When The Masses Have Greater Wisdom Than Torah Scholars

Rabbi Marc B. Shapiro writes

Let me also return to the issue of the Jewish masses’ natural morality vs. the rabbinically tuned morality of the scholars, and how according to R. Kook the former is superior to that of the latter. I was asked if I can provide some examples of this. I think the most obvious such example is the response to sexual abuse that we have witnessed in the Orthodox world. While the natural impulse of the masses was that abusers must be immediately removed from any contact with children, many of the learned rabbis were able to come up with all sorts of reasons why this was not necessary, and why the police should not be called. Over time the view of the rabbinic class has evolved and many of them now advocate a strong response to sexual abuse. However, what took them a long time to get to was immediately understood by the Jewish masses, and they understood it intuitively. Years from now people will wonder how it was that rabbis refused to protect children. It will be incomprehensible to them how this could have happened. We who lived through this experience know that it was precisely the pressure on the ground, from the Jewish laypeople (and the bloggers and newspapers), that forced changes in this matter.[3] Here I think is a good example where talmudic learning led scholars לטהר את השרץ בק”ן טעמים, while the Jewish masses, with their intuitive natural morality, saw that evil must be exposed and they emerged victorious.[4]

The same phenomenon was seen in the Leib Tropper affair, where once again it was the masses, together with a couple of indefatigable bloggers, who saw what was really going on, and forced the issue. This happened while many leading rabbis continued to stand by Tropper. They were oblivious to what was unfolding before their eyes and what was obvious to everyone but them.[5] And let’s not forget about all the gedolim who signed a letter in support of the monster Elior Chen.[6] It is difficult to make sense of these terrible lapses of rabbinic judgment with a haredi Daas Torah perspective, but with R. Kook’s analysis all becomes clear.

I thought of R. Kook’s comments on the intuitive morality of the masses after hearing a few shiurim on the subject of lo tehanem [do not inform to the gentile authorities]. One of them has since been removed from the site. Listening to these shiurim was shocking to me, not simply because I found the views discussed at odds with what everyone in my community regards as basic Jewish values (and matters about which we would be quick to criticize non-Jews if they ever spoke this way). What was particularly surprising was how the speakers, all learned talmudically, have fallen into what I would call the textualist trap of Centrism. What this means is that the written word has become so sanctified that they feel it is their obligation to resurrect every halakhah recorded in the standard codes in order improve the masses’ behavior.

Yet for all their learning, these rabbis don’t appreciate that there are some halakhot that simply fell out of practice. This happened in pre-modern times, before there were Reform and Conservative movements. In other words, it happened at a time when communities had the status of kehillah kedoshah. Because of this, historically the poskim generally tried to be melamed zekhut on the actions of the people, on the assumption that kol hamon ke-kol sha-dai, which is in line with how R. Kook understood the pious Jewish masses. That explains why, to give just one example, confronted with the fact that pious people did not wash before eating wet food, the vast majority of poskim tried to find a justification for this. They did not lecture the people about how they were sinning and try to resurrect a practice that had fallen out of fashion. Their assumption was that there must be some justification for the practice of the masses, even if it is not readily apparent.[7]

As Haym Soloveitchik discussed in “Rupture and Reconstruction,” there is today no faith in the practice of the masses. Therefore, instead of justifying the practices which oppose the textual tradition, the rabbis are attempting to reestablish the textual tradition. The problem with this is that there is also what I call an aggadic tradition, where values and morality were passed on, and this sometimes was in tension with the letter of the law. The Jewish people, acting with their innate Torah-intuitive morality, developed an approach, and this was recognized as legitimate until recent times.[8] So we now have a situation where shiurim are being given on the prohibition of lo tehanem telling people all sorts of things about how to relate to non-Jews that no one, and this includes great rabbis, ever paid attention to (e.g., one can’t say that X is a good baseball player!).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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