When Compromise is Not a Virtue

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compSmallI saw a question posed recently online. I didn’t answer it there, nor did I hang around long enough to read others’ responses, but I’d like to address it here.

The writer was troubled by what he saw as a contradiction. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l passed away recently and the obituaries described him simultaneously as a bastion of modern Orthodoxy and as uncompromising in halacha (Jewish law). The writer was confused because he had been led to understand that compromise was a basic tenet of modern Orthodoxy. Therefore, wouldn’t being “uncompromising” be a bad thing?

I would like to address that question by way of a mashal (parable). Let’s take the case of a married couple. They have certain obligations towards one another, not the least of which is marital fidelity. Now, let us suppose that one of these partners was being romantically pursued by a third party. Do you think they should hold firm to their marriage vows, or do you think they should compromise and date the outsider while remaining married to their spouse? What’s the harm? A little dinner, a little dancing, maybe park by the lake on the way home… While such things no doubt exist in this world, I believe that conventional wisdom (not to mention the readership of this article) would say that in such a case, compromise would not be an admirable trait.

This is true in many other areas, as well. Your accountant is supposed to protect your financial interests; would you be pleased if he “compromised” to accommodate another person’s needs? Your doctor is supposed to keep your medical history private; would it be all right for him to “compromise” by only giving a little information to your neighbors? And do you think the State Department would be okay with it if you “compromised” by only giving ISIS a few small state secrets? I’m guessing not.

It’s great to compromise when choosing a restaurant or how loud to play the stereo. But compromise is not always a good thing. Sometimes there’s a line in the sand and stepping over that line, even in the name of compromise, does more harm than good.

Compromise doesn’t mean trashing your values in order to make others happy. Sometimes, when someone wants something, the answer simply has to be “no.”

Being uncompromising in halacha doesn’t mean always saying no. It means knowing how and when to properly apply a halacha. A well-read lay person may have mastered the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch or the Mishnah Brurah and may know what the basic halacha is. A competent rav, however, has the scope of the halachic literature at his disposal and knows which precedents apply in which circumstances. It’s as grievous to say no all the time as it is to automatically concede in every case. A qualified judge will not always render a decision of guilty or innocent; rather, the verdict in each case will depend on how the law applies to the case’s individual facts. Similarly, a rav knows how to apply halacha for a case’s unique circumstances.

A few years ago, I read an article that criticized how “black hat rabbis” always rule stringently (a contention, by the way, that I know firsthand not to be accurate). The article was full of actual incidents that had occurred and a recurring theme that a “more modern” rabbi would have found a way. I have no objection if the writer’s rabbi rules more leniently than mine might but I do object to the idea that always ruling leniently is somehow better than always ruling stringently. While rabbis of all stripes have their personal leanings in matters of law, knee jerk reactions in either direction represent a dereliction of duty. The idea that halacha necessarily exists to “find a way” to do what one wants in every situation undermines the very concept of halacha.

This phenomenon can be illustrated by the recent debates regarding a new device that purports to allow one to control lights on Shabbos without any violation of halacha. The way it works is that the user slides a plastic barrier. This unblocks sensors through which a random electric pulse may or may not then turn on the lights. In theory, the lights might never come on. (Imagine flipping a coin forever; in theory, you might never throw heads.) In practice, the lights will come on in a few seconds. The manufacturer says that this is not grama (indirect causation), and is therefore permitted.

A number of rabbinic authorities have come out against this technology. There are reportedly also those who support it. I would have no issue with any authority who supported such technology on halachic grounds, even if they differed with my rabbis. My issue is with those who would cast aspersions on the authorities who prohibit it.

Did you ever see the movie “Jesus Christ Superstar?” In the film, there’s a song called “This Jesus Must Die” in which the priests (i.e., the kohanim) and the Pharisees (the rabbis) sing that they have to do away with this perceived threat to their authority. I have similarly seen people claim that rabbinic opposition to this new device is because such technology represents a threat to their authority. Really? I hate to tell you but it’s America in the 21st century; one can just flip a light switch on Shabbos if he’s so inclined. It doesn’t threaten anyone’s authority.

A less sinister motivation I have seen attributed to opposing authorities is fear of change.

Why do people have to fantasize such motivations? Don’t they consider the possibility that the authorities who oppose this technology have analyzed the halacha and come to the conclusion that it’s just not permitted?

“But it’s not grama!” I have heard supporters exclaim. Is that so? Some pretty big rabbis have told me that it is grama. Are you familiar enough with the laws of grama to make the call? I know that it’s above my pay grade!

And perhaps grama isn’t even the issue. There’s a melacha (category of labor) called zoreh, which means winnowing. Here’s how winnowing works: one throws threshed grain into the air. The wind blows away the worthless chaff and the heavier kernels falls to the ground. This is prohibited on Shabbos as one of the av melachos (primary labors). But what if there’s no wind?

It’s still prohibited. After all, a wind might come along and winnow the grain.

The parallel is obvious. We can’t throw threshed grain in the air because a wind might winnow it. Similarly, we might not be permitted to slide a plastic barrier because an electric impulse might turn on the lights. (Practically speaking, the lights coming on is more inevitable than a wind coming along.)

Let me make it perfectly clear: I am not trying to rule on the permissibility or impermissibility of this technology. (Above my pay grade, remember?) I’m addressing the idea that maintaining the halachic status quo must necessarily be based on insincere motivations simply because an innovation “looks good” to us. Whether a halachic authority permits or prohibits something, it represents an application of halacha. If an authority permits something on halachic grounds, great. If he doesn’t, that’s also okay.

Rabbis are human and halacha is complex. Just like several judges or several doctors may come to different conclusions when presented with the same facts, so might several rabbis. The important part is that they actually consider the facts and apply the halacha as they have received it to the case at hand. Looking for sources to support one’s preconceived outcome is intellectually dishonest, whether one’s intention is to innovate or to maintain the status quo. I can’t speak for others, but I know that I’d prefer an honest rabbi. To me, compromising halacha is no virtue.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.