Staying grounded in Halacha

I’m a big fan of Professor Marc Shapiro. I have some of his books, and enjoy his online Torah in Motion lectures, as well as his semi-regular posts on the Seforim blog. Marc’s erudition and clear thinking are exemplary. He is a controversial figure, to be sure. Some consider him to be on the left of the Modern Orthodox continuum. His first claim to fame was his PhD thesis on the famed R’ Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg ז’ל, the Sridei Aish, which was subsequently published as a book.

In a recent post on the Seforim blog where he discusses “The Future of Israeli Haredi Society”, he states:

On p. 406 Adler tells us that one cannot sell or rent an apartment in a religious neighborhood to a non-religious person. Will the author then complain when the non-religious don’t want to sell or rent to haredim (especially if they think that these haredim might hold the same views as Adler)? If it is OK for haredim not to want to live together with secular Jews because of  the “atmosphere” the latter bring, why have the haredi Knesset members cried racism when secular residents don’t want an influx of haredim for exactly the same reason? In a democracy one can’t have it both ways.
Adler is part of a growing trend in haredi writings not to see the secularists as tinok she-nishbah, with all the halakhic implications this entails. While Adler acknowledges the existence of tinok she-nishbah as a category, note what he puts in brackets which pretty much empties the category of any meaning (p. 31):
ולענין הלכה, מכיון שאין בנו כח להכריע, במחלוקות אלו, וגם אין כל הענינים שוים, מתי נקרא בשם “תנוק שנשבה” ומתי לא, ובפרט קשה ההכרעה המציאותית של “שיעור ידיעת כל אחד ואחד” בזמנינו, לכן, בכל הנוגע לדיני תורה, יש להחמיר ולנהוג כלפי מחלל שבת בפרהסיא [שלא ידוע ככופר] ככל דיני “אחיך”, כגון לענין דיני גמילות חסד, לבקרו בחוליו, לתת לו צדקה, להלוות לו, להשיא לו עצה טובה. וכן יש להצילו ולהחיותו.
But when it comes to Shabbat, Adler states that it is absolutely forbidden to violate the Sabbath to save a non-religious person, even if he is a tinok she-nishbah! (p. 556).
I realize that, with only some exceptions, Adler hasn’t made up any of the material in his book, and even the most extreme rulings can be found in earlier traditional sources. So what does it say about so much of contemporary Orthodoxy, be it haredi, Habad, or Modern Orthodox, that its adherents would never dream of relating to the non-Orthodox the way Adler prescribes?
[Emphasis below is from me]
The reason they wouldn’t dream of relating to the non-Orthodox this way is not because they can point to other halakhic sources that disagree with the ones Adler cites (although the scholars among them can indeed point to these sources). There is something much more basic at work, namely, the moral intuition of people which even when it comes into conflict with what appears in halakhic texts does not agree to simply be pushed aside. Most Orthodox Jews of all stripes refuse to believe that what Adler is advocating is what God wants. It is impossible for them to accept that the Judaism they know and cherish, which has been taught to them by great figures, would have such a negative outlook, and all the halakhic texts in the world won’t be able to change their minds.
While I have sympathy for the attitude underpinning these statements, it troubles me that there can be something other than the vehicle of Halacha that dictates “what God wants”. It troubles me that there can be something more “basic” possessing a “moral intuition” that seemingly orients direction.
It comes down to this, and herein I believe is the essential difference between the left and right-wing among modern orthodoxy.
  • The more left-wing variety have a view and they seek to buttress that view with Halachic sources. At times, when their view cannot be reconciled with credible Halachic sources, they submit to Halacha.
  • The more right-wing variety begin with halachic sources and not some “moral intuition”. They will, however, include the realities of the modern world as a vital halachic ingredient in coming to their eventual conclusion. In the end, however, they recognise that they may become the lonely man of faith, possibly at odds with their moral intuition.

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

5 thoughts on “Staying grounded in Halacha”

  1. “it troubles me that there can be something other than the vehicle of Halacha”

    Not sure whether your “vehicle” includes the comprehensive moral framework depicted in Pirkei Avot, Avot DeRabbi Natanyou or the plethora of other Sifrei Musar penned by Chazal. Would you include the principle of “ועשית הישר והטוב’ or the Ramban’s pirush on ’קדשים תהיו’ in that vehicle or as Halachik?

    There isn’t a Shulchan Aruch or even a corpus of Shutim big enough to legislate for every mode of behaviour and every circumstance. I suspect what Professor Shapiro is referring to is the innate sense of morality that the Ribbono Shel Olam breathed into Man, that very same sense of morality that we see depicted by the great heroes of Tanach.

    When Avraham Avinu waited outside his Ohel looking to perform the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, I doubt he screened his visitors for their adherence to Adler’s Shmirat Shabbat criteria. When he beseeched the Ribbono Shel Olam to save the inhabitants of Sedom V’amora, was he relying on a corpus of Halacha, or was there instead something innately moral (meta-Halachik) about his conduct? Would Adler and his ilk have stopped for a moment to contemplate Anshei Sedom? Had Adler been in Yehoshua’s shoes (hardly!), would he have fulfilled the Shevuah to Rachav despite it being a Shevuat Ones?

    The fifth Chelek of Shulchan Aruch has yet to be printed, but I suspect Professor Shapiro is simply expressing sympathy with the ever diminishing number of people who are willing and able (without undermining Halacha) to use it.


    1. Both ’קדשים תהיו’ and ועשית הישר והטוב are halachic categories. You mention the Ramban. Indeed. He defines it. I’m not talking about the fifth chelek of Shulchan Aruch or the stuff that is just plain Menchlich. Please relook at the context of Shapiro’s comments. Was his comment coming from a Western intuition or was it an Avos D’Rabbi Noson. If it was the latter, or similar, these then may take on an halachic imperative.


    2. Western Eastern Southern or Northern sensibilities do have their place. However, in the context of Shapiro’s article, namely the determination of how one relates to the Halachic category of a Mumar, I don’t think that one starts with what is morally correct in those contexts. One needs to look at the definitions, apply them and interpret them according to the reality today (that is a Modern Orthodox approach) as opposed to a dry factual determination based on a shallow reading of actions rather than intentions. In then coming to a conclusion, one must again look at the human condition and actions through the prism of today.

      I cannot simply accept his statement:

      “here is something much more basic at work, namely, the moral intuition of people which even when it comes into conflict with what appears in halakhic texts does not agree to simply be pushed aside.”

      To put it more pointedly, if one feels that something seems awry, then it is not a moral intuition that is the compass. At most, an intuition can be a catalyst for more carefully examining the Halacha. The Halacha is the compass and it ultimately will define the direction even if it offends our sensibilities.

      An example: a Mamzer, according to my moral intuition has done nothing wrong and should seemingly never deserve their personal oblivion. The intuition cannot change the Halacha. If and when one is presented with a sad case, most certainly one can delve into the Halacha and if one can conclude that the person is not a Mamzer or a Safek Mamzer, then so be it. At the end of the day, though, the Halacha is inviolate.

      I could be reading more into Shapiro’s words than he intended. However, that paragraph struck me between the eyes. I would have been far more comfortable if he had used the type of argument that, say, R’ Hershel Schachter used when he concluded that a Cohen Mechallel Shabbos has an absolute CHIYUV today to Duchan. He did so by examining the phenomenon of “sin” in the context of our world, today’s world and wasn’t prisoner to the world of earlier acharonim and rishonim who interpreted it according to THEIR world.


      1. I think we are more or less on the same page – there are very real shades of grey here.

        Like all his writings, it’s not for the faint hearted, but Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlita, in Leaves of Faith 2, has a very relevant article entitled “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent in Halakha?” He obviously expresses the issue far more cogently than either of us where he (in quintessentially dialectic Soloveitchik fashion) concludes that:

        “traditional halakhic Judaism demands of the Jew both adherence to Halakha and commitment to an ethical moment that, though DIFFERENT [my emphasis] from Halakha, is nonetheless of a piece with it and in its own way fully imperative…. the designation of supralegal conduct as purely optional or pietistic is a disservice to Halakha and ethics alike”

        As to your example of Mamzerut, I would contend that even if we have to submit to the Halakhic primacy of the relevant dinim, our ethical/humane sensitivities should ensure that we are no less troubled by it.


  2. There is plenty of overlap between Avot DeRabi Natan and Western moral norms – I wouldn’t consider the two mutually exclusive at all. Indeed, if Chazal suggest (Eiruvin 100b) that we didn’t need the Torah (!) to learn certain moral values as we could have just as easily learned them from cats, ants, doves, chickens etc., then Kal VeChomer we have much to learn from the moral values of other human beings who, unlike animals, were created B’tzelem Elokim.

    I see where you are going with the Halachik/Moral backsolving theory, but I think we can realistically be Melamed Z’chut to most learned MO Jews (of either the LW or RW predisposition) that their moral compass is heavily influenced by years of osmosis of Jewish texts and traditions as well as relevant other sources and experiences. In that sense, they arguably have greater appreciation for the totality of the moral value set than their more cloistered Chareidi peers.

    Eizehu HeChacham? HaLomed MIKOL Adam!


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