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Is Halakha Illogical and Fossilized?


(From two articles by Rav Y.D. Soloveichik: “Ze Sinai” and “The 'Common-Sense' Rebellion against Torah Authority”)

According to the Midrash (quoted by Rashi), Korach has two halakhic claims: first, he publicly challenged the halakhic competency of Moses; second, he ridiculed his interpretations of Jewish law as being contrary to elementary reason. The Midrash records the following:

What did he do? He assembled two-hundred and fifty distinguished men and women… and he attired them in robes of pure techelet. They came and stood before Moses and said to him: "Does a garment that is entirely techelet still require tzitzit, or is it exempt?" Moses replied that it did require tzitzit, whereupon they began to jeer at him: "Is that logical? A robe of any other color fulfills the tzitzit requirement merely by having one blue threads! Surely, a garment which is entirely blue should not require an additional blue thread!            

Likewise the Midrash tells us of another provocation:

“Does a house which is filled with Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah on its doorpost?”, Korach asked. Moses replied in the affirmative. Korach retorted: "If one brief section of the Torah placed inside the mezuzah (Shema and Ve-Haya Im Shamo’a) satisfies the mitzvah requirement, most certainly a multitude of scrolls, which contain many portions, should!”

Korach’s claims are logical.  He raises another dilemma about the authority to interpret text: Korach proclaimed that all reasonable people have the right to interpret Jewish law according to their best understanding: "For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy" (Num. 16:3). According to Korach, since the halakha is to be determined by common sense, anyone who has common sense has the authority to interpret and decide halakha for himself!

The foundation of this claim’s mistake, which is also commonly found in the modern world, is criticism of halakha based on non-halakhic thinking.  Each field has its own methodology of thinking.  It is impossible to analyze mathematics using the aesthetic methodology of art or music and, vice versa, it is impossible to analyze music using mathematical methodology.  Similarly, there are internal rules for the discipline of halakha, and it is impossible to analyze it using what we call common sense.

A story is told of Rav Soloveichik, who officiated at a wedding and was looking for two Shomer Shabbat (and therefore kosher) witnesses.  A woman approached him and said:  “I am Shomer Shabbat.  Let me be a witness.”  The Rav responded, “A woman cannot be a witness.”  The woman became insulted and yelled at him: “Chauvinist!”  The Rav responded: “You should know that even if Melech Ha-Mashiach were to participate in the wedding, I would not appoint him as a witness, since a king cannot be a witness! That’s the halakha.  Do you think that I consider Melech Ha-Mashiach inferior?  Certainly not!  Melech Ha-Mashiach is on a much higher level than I, but, according to halakhic thinking, he cannot serve as a witness.  So, too, a woman.  Her inability to serve as a witness does not stem from any inferiority, G-d forbid, but derives from the methodology of halachic analysis.”

Only someone who is constantly involved in halakhic methodology can acquire and apply it.  It is impossible to judge music without an understanding of music; it is impossible to criticize physics without an understanding of the field.  Similarly, it is impossible to understand halakha without seriously delving into its world.  Those who study halakha find it to be a living, dynamic discipline.  It is not fossilized; innovations are the essence of halakha.  But these innovations develop from within the halakhic framework, not from outside of it.  Changes and innovations are made using halakhic methodology, not common sense.

The “Ol” in the phrase “Ol malchut shamayim” is referring to sacrificing common sense and replacing it with the principle of submission and self-nullification to halakha, the revealed will of G-d.  We must first put aside our preconceptions and openly accept the logic of Sinai.  Then we must delve into the Torah in order to grasp the halakhic-Torah way of thinking and understanding from the inside, from the system that was given at Sinai.   

Therefore, Korach’s second claim is also not accepted.  Not everyone has the authority to determine halakha; this authority is given only to those who have internalized halachic thinking, and not those who utilize only common sense.  In this instance, Moshe had the authority, and not Korach, and, in our days, only those who have invested themselves in study of our system from the inside have the authority to issue rulings. 

Chazal use the Midrashim about Korach’s claims in order to teach us to accept halakha as a Godly wisdom, given at Sinai.  We are simultaneously obligated in two things: to nullify ourselves, our desires, cultural influences we have absorbed, etc to halakha; and second, to work hard to try to acquire halakhic logic through studying Torah. 

Shabbat shalom,

Daniel Reiser




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