The Goral HaGro, Mekubalim, and advice for the unsure

Life has its ups and downs. Some people cope better than others with the downs while others simply can’t cope with the ups, even though they think they do. Every day presents new challenges and questions, as well as solutions and achievements.

It is common to see advertisements from so-claimed clairvoyants. These are people who seem to have an ability to foresee some future event or reflect on a past event.

The Torah is very explicit in its instructions. We are forbidden to be involved in things involving “foretelling the future” or in the words of the Torah  (Vayikra 19) לא תנחשו ולא תאוננו. I’m not happy with the phrase “foretelling the future” but it will do for this context. Of course, this is also explicit in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah קעט) as a Torah prohibition, quoting the Rambam.

Now the term Goral HaGro, which means the “lottery” of the Vilna Gaon, is almost certainly nothing to do with the Vilna Gaon. There is, to my knowledge, no provable record, of the Gaon ever performing a specific methodology which enabled one to make a future determination. Certainly though the term/technique has continued and is mentioned by those who identify themselves as followers of the Gaon. Fundamentally, on the Pasuk in Vayikra

‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’

Be complete/pure [in the path] with Hashem your God

Rashi says

התהלך עמו בתמימות ותצפה לו ולא תחקור אחר העתידות, אלא כל מה שיבוא עליך קבל בתמימות ואז תהיה עמו ולחלקו

Which plainly means that one should accept one’s lot and not seek to determine the path they will take based on seeking out the future before it happens.

Yet, despite this, we know that “lots” have a place in Judaism. For example, in deciding which of the two animals will be thrown off a cliff on Yom Kippur. Here, the lottery is part of the avoda and is commanded.

The Gemora tells us that when Tanoim were unable to decide what to do, and here I assume that this means not that they could not decide the Halacha, but rather whether one should do X or Y where both X and Y do not contradict a Halacha and cannot be determined via Psak, they asked young children פסוק לי פסוקיך … “Tell us what Pesukim [in the Torah] you are currently learning”. Based on what the children answered, if the Pasuk shed light on whether to pursue X or Y, they chose the one which was hinted at by the Pasuk. It isn’t clear to me whether that could always be determined by the Pasuk, but perhaps depending on the Wisdom of the person asking the children, they were able to derive X vs Y.

Does this Gemora contradict the aforementioned Halacha? It would seem not. There is no attempt to seek out the future through some supernatural (whatever that is) means, but rather, when something can be both X or Y and it is not a matter of Halacha (I presume) the Pasuk sheds light on those deserving and discerning such light.

There have been famous examples of the use of this method: viz, opening a Pasuk from the Tanach and using it when there seems to be no other approach to take. One, is the case of the famed R’ Aryeh Levin, the Tzadik of Yerushalayim and super Talmid of Rav Kook, who used this method to identify the corpses of 12 holy soldiers who were killed during the war of independence in Gush Etzyon. Using a particular format of the Chumash page flipping  eventually a particular verse was chosen. In each case, the verse chosen clearly identified a fallen soldier with a particular body (See “A Tzaddik in Our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin,” pp. 111-117).

Some commentators would term this a נבואה קטנה a minor prophecy (this is the opinion of the Shach ibid). There are other examples of course. R’ Aron Kotler wasn’t sure whether to go to Israel or the USA when escaping the Nazis. Clearly, if R’ Aron wasn’t sure, he must have held that Halacha didn’t have a clear answer for him. I can’t guess what his thoughts were, but one would imagine that on the one hand, there was Israel which involved a Mitzva of going there and building it up versus the USA where there was a Mitzva to build Torah. Both had issues. Israel was under siege and there was a Sakana and the USA would have presented a spiritual Sakana (danger). R’ Moshe Feinstein begged him to come to the USA. Apparently the Pasuk in Chumash was Shmos 4:27 which suggested he (R’ Kotler go to Moshe (Feinstein) in the desert (USA). It’s eery and scary, to say the least, at least for me!

While such devices will “work” for especially holy people it isn’t clear to me that it’s going to work for every Tom, Dick and Mary. Furthermore, knowing if one should use the device or not, is a major question itself. My understanding is that in keeping with  ‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’ one would need to consult a Rabbi of great stature first before embarking on this path.

There was a story reported that Rav Shteinman used this method to decide whether a Shiduch should go ahead when a Groom pressed him incessantly. On the other hand, the Steipler Gaon, suggested we stop using Goral HaGro because we don’t know how to do it exactly and it’s better to be consistent with the Pasuk of Tomim Tihye.

There is another story, and I don’t know if it’s true or a piece of historiography, that the Griz (Rav Chaim Brisker’s younger son and Rav Soloveitchik’s Uncle) once did this Tanach flipping (Goral HaGro) and the Pasuk he landed on was ‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’ !!!

There are a lot of things we don’t understand, and most of these are in the domain of the exalted ones.

I have to admit that for a time, at the behest of my wife, I spoke with a Kabbalist who is not known, does not take money, and has a very good “hit rate” seeing the future. In fact, the first time I called him, I was in Melbourne at 3am, and it was a “cold call” to him in Israel. Please don’t ask me his name, as he doesn’t seek notoriety or attention. He told me things about myself that literally made me convulse. I went to see him in his remote shanty house in the far north of Israel on a subsequent visit, and again he made some remarkable comments. I won’t go into details, but he noted, for example, that we had issues with some trees in our house and he drew the location. He was right. On the other hand, there are a number of things that he told me that one could say he wasn’t right. I asked him how he knew. He said he couldn’t explain it but that he saw things in the future like on Television (i.e. an external screen with events unfolding). There are lots more stories I can tell about him, but this suffices. My wife still wants me to call him when there is a really major extra-halachic issue, but I have quietly stopped doing so.

I spoke with Mori V’Rabi R’ Schachter, and of course I didn’t identify the Mekubal, and he responded that I should not consult and I should be guided by ‘תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך’ alone.

Interestingly, over Pesach, I read a story from R’ Schachter where he retold how the Rav, R’ Soloveitchik set out one day to convince R’ Aron Kotler to change his mind about a particular issue, and went to visit R’ Aron. On the next day, during Shiur, the Talmidim noticed that the Rav had problems with his arm, and was in some pain. They asked him what was wrong. The Rav said that when he was on the way to Rav Aron Kotler, he slipped on the icy snow and fell on his arm and had hurt it. The Talmidim then asked the Rav, but we know that Shluchei Mitzvo Ainom Nizokin (those who are messengers for a Mitzvah are not harmed) and since the Rav felt the issue was important enough to approach R’ Aron Kotler he must have felt that the mission was a Mitzvah, and if so, how could he be hurt. The Rav immediately responded “Nu, that’s perhaps a sign that I was wrong on this particular issue and R’ Aron was right”!

In our days, it is commonplace since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that some of his Chassidim use this technique. They tend, as I understand it, not to do so using Tanach, but rather use letters that had been published in the past in volumes (אגרות קודש). I have heard various incredible stories in this regard, and I’m sure there are plenty of examples (although these won’t be publicised) where there was no clear indication of how to proceed. I know that R’ Schachter limited the definition of the Goral HaGro to Tanach per se and not Gemora, Medrash etc as he felt there was no Mesora/tradition to use anything other than explicit Psukim. Of course, a Pasuk could be quoted in a letter.

Either way, I tend to be of the view that one must first go and speak to an authoritative Rav/Posek before using this technique willy nilly (so to speak).

I probably haven’t elucidated much in this pitput, except to say that I tend to the view that where a matter is one of Halacha, one follows Shulchan Aruch (or asks a Rav if one cannot see the Halacha or it is not clear or a difficult question). For extra-halachic matters, I guess it’s a matter of what your own Rav HaMuvhak advises you in context of your family and circumstance and that may also be “no specific advice!”

As I finished writing this I found this video if the topic interests you, which I had heard driving in my car a few years ago, and which obviously influenced me!

Rabbi Brackman’s arguments are not convincing

Rabbi Levi Brackman, in an article in Yediot (reproduced below) is at best attempting to be Melamed Zechus (find some merit) in the alleged misrepresentations by Rabbi Broyde, and Rabbi Metzger. Using the argument that authors such as the Rambam or the Ba’al HaTanya didn’t cite their sources is not convincing. There is a world of difference between Halachic excursus and philosophical writing. An argument could be mounted that Rabbis could have listed each of their sources in a bibliography, even without referencing them in the text. It was not the norm then, though, to do so. Rather, one either quoted directly, or in the introduction, listed the main sources. It might well be true that the ideas expressed may have been devalued if all sources were explicitly footnoted. Not withstanding that, I don’t see the parallel to Rabbi Broyde’s case.

Could one imagine the Rambam extolling the virtues of his Moreh Nevuchim by falsifying a letter from a non-existent Rabbi? Could one imagine the Ba’al HaTanya justifying his ideas by penning a letter under a pseudonym, praising his work and providing additional proof of his ideas? I’m not sure I could imagine that.

I do understand that Jews in particular have a terrible habit of looking at who is saying something as opposed to the veracity of their argument. Ultimately, it is this phenomenon, which has given rise to the practices of the Broydes of this world. Rabbi Metzger’s case is entirely different. Although it is a work where he collects halachic opinions, I do think that in the cases where he quotes someone word for word, that he should footnote each such case. I have his Miyam HaHalacha at home. He was never considered a Posek of note, and I bought it some 20 years ago for two reasons:

a) He sat near me at Kerem B’Yavneh

b) It was a nice compendium, especially before the world of the internet.

I think that Rabbi Brackman has made a contribution in his article, but he has failed to defend Rabbi Broyde in any shape or form, in my opinion.

Here is the article. What do you think? I once wanted to prepare a shiur on this topic based on האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם … and ask what about the גניבה … alas, like many things buzzing around in my head, they don’t see the light of day (yet) while I’m gainfully employed as a University academic and find myself neuronally spent by nightfall.

Rabbinic plagiarism and scholarly integrity

There have been a number of serious scandals recently involving rabbis who have been less than honest when it comes to their scholarly work. First, Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim was forced to resign because he plagiarized work from multiple authors, including famous post-modern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard.

Hot on the heels of that controversy, we in America had the scandal involving Rabbi Michael Broyde, a senior rabbi and rabbinic judge on one of America’s top rabbinical courts. Rabbi Broyde misrepresented himself in order to gain entry to a rival rabbinic organization, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (of which I am a member). He also used fake names to write letters and comments to bolster ideas he was disseminating. Broyde, like Bernheim, was forced to resign from his position as rabbinic judge at the Beth Din of America.

Stolen Literature?

Even more recently, an article in Israeli daily newspaper Maariv accused Rabbi Yona Metzger, the chief rabbi of Israel, of plagiarism in his book “Mayim HaHalacha.” Metzger maintains his position as chief rabbi of Israel.

So what is it with rabbinic plagiarism and scholarly integrity?

Being truthful about the origins of any idea is a Jewish value. The sages tell us that “whenever something is repeated in the name of the person who originally said it redemption is brought into the world” (Avot, 6:6, Nida, 19b). Yet citing a source for an idea is not seen as obligatory within Jewish tradition.

Hidden ideas

The great medieval Jewish codifier and philosopher Maimonides, for example, is somewhat loose with quoting his sources. In fact Maimonides himself admits that many of the ideas he brings are not his own, yet he balks at giving the proper attribution to the original sources of the ideas. In explaining this position Maimonides says that “there is no evil in this, and I am not glorifying myself for what a previous person said because I have already admitted to it” (Introduction to Shmona Perakim).

Maimonides goes on to give the main reason he does not reveal the names of the sources he brings. “It is possible that, had I brought the name of this person (who originally said the given idea, the reader) who does not find (that name) palatable, will lose the (entire idea and will see) negativity in it and will therefore not understand (the larger concept). And since my intention is to benefit the reader, to clarify for him hidden ideas within this tractate, I saw it fit not to cite my sources.”

Not all medieval Jewish scholars believed that this was the correct thing to do. One prominent example of this is Jacob Anatoli (1194–1256) who disagrees with Maimonides. In the introduction to his book “Malamad HaTalmidim,” he says that he will even cite non-Jews, specifically Michael Scot (1175–1232), from whom he heard “words of wisdom.”

His reasons for citing all his sources are as follows. First, he does not want to bring glory to himself by using “borrowed vessels.” Second, he says it is important for a wise person to see wisdom for what it is and not write it off just because it originated from a source they don’t like. He adds that if Moses saw it fit to quote a gentile, Jethro, in the Torah, he should follow that example in his books. Finally he says that he follows the way of the Torah which is to always give attribution to his sources.

Yet, many authors have followed Maimonides lead. Here are two prominent examples of this, both books that have had a large impact on modern-day Judaism. The classic Chassidic text “Tanya,” written by Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), borrows heavily from the ideas of medieval Jewish philosophers, specifically Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed,” but from many others as well. He writes on the opening page that the book “has been gathered from holy books and authors,” yet he does not cite or credit the actual “holy books and authors” he takes ideas from.

The classic Mussar movement text “Chesbon HaNefesh” by Menahem Mendel Levin (1749–1826) seems to have taken entire concepts from Benjamin Franklin without any acknowledgement or citations whatsoever. I surmise that both of these authors, Shneur Zalman of Liadi and Menahem Mendel Levin, shared Maimonides’ concern that if they divulged their sources, the ideas would be devalued in the eyes of their very conservative religious readers. They therefore intentionally kept the sources of their ideas a secret.

In fact Jacob Anatoli, who insisted on citing all of his sources including those that came from non-Jews, had his worked banned by prominent medieval Jewish scholar and Talmudist Shlomo ben Aderet, also known as The Rashba (1235–1310). It is possible that other later scholars took note of this and decided that it was better if they hid their sources rather than have their work potentially banned and derided by the masses.

In the final analysis we have two competing values here. Concern that the idea be accepted to the reader and academic and scholarly integrity that insists on citing every source. When academic integrity causes the reader to become prejudiced towards the ideas presented, Maimonides is willing to compromise and not cite his sources. Jacob Anatoli, conversely, would like to educate the reader to see past the person saying the ideas and judge the ideas for what they are. He is not willing to compromise academic and scholarly integrity because readers may be too shallow to do this.

Literary tactics

It seems that the view of Maimonides dominated over time. We therefore have books like the “Tanya” and “Chesbon HaNefesh” by Menahem Mendel Levin which obscure the sources of the ideas they contain, and have thereby obtained a much wider ranging readership and influence. Is this dishonest? Maimonides would argue that because a book is written for the benefit of the reader, as long as hiding the source of the ideas is positive for the reader it is acceptable. Others disagree.

There is however, another element to all of this which is pseudepigrapha, where a book is attributed by its author to a more prominent figure from the past. A classic example of this is the Kabbalistic work known as Sefer Yetzirah which was attributed to the Patriarch Abraham. Although it is clear that Abraham did not write the book. In addition, many argue, in my view convincingly, that the magnum opus of the Kabbalah “The Zohar” is pseudepigraphical and was not actually written by the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Shimon bar Yochia in 70 EC. There are many other examples, like the commentary on Tractate Nidarim that is attributed to Rashi (1040–1104) but is known to have been written by someone else. Yet the importance of these works and their respectability has not been diminished in the eyes of most people.

One may argue that the reason pseudepigrapha was an acceptable literary tactic in previous eras was similar to why it was permissible to quote ideas without citing sources. Authors of important works used these tactics as a way to get readers to take their ideas seriously. They would either hide their own authorship or hide the sources of the ideas they presented, whichever worked better for the particular text and subject matter, in order to get the reader to take the ideas seriously. It was then up to the reader to either accept or reject the ideas based on their own merit. In other words, the value of disseminating ideas was seen as paramount, and scholarly integrity was secondary in importance.

All this brings us back to the recent scandals. It is first important that I make it clear that I am personally strongly opposed to any type of plagiarism or scholarly forgery in all its forms. In this sense I side with Jacob Anatoli. However, when taken from a historical perspective, the matter is far from clear.

If Rabbis Broyde, Bernheim and Metzger employed unorthodox literary strategies as a means to disseminate ideas that would otherwise not be accepted by their audience, they are standing on strong ground in doing so. Whilst I do not like it, if such a crime truly warranted their firing from their positions of prominence, there are bookshelves full of classical works we should be throwing out with them.

Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life