Distilled With A Feather, Applied With A Sledge Hammer

To remark that this is merely “curious” or “ironic” blinds us to the perhaps most corrosive internal struggle Judaism faces today.

There is no more subtle and beautiful technique within the Torah tradition than discovering and generating Halacha as it is first derived in the Gemara, and then develops in our ever-changing world. No training, no exercise in intellect and compassion, has the capacity to transform a Torah student into a true Talmid Chacham, a wise sage, than the humbling process of slicing and analyzing and adapting the Halachic System, to stand in utter awe of it’s complexity even as it slowly reveals to us its utter unity and simplicity. The classics of Jewish Law, from the Rambam, to the Shulchan Aruch, the writings of the Ben Ish Chai, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef, treat us to these peaks of crystal purity while at the same time inconceivably complex and nuanced, applied to an ever-changing world, constantly tweaking under every conceivable situation, how each individual Jewish personality can increase and deepen his intimate connection with The Creator just as we do ourselves by our deep study of it. In traditional circles, there is and never has been any other path to becoming a rabbi.

Why then, in practice, is it all too often applied without distinction or discrimination? How can a myriad individual unique situations be reduced, in one broad, unsubtle, uneducated swath to what is inevitably the most difficult, often most expensive, certainly the most restrictive path?. It’s as if all the skill and all the spiritual epiphanies one experienced when learning Halacha instantly and tragically disappear the moment it’s applied. Indeed, where does the compulsion to dictate a universal, all-conforming answer to the huge complexity of the vast Jewish World derive? And with that target, is it any surprise that force-fitting a one-size-fits-all can only be done with all the subtlety and sensitivity of a sledgehammer?

It not only ignores the inner point and inspiring beauty of Halacha, this all-too-universal application denies and destroys its own very essence. Rather than bringing all involved to experience (at least) religious reality much higher and more connected, it makes a farce of the entire process and rather than bringing the ultimate unification of the Jewish People, and by proxy all of Creation, it shatters whatever Jewish Unity as might have already been achieved, repelling vast segments of Am Yisrael with its cruelty shortsightedness.

The great poskim (halachic decisors) of the past understood, practiced and modeled this understanding  throughout their careers, so it’s not beyond human capability to operate at this level. Perhaps no great Posek has yet to develop and emerge for our generation and the rabbinic leadership we have. I haven’t experienced or observed our rabbis as the heinous rabble that too often their words make them appear to be and I have no doubt that 99% of our rabbis and leaders are honest, well-meaning Israel-loving scholars. Where does this break come from? Perhaps it’s simply that not every generation, no matter how great the apparent need, merits true Gedolim (Torah Giants). Or, and maybe more to the point, the skill set of running and operating within a highly politicized bureaucracy rarely emphasizes the same middot (character traits) required to be a true Talmid Chacham.

I think it crucial to at least observe and try to understand the process to see where it gets derailed . Perhaps the closest secular analogy would be chemical titration where we add, oh so slowly, drop-by-drop, of a reagent and observe closely even the slightest changes to the substance. This is one of the very strongest tools we possess to analyze substances of all sorts. Just where is the “tipping point”?

In spite of the crisis effecting all of us, I don’t have a solution, ready-made and ribbon-wrapped to offer. Certainly no brilliant insight to force down the throats of the entire Jewish People, merely echoing and continuing the problem. I do, however, have a few suggestions of how to go about finding the answer.

With the help of The Creator, we need to examine just exactly when, and for what reasons, the focus of the problems our rabbis turn their attention to are no longer in the realm of analysis and analogy, the territory Torah study always leads us. When does the search for general principles with a manageable set of exceptions, usually the outcome of halacha-based Talmud study, shift to budgets and power struggles with competing denominations? How can we redirect and encourage these leaders to return to the awe and wonder which surely inspired them in the first place? How can we return Yitro’s innovations (Moshe’s father-in-law, in the eponymous Parsha) to a blessing, removing the administrative and bureaucratic obsession from the shoulders of those who are really prepared for a much higher calling? How can we gently remind and inspire these leaders to return to the focus of their training?

One cannot reach the position of Chief Rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva and similar without spending literally years focused on Gemara and Halacha, where he must learn and practice an almost infinitely more complex challenge with infinitely more significance–the essential refinement of each individual human (beginning with the Jewish People but moving from that center ever-outwards) which is necessary for the essential refinement and redemption (Geula) of the entire universe, true Tikkun Olam.

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6 Responses to Distilled With A Feather, Applied With A Sledge Hammer

  1. Peter Margolis says:

    You should have your writing translated into Hebrew. There is a substantial Israeli public thirsty for these words.

    • Harry Zeitlin says:

      Thanks, Peter, It took me a long time to put the ideas into words. I’ll see if NLC can help me find a translator and then a place to publish so Hebrew readers can find it. I’m heading up to Tzfat for Rosh HaShana, spending the time with friends. Learning, talking, meditating sounds like a good way to get into those days this time around. I’m really looking forward. Shana Tova, Harry


  2. Jacques Ruda says:

    The position of Chief Rabbi in Israel should be abolished. It is a position that makes it too tempting to concentrate wealth and power. It is not that different than what occurred in the time of the temple.Shanna Tova

    • I can’t disagree, not only for the reasons you mention and because it’s a Galut institution, looking backwards to perpetuate what certainly was needed in the past, but which now deflects us from the future Geula.
      Shana Tova

  3. Anitra King Abelman says:

    Unfortunately the Rabbi’s of today are being influenced by the political parties that provide their livelihood. Rambam said a Rabbi should be financially independent so he may freely express his Torah.
    This conflict has given us watered down Torah.
    It is akin to the artist that produces commercial drivel and sells out his artistic soul in order to provide for his family.
    The solution is counterintuitive – todays Rabbi’s need to earn their money and their Torah will be richer, relevant and real.

    • When I first announced to my rabbi that I wanted to become a rabbi, the first thing he told me was that I had to prepare a way to support myself and a future family completely outside of religion. He emphasized that a rabbi should never allow himself to be held hostage by a Board of Directors.
      My father z”l went to the library that day and made a photostat (remember those white on black copies?) of the US Dept. of Labor’s statistics showing Clergy at the very bottom.
      One might not think of that when young and idealistic, but it’s important not only to shelter individual rabbis, but to maintain the integrity of the entire institution of the rabbinate.
      Thanks for subscribing!

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