Friday, December 08, 2006

appeal to authority vs. appeal to reason

A casual flip through any sefer of tshuvos or chiddushim I think reveals something fundamental about Orthodox Judaism, but I have a hunch others may disagree with my premise. My thesis is that no statement about Torah matters is accepted as valid based solely on the piety of the writer or his vast general knowledge, but every conclusion must be based on proof from text, mesorah, and/or logic. The Noda b’Yehudah opens a tshuvah (O.C. 37) with the statement that he cannot offer a precise reply because he has found no sources in Talmud or poskim that address the question. For every situation the Noda b’Yehudah does addresses in his tshuvos, his responses are replete with proofs – literally an "open book" revealing the process and reasons behind every conclusion.
True, da’as Torah implies that our Chachamim have the power to "read between the lines" of halacha to determine public policy and final hachra’ah. But the very fact that there exists seforim of tshuvos and chiddushim indicates that the primary vehicle by which Torah truth is adjudicated is by textual proof and reasoning, not authoritarian say-so.
When statements like, "The Chazon Ish says XXX is yehareig v’al ya’avor", or "Rav Elyashiv says Y", are offered as proof to a position, that to me is a base appeal to authority, not an appeal to reason and certainly not a fulfillment limud haTorah, and not a very satisfying motivation to accept the conclusion offered. Those statements are best used as a starting point for further investigation, or perhaps a means of closure when one must choose a practical path between various competing positions. Imagine how short the Noda b’Yehuda would be if it was a list of Yes/No answers with no reasoning to justify those conclusions! No Torah view should be immune from critical analysis. Is the position of a gadol a chiddush or consistent with well established precedent? Are there opposing views, and what do we make of their proofs? Is the debate an issue of theoretical law or of facts and application? And even if one is hesitant to adopt the tools of critical theory, one can still consider what the historical and sociological context of a conclusion is. Finally, because issues are complex and multi-faceted, when the need to act forces us to choose between one path or another, the practical conclusion should not necessarily be seen as delegitimizing the theoretical validity of opposing views.
Especially when it comes to aggadita and what is loosely called "hashkafa", there is no concept of hachra’ah (Rambam, Peirush haMishna, Sota 3,3) and the explication of a Chacham should be read as a statement of the personal meaning he found in the mesorah, not as prescriptive statement of "right" interpretation to the exclusion of others, whoever may offer those other viewpoints and whatever they may be.
Of course, if you forget "tein tal u’matar" in ma’ariv you want a quick answer whether you need to repeat shmoneh esrei, not a pilpul shiur. But this quick answer falls under the rubric of "afrushei m’issura", which is permitted to be relayed even in a bathroom because it is a bandaid for a problem, not a cognitive act of talmud Torah that can lead to deeper insight into halacha.
No one who learns a sugya of gemara sees his job as complete by simply listing off opinions, or even worse, by adopting one opinion as correct and dismissing the others simply because "They’re not Rashi". Regardless of what derech halimud one espouses, questions like what might Rashi respond to the proofs of Tosfos or how the Rambam may read a gemara differently to escape the question of the Ra’avad simply beg to be asked and explored. Just because the debate involves 21st century issues does not mean our job as bnei Torah starts and ends with listing shitos or being content to accept any position because "Rabbi Ploni said so" without the same rigorous debate and analysis, and without considering what "the other side" holds, even if that side is not the one we adopt in practice.
To sum up: 1) There must be proof for a Torah chiddush to have halachic legitimacy; 2) Understanding the Why of a position is the goal of talmud Torah and is far more important than Who said it; 3) The process of learning demands we consider multiple viewpoints and weigh respective proofs against each other; 4) Just as we say "eilu v’eilu" on Rashi and Tosfos, we need to say "eilu v’eilu" on Rav Kook and the Satmer Rav, or other contemporary disputants, no matter which one we follow in practice.

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