and mitzvot, protecting them from the inroads of hostile surroundings. (The fence analogy is not inapt: he who breaks through certain religious boundaries is known in halachah as a poretz geder, one who “breaches the fence.”)

To have worn the black robe would not have been a cardinal offense; no one would have revoked my semichah. But—particularly because of the rationale behind it—it represented something foreign and out of sync with classical Yiddishkeit. For me, it was a small breach in the fence of the mesorah that somehow made one sensitive to actions that were in essence questionably Jewish.

Defining Mesorah

We know what mesorah does. But what it actually is defies definition, because it is multi-dimensional, much misunderstood and misused, and requires several thick volumes of analysis. Literally, it stems from the root msr, to give over or to transmit. What does it transmit? A number of things, one of which is a way of looking at the Torah, a way of approaching halachah. For example, when the great classic decisors disagree about a certain issue, there is a mesorah, a tradition that guides our decision-making. But there is more to mesorah than this: based in antiquity, it deals not only with the externals of the Torah, but primarily with its “within.” It helps determine the spirit and intent of Torah and mitzvot. Mesorah—itself unwritten but transmitted from teacher to disciple—overlays the written text, and helps apply it to ever-changing circumstances. Where certain behaviors are not covered by explicit laws, mesorah offers a glimpse of what lies between the lines of the Torah, a kind of compass and road map that helps determine what is, or is not, within the bounds of Torah.

Mesorah is not to be found in a special “Book of Mesorah,” but it is nevertheless the handmaiden of Torah, mitzvot and halachah. It is not only a security fence, but also a great, overarching tent that hovers over the halachah and sets the tone and framework for appropriate service of God.

The Passion for Fashion
The mesorah’s guidelines are of special importance in our time, which suffers from a centuries-old Jewish malaise that has become toxic in the twenty-first century. This might be called “Imitatio Goyi,” Imitation of the Gentiles, and is a powerful force in much of contemporary Jewish religious behavior. In fact, the Vilna Gaon, in his Beurei HaGra (Berachot IX, p. 27a), states that this desire to be accepted and to behave like the surrounding culture–k’chol hagoyim—is the single most overriding temptation besetting our people. Specifically: in the robe incident, why was the Conservative rabbi wearing it? Because the Reform rabbi was doing so. Why was the Reform rabbi doing so? Because the Episcopalian minister down the street was doing so. This was Exhibit A of the trickle-down theory of Jewish practice.

Why are so many people these days eagerly testing the outer edges of the mesorah? Why, for example, the very need for this symposium? Is the zeitgeist seeping into our Orthodox Jewish lives and affecting our religious behavior? Of course it is. We all know first-hand the pressures to be accepted and au courant, to be “with it,” to be up to date, to show a passion for fashion, and to reject ideas that could be seen as reactionary, or hidebound, or obscurantist. To float along with the stream is only natural. And so even halachically-loyal Jews push against the mesorah fence to see if perhaps there is some elbow room to express our avant-garde selves—occasionally forgetting that one way to determine if a fish is kosher is to see if it has a backbone and is not fearful of strong currents (Sukkah 18a).

Where Is It Forbidden?
The question of the fifties president is still being asked today, albeit in different articulations. Rabbi, what is wrong with a woman wearing a tallit? Where is it forbidden? Why should not a woman wear tefillin if she wants to reach out to God? Why should not a man immerse in a mikvah once a month, in honor of his wife? Why should not a single woman immerse herself in a mikvah if she wants to? Why should not a woman read a parallel English reading to the sheva berachot under the wedding canopy? Where is it forbidden? Why should the groom not encircle his bride, just as she encircles him? Why not a double-ring ceremony? Why should not the husband light candles on Friday night together with—or instead of—his wife? And inevitably, why should there not be female rabbis and chazzanim (chazzanot)? Where is it forbidden for a woman to lead a synagogue chant?

Such questions lose sight of the fact that even if something is not expressly forbidden in the Torah or Codes, it can still be completely out of bounds—because it is not in the spirit of the Torah and thus threatens to weaken the fabric of Jewish life. That which is not specifically forbidden is not necessarily permitted.

Having defined mesorah and its function, and having seen how it can help determine the appropriateness of certain behaviors, one question nevertheless rears its curious head: Because of the very amorphous nature of mesorah, it is quite possible that one man’s mesorah might be another man’s breach in the wall. This could lead to communal chaos. Who makes the determination?

Gadol and Posek
In the absence of a Sanhedrin, faithful Jews have always consulted with the “shofet asher yihyeh bayamim ha’hem,” “the judge who will exist in those future days” (Devarim 17:9). That is, by consulting with universally acknowledged senior rabbinic decisors—gedolim/posekim—whose wisdom, experience, knowledge, and profound Torah learning are indisputable, one can determine what is or is not within the spirit of Jewish law.

A gadol/posek is not simply one who teaches Talmud, or writes well, or lectures in a university, or is a fine pulpit rabbi. Rather, he is that rare individual who, through a lifelong, sacrificial dedication to Torah learning, has developed a profound, universally recognized perception and vision about the present and the future of Klal Yisrael. His is a life permeated by Torah; his entire being is fine-tuned to what is and what is not within the spirit and parameters of Torah. In a word, he is at once the recipient and the transmitter of the mesorah of Israel.

Despite the verbal hyper-inflation of our day, not everyone is a gaon or a gadol or a posek. There is no special gadol diploma, and no posek license that one earns after publishing a book or two. Instead, a gadol/posek is one who—because he is steeped in every nook and cranny of Torah and is a person of impeccable integrity—has earned the trust and confidence of Klal Yisrael across the board, and is universally recognized by the Torah-committed and Torah-studying community.

In our time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was such a person. As were, to cite a representative few (alphabetically), Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—as well as others. They were not concerned with attracting members or impressing their current supporters. They had no personal agendas, no self-interest in certain outcomes, and were not concerned with headlines. They knew not the meaning of terms like PR or “spin,” nor were they influenced by evanescent buzzwords. They all shared one goal: the preservation of the integrity of the Torah and of the Jewish people.

It is such giants of Torah scholarship who are the embodiment of the mesorah. And it is people such as they whom one consults in order to determine if certain actions are within the spirit and intent of Jewish law. Not every innovation in Jewish practice is necessarily a break with the mesorah. But every proposed innovation requires careful thought, deliberation, and consultation with the great sages and posekim of the time. (Space does not permit the citation of Ramban’s words on the issue of consultation, at Devarim 17: 11, but they are crucial and worthy of study.)

What, then, is mesorah? It is, in sum, an overarching tent, a security fence, a sacred tradition, a framework, the handmaiden of Torah, a compass and a road map of the spirit of Torah: all these things, and much more.

Innovations
The phrase “change and innovations in mesorah” is a contradiction in terms. Just as the words “a new tradition” are risible, so are the words “a new mesorah.” For at the very moment we innovate, it ceases to be mesorah—that which is handed down from generation to generation—but instead becomes something concocted this morning. It may be interesting or provocative, but mesorah it is not.

Why was the Conservative rabbi wearing it? Because the Reform rabbi was doing so. Why was the Reform rabbi doing so? Because the Episcopalian minister down the street was doing so.

Now, there have been certain adjustments in Jewish practice over the centuries. Hillel’s prozbul comes to mind, as does Cherem Rabbeinu Gershon on marriage and divorce, and other such modifications. These were not changes in the mesorah; rather, they were special edicts promulgated by the great sages of the day in order to preserve the integrity and the spirit of the Torah, in fulfillment of the mishmarti in Vayikra 8:35: “you shall protect that which protects [my Torah].” (See Yevamot 21a and Moed Katan 5a.) They were instituted because of particularly crucial changes in Jewish life that, in the considered view of these sages, warranted the adjustments. Although it would take us far afield to discuss the concept and role of special edicts, suffice it to say that such edicts had limited parameters and scope, and were not instituted casually but with prayerful fear and trembling. They were not promulgated by your friendly neighborhood Orthodox rabbi or by professors of Jewish studies or by writers in Jewish periodicals, but by people like Hillel the Sage, who were universally recognized for their saintly, unadulterated devotion to God and Torah. I have no bias against rabbis or professors or authors—been there, done that— but to assume the mantle of a Hillel or a Rabbeinu Gershon Meor HaGolah, or even of a Rav Moshe Feinstein, or a Rav Kotler, or a Rav Soloveitchik, and to make sweeping, far-reaching innovations heralded by “spin” and well-timed press releases—but without consultation with universally acknowledged posekim/gedolim—is hardly a sign of fear and trembling. Even to hint that we have the stature to institute adjustments as did the giants of the past is as ludicrous as comparing a sixth-grade science teacher to Albert Einstein.

This element of consultation cannot be over-emphasized. Just as we do not entrust life-saving brain surgery to our general practitioner, but instead consult an experienced surgeon who is acknowledged by his peers as an expert in his field, so is it with matters of what is and what is not within the mesorah framework: only universally acknowledged gedolim/posekim will do, because no less than the future of Jewish life is at stake.

That old suggestion to don a black robe was an innocent one. The fifties president had no idea that he was decades ahead of his time.

The author served as rabbi in Atlanta for forty years, is the former editor of Tradition magazine, and is an op-ed columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He has taught at Emory University and at Bar-Ilan University, and is the author of nine books, most recent of which is Tales Out of Jerusalem (Jerusalem, 2010).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2010.

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