Sunday, October 18, 2009

Do We Really Think Judaism Has Always Been Like This?

Over at Rationalist Judaism, Rabbi Slifkin mentioned something that I have been thinking about for a while. He talks about how his six year old came home with a picture of Adam in a kapata (long jacket) with a beard and payos (long sideburns and side hair). Basically, he was dressed like a man from 18th century Poland. This brings up many memories of people drawing Moshe, Aharon, Dovid, etc in 18th century Polish garb. The question here is why would anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history think this to be true?

In truth, I can understand why teachers would have their six year old students draw these people this way. They are drawing the picture of a man from the Torah, obviously they relate Torah with Judaism and Judaism with black hat and payos. That makes sense for six year old children. The problem I have is when these kids grow up, do they view Moshe, Dovid, Adam, and Avraham in the same way or do they realize that this was not how people dressed 3000+ years ago. I am not saying that it bothers me that these children might view our forefathers in these clothes, but it does bother me if they think this is how they observed Judaism and conducted their overall way of life. What I mean by this is that I think a simple understanding of the evolution of Judaism is necessary for all Jews to understand on some level. Judaism did not exist the way it is now in the times of King David. Anyone who thinks that is completely obtuse.

Why do I think it is important to understand the evolution of Judaism? If one does not understand the original form of Judaism, then they can not understand why and how Judaism exists today, except for the basic answer of G-D. However, I think that answering this question by saying G-D is like someone asking how an airplane can fly and then someone answers G-D. Well, obviously G-D is the ultimate reason, for someone who believes in Judaism, but you can also explain the dynamics and the physics of how an airplane flies. So too by Judaism, one can say that Judaism exists the way it does today because it was G-D's plan, or they can actually understand the evolution.

Why does not knowing the evolution of Judaism matter? I am so glad you asked! Someone who does not understand the evolution can not dictate or even presume to set rules for the Jewish religion. In my opinion, a Rabbi that poskins on societal issues, like what is appropriate dress, can only do so if they understand what the Torah expects from every person and how those expectations have been modified throughout the generations. If the Rabbi does not understand the history of the halacha then he can do one of two things, make up his own halacha based on nothing of substance, or a previous Rabbi that said something, but only verbatim. IN all honesty, this is a completely worthless Rabbi. I can make up halacha just as well as him and I can read previous Rabbis just as well, so why do I need you to tell me what the GRA said or to make up my own halacha?

What Rabbi is valuable? A Rabbi that understands how Judaism has evolved from the times of Har Sinai until recent days. He tells us that the reason why Jews in Poland wore kapatas and shtrimels were because those were what nobles wore and it was cold there. A Jew is a representative of the entire nation so they must always look appropriate, therefore people in Poland wore kapatas and shtriemels. This is a Rabbi that already understands the reason behind the minhag (custom) of wearing specific clothing. In Rome, the Jewish people most probably dressed in the Toga, especially when they had an audience with the senate or Caesar.

I thought good Rabbis were just people who knew a lot of Gemorah, Rishonim and Achronim, why do they need to know about history? Well, if I haven't made it clear through my allusions to this answer I will try to be more blunt. It is very nice for a Rabbi to know Gemorah, Rishonim and Achronim by heart, however, what makes a Rabbi valuable is his ability to understand a halachic question based on the circumstances and then navigate through halacha, custom and things that are completely worthless. Without knowing the history of halacha, the Rabbi would have no idea of the basis for the halacha and any ruling given would have to be verbatim from a previous Rabbi who did understand the history. The problem is, halacha would no longer be adaptable to the ever changing world. The point is this, how did the Rabbis of yesteryear deal with electricity? There were no previous rules. Some Rabbis who actually understood the laws of shabbos at their core made halachic rulings, others just made wild assumptions. With the advances in medicine, some Rabbis understand medicine and the halachas involved, others just forbid everything because they know nothing of either.

The point I am trying to make is that we must realize our rich and fruitful history. In certain time periods certain laws or customs were enacted for specific reasons. Chazal even tell us that if a custom was instituted for specific reasons and those reasons no longer apply, then we have no reason to follow that custom (See Aruch Hashulchan 303:21 and 22 and Shulchan Orech 303:19 with the Rema for an example of this idea). I am not saying that specific things should be thrown out or not, all I am saying is that a competent Rav should be able to realize what things are important and which things are not. To assume that Judaism has always been like this is to deny truth. We should admit that things have constantly been changing, that does not make Judaism less valid. Everything changed within parameters that were set forth by the Torah. If Judaism was not an adaptable religion then it would be worthless!

The most disheartening of all things involved here is when certain Rabbis who are called Gedolim treat the religion like they are the Pope. What I mean by this is that back in the days of when we first discovered heliocentricity (Sun is the center) the church put anyone in jail that would say this. Nowadays also, people think if you say that world is older than 5770, you are a kofer. I would love for someone to show me where the Torah says that. It would be enlightening. I know a lot of Rishonim that say against that, but they must be daas yachidim (single opinions). Then I guess they must have been kofers also. I am unsure why this is something that can not be told to the masses, it is not a basic tenant of faith in any way, shape or form. Judaism is not the religion that says the world is only 6000 years old, it is the religion that is adaptable to advances in science and other areas. The reason it is adaptable is because everything in the Torah is meant to be relevant forever. This is why, throughout every age, Judaism has been applicable. This is why it is so disheartening to see some people get stuck in the 18th century, this is not what Judaism is meant to be.


The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Once upon a time a rav I knew explained the phenomenon.

Imagination and an accurate memory are not very compatible. Tell someone with an accurate memory something and he'll repeat it back to you word for word but he won't be able to do anything creative with it. All he will do is know what you've told him.

Tell someone with a good imagination something and he'll never tell you back what you told him because he'll embellish, add, etc.

The sages throughout the generations have always put a premium on memorization. After all, especially in the pre-gemara area, accurate recall was crucial to ensure faithful transmission of the law and tradition. An imaginative mind would cause damage through creativity.

So this atitude seems to have stayed with us. The same people who have excellent memories and have memorized the entire Gemara cannot imagine a Jewish people that didn't look and dress exactly like them.

E-Man said...

I hear, it just makes no sense. They didn't dress like the Maharal or the Ramban so who are they to judge? No, the Ramban and Maharal did not wear black hats.