Multiculturalism: an extrinsic reality only?

Australia is a relatively young country. To define its unique identity or examples of cultural specificity is difficult. The shared history is really only shared among white Anglo Saxons and of course indigenous aboriginals, whose culture has been traumatised by the incursion of the white man. Migrants, and this includes Jews (mainly from Poland) after World War 2, did not share that history.

How do you create an identity without a real shared history. One approach is to enforce the study of Australian History into each school class. Creating an awareness of history, though, is not a substitute for sharing in that history. The collective history of Australians in terms of the shared experience is actually a conglomeration of individual histories tied to original home lands.

Assimilation of the various groups of immigrants is seen as a good thing by those who share the proposition that unbundling past attachment will cause a fusion of the various parts, thereby melding into a new whole. Proponents of multiculturalism often feel that a keen respect for difference attained by respecting and experiencing other cultures will offer the glue that keeps the disparate parts in harmony. Even those who can be termed pro-multiculturalism, predict that over time, osmosis induced by a “next” generation will mean that a natural cohesion will potentiate. Respect for difference affords the best chance for the cultural glue to set.

In this week’s Parsha of Yisro, the Torah tells us: ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש

What is the meaning of the word גוי. We say  אתה אחד ושמך אחד, ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ and this associates the idea of unity juxtaposed with the word גוי. The Jew is enjoined to share a certain bond of unity with their people. What is the nature of this bond in the context גוי. We see that Jews are also called (among other things) an עדה. The terminology עדת ישראל is also well established. גוי is normally translated as “nation” or “people” whereas עדה is normally translated as congregation. The root of the word עדה is עד — testimony. The interrelationship between the people comprising the עדה is their join testimony. This testimony is the witnessing and participation of the

  • creation of the world
  • going out of Egypt
  • receiving the Torah
  • entering the promised land
  • the worship during the reign of two temples
  • the promise of future redemption beginning with the coming of the Mashiach.
Conjoint destiny

There are those who are not as religiously inclined and for whom the concept of redemption is a distant memory of great grandparents. They do not (currently) recognise or feel part of this joint testimony, a testimony which intersects with our formation as a people and its final redemption as a people. Those who are distant from this vision are not and would not consider themselves part of the philosophically attuned Edah—congregation. They are, however, part of a גוי, the nation of Israel. The Rav explains that there need not be a common philosophical agglutinant to be considered and feel a member of the גוי component of Jews. What then binds the group into an Goy is the experience of its common history. We have all saw the fact that the anti-Semite targets the גוי. The anti-Semite makes no difference between Charedi, Mapay, Mapam, Left wing, Right Wing, Bundist or Agnostic Jew. The fact that one has experienced the chain of joint persecution as evinced by the phrase עם לבדד ישכון means that they are irrefutably conjoined with their people.

A Goy entity can get together and deal with common issues that are not in the realm of  the Edah. They can rally against anti-Semitism. They may remember recent cataclysmic events or celebrate such. They will form networks for social justice and welfare and seek to morph into a light for the nations.

This ideal is one which multiculturalists would like to see as the bedrock of a nation such as Australia. It is achievable as long as there are common causes to grieve over (such as the Bali bombings) or to exalt over (such as Australia performing well in the Olympic games etc). Multiculturalism inevitably ideally leads to the formation of a nation—the Goy.

In this Parsha of Yisro, Hashem tells us that this is not enough. He wants us to be וגוי קדוש. Holiness, or Kedusha, is by definition derived from a Godly experience. This is the experience of the עד — the Jew who carries and believes the testimony of their grandparents and great grandparents and seeks to evince the Kedusha thereby and leading inexorably to the final redemption in our day.

Lehavdil, neither assimilation nor multiculturalism will lead Australia to be a  גוי קדוש in the form of an עדה. This can only come through a joint historiology developed over many years. But Australia, like most Western Societies has a level of division between the State a Religion and so the aim ultimately is to be a גוי sharing a common concern and identity rather than an עדה.

Adapted from Divrei HaRav

Bias of the right wing?

In a post at, Rabbi Adlerstein seemingly bemoans a new trend whereby Rabbis seek to garner support for their opinion on brain stem death vis-a-vis organ transplants. He argues, cogently, that rather than seeking to gain popular votes for their views, those Rabbis who oppose the RCA’s published  position would do better if they presented a learned halakhic discourse to counter the views of the RCA (and indeed other Poskim).

Whilst his point is well made, I can’t help but ask why Rabbi Adlerstein doesn’t equally speak out against all those who keep advising us that we have to follow a Psak on item X, because the “Gedolim” follow that Psak and  it alone is Daas Torah.

Let me take a recent example: that of fish worms. Whilst Rabbi Adlerstein has noted elsewhere that this issue is indeed a matter of halakhic debate, I have not seen him or others emerge and criticise the myriad of posters and opinion-machers who decry those who follow the so-called lenient view (eg that of Rabbi Belsky) that such worms pose no problem. Despite Rabbi Belsky satisfying the criteria of Rabbi Adlerstein in publishing his views in a halakhic discourse, we don’t find Rabbi Adlerstein condemn the populist pressure applied by the right which seeks to disenfranchise and delegitimise all those who follow so-called lenient views, irrespective of whether those views do include and are buttressed by  a published halakhic stance.

What is the difference between so-called left-wing Rabbis suggesting that people follow the views of say Rabbi Tendler, an approach that Rabbi Adlerstein decries, and that of right-wing Rabbis and Askonim who seek to actively squash all opinions which are to the left of theirs (as in Anisakis worms) despite the fact that יש להם על מה לסמוך?

Why is this populist style pressure bad if it emanates from left wing Rabbis, but it’s perfectly okay if it comes from right wing Rabbis?

Have I missed his point?

Who is a Posek?

The ready-made access to Sforim means that a student of Torah is able to muster sources which are relevant to a particular Halachic issue at will. Whether it is through Bar Ilan’s excellent resource,, or plain google/bing searches,  those who have the will may well find a way through the halachic maze. There are many “ask the Rabbi” style websites, ranging from the askmoses variety, through to wesbsites featuring personalities such as Rav Aviner and Rav Ovadya, to kollelim with a halachic branch whose members are ready and able to respond to curly questions. There are a range of online mailing lists, of open and closed variety that one can approach and thereby interact with people , past psokim and mekoros related to the question at hand. There are also the encyclopaedic style Nitei Gavriel seforim or specialist seforim devoted to just one area of halacha in a compendium.

Clearly, the concept of “your local orthodox Rabbi” is important. To answer a halachic question, the context of the questioner is often critical. A Posek may issue a different answer to the same question depending on who the questioner is and their particular context. This aspect is often lost on those who read quotes ascribed to various Poskim.

Whereas in the past, Psokim have exclusively been published L’Halacha and U’LeMa’aseh, in learned responsa, we  now have exposure, in both English and Hebrew, to what I would call halachic surveys. Rabbi Bleich of YU may have been one of the earliest to publish regular quality reviews of recent halachic responsa. The Rabanut also has publications devoted to this purpose. Everyone is acquainted with articles in Tradition of a halachic variety and the RJJ journal and more.

It seems to me that whilst ready made access is a great thing, it may also induce a dangerous sciolism where para-students convince themselves that they can research and pasken. They may feel that they can use such resources to be Medameh Milsa LeMilsa or to ascribe a Mesora or find a Tana D’M’Sayeyah.

To be sure, aspects of pure ritual, even complex ones, may be dealt with in this way. Matters which are clear in Shulchan Aruch don’t need a Posek. They need a Talmid! For example, one can research where it is permitted to interrupt prayer. Other issues, even seemingly mundane, are more complex. For example, may one wear sunglasses on Shabbos? This question itself depends on various factors: the health needs of the questioner, the scientific data on the risks of exposure to the sun in a particular locale, the determination of what is considered “clothing” and what is considered an appendage, the style of sunglasses in respect of whether they are commonly removed outdoors or whether they are commonly perched on the head when not in use, and indeed whether giving a permissive ruling for one locale or person may cause others to be Moreh Hetter for themselves. This last point cannot be stressed enough.

I remember reading about the question of giving a Hetter to an establishment to remain open on Shabbos through the device of shutfus with a Goy. This issue came up recently and one Rabbi allegedly said words that “it’s done everywhere”. Rav Soloveitchik, however, did not permit it under any circumstances. The reason given by the Rav was that whilst one may be able to ensure that the current owner’s quality of Shabbos and adherence to Shabbos will be unaffected, who can decide whether such a practice will have an effect on the children and grand children? The credentialed Posek must make a determination that transcends the particular question and examine, perhaps with a value judgement, the effect of such a Psak on future generations. These are not lightweight matters and they are not the domain of the “ordinary” Rabbi.

More recently, we have witnessed certain practices and innovations that can be considered as חדש according to any definition. Two examples include the ordination of women to a quasi-rabbinatic position and the emergence of Shira Chadasha style services that push the envelope of acceptable Tfilla B’Tzibur to, or beyond, a limit. What type of Posek is qualified to deal with such issues? The issues are discussed online, of course, and survey-style articles have been written discussing various aspects, but these articles in of themselves do not qualify as Psak. At best, they can be L’Halacha but certainly not L’Maaseh. The careful author will always state this. A professional with Smicha for whom Toroso is not Umanoso, and who seemingly has little credentials heretofore in Psak across all 4 Chelkei Shulchan Aruch is not someone who can simply parachute down into an issue and render a binding decision or a Psak that should be relied on, both LeHatir or LeIssur on matters of such gravity. Similarly, an halachic academic who  may well be brilliant and has Smicha, but who does not devote their time to Psak across the 4 Chelkei Shulchan Aruch, is possibly also not the type of person who should render momentous and critical Piskei Din.

I am an academic, albeit not in the sphere of Judaism. A Posek learns how to pasken especially through the shimush he undertakes which is a continuation of a Mesora. At University, there is no Mesora by definition. We can and should choose an argument because it makes most logical sense as long as we can justify it to (some) peers. The study of halacha is an intellectual exercise, but the determination of halacha by a Yid transcends the intellectual exercise. It must envelop a fealty to a Mesora that began from Moshe Rabeinu. It must be brave enough on Pesach to say that although one can’t see a reason to be Machmir on item X, since that is the Mesora of one’s family, that family is choshesh to this chumra and on Pesach, Yidden have a specific Mesora to be Machmir.

On the other hand, one cannot also be frozen by so called Daas Torah. The Rav notes that in pre-war Europe there was no such concept of Daas Torah. This is a new innovation, ironically, which some, like Rav Nachum Rabinowicz have said is also ill-defined. A Rav HaMuvhak, however, is a concept which is explicit in Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Deah Hilchos Kvod Talmidei Chachomim (see the Aruch Hashulchan for example).

There are three categories of Rabbi.

  1. The Rav Hamuvhak
    Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin: a leading posek in America before R' Moshe Feinstein

    who one normally (but not necessarily) has learned most of one’s Torah from

  2. A Rav, Talmid Chacham who has taught you.
  3. A Rav, Talmid Chacham who hasn’t taught you.

In general, our local Rav is not category 1. Indeed, in our day, there is not a single person in category 1; rather  a range of Rabbi’s who are Muvhakim, and who are now called Gedolim. Who can say that Rav X is greater than Rav Y? The bottom line is that your Rav, or local orthodox Rabbi will consult a Rav in category 1 on a needs basis. Indeed, knowing when one needs to consult is one of the primary reasons R’ Moshe Feinstein apparently directed his Smicha program towards.

So where does it leave us, the lonely man in the street? I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, of course. Innately, when I read or speak or hear a Rav who seems to be category 1, I just know they are. How? You can ask them a question and they don’t just blurt out a set of Tshuvos and then inform you that on the balance of matters, one should act like this. This a category 2 Rabbi in my mind. A category 1 Rabbi immediately sees Gemoras. He sees how those Gemoras interrelate to the question. He has to reconcile Gemoras and then Rishonim and Achronim. He is able to do that at will. He will develop his thoughts, often out loud . He may well change his mind between the bottom of a stair case until he reaches the top of the stair case (as was alleged by Rav Tendler about R’ Moshe). He has access to primary sources. He isn’t a prisoner to Acharonim. He considers himself an Acharon (albeit humbly in most cases). As an example, consider the case of brushing one’s teeth on Shabbos with tooth paste. Some will tell you straight away that it’s a machlokes between the Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchoso and others. Fine. You can read that in an English compendium of Hilchos Shabbos today. Rav Soloveitchik however, was Mattir toothpaste on Shabbos. Why? Because he said that toothpaste didn’t qualitatively constitute the Melacha defined in the Gemora and later codified in Shulchan Aruch. Some call this “Breyte Playtzes” or “wide shoulders”. That is true, but you have to be able to back it up. Peer review and analysis has to be something that a Rav can stand up to and argue his way through.

On the other hand, when a talmid of Rav Soloveitchik, came to ask whether he could invite a Mechallel Shabbos to his house, even though there was a high likelihood that the guest would drive, the Rav would not budge. He said it was absolutely Assur. The Talmid tried to explain there was a chance of Kiruv etc. The Rav didn’t budge. The Talmid then told the Rav that the Shoel U’Meyshiv was lenient in such a situation (as is R’ Shlomo Zalman, apparently). The Rav’s reply was educational:  “Nu, the Shoel U’Meyshiv is an Acharon and I am an Acharon. I say it’s Assur”.

Bircas Hamazon and Shira

The Rav explained that according to many Rishonim, there is no Torah based imperative to recite Bircas Hamazon unless the meal included bread (a wheat based product). Even according to those Rishonim who opine that reciting the after-bracha of Al Hagefen or Al Hapeiros is also a Torah based imperative (eg wine, pomegranates and figs) there is no Zimun for these latter  products; Zimun is reserved solely for recitation after the consumption of  bread (eg from wheat). Clearly, then, all Rishonim agree that there is a special Torah category reserved for bread alone.

We know that bread is a staple, and ironically in our days of diets and glycemic indices, many, ironically, avoid bread. Hilchos Brachos is complex enough, and many will b’davka choose to eat bread so that they are not confronted with complex questions about the relative prioritisation of brachos.

What is the secret of bread that raises it to this important place in Halacha?

The Rav explains that bread is the one staple which requires the active cooperation of a range of people before it can be readied for consumption. Although its roots (sic) are also from the ground, one doesn’t simply consume raw wheat. Of the other fruits which the land of Israel was blessed through, only bread (eg via wheat) requires this cooperative preparation. One reason why either a special thanks is due through Bircas HaMazon (or according to the other opinions through Zimun) from a Torah perspective, is that God has allowed us or necessitated us, so to speak, to partner him in the formation of this particular foodstuff.

Finding dry wheat for matza

Based on this insight, the Rav contends that this is also one reason Bnei Yisrael didn’t immediately sing the Shira upon leaving Egypt and instead waited until the miracle of Krias Yam Suf. Comparatively, the act of leaving Egypt didn’t involve the Jews so much as “having to put their hands into cold water”. In contradistinction, when they reached the challenge of crossing the impenetrable Red Sea, they were explicitly commanded through Moshe to “travel” דבר אכ בני ישראל ויסעו and through this, like the preparation of bread, they actively partnered God in effecting this salvation through the miracle.

From  Mipninei Harav.

Interestingly, this primary thanks that we give is after the eating of the bread. Yet, when it comes to Torah learning, the primary Bracha is recited just prior to learning Torah.  Rav Kook in Ein Ayah to Brachos 20, explains that the thanks due after eating bread is tied to the sustenance that is attained after eating the bread. For this reason, one can still recite the Bircas Hamazon as long as the food has not been digested. By contrast, when it comes to Torah study, the lessons learned after the Torah study, which can be thought of as the practical halachos leading to the ability to do Mitzvos, are of secondary importance to the Torah study itself. The Torah study itself, immediately attained at the commencement of the learning process, is the highest level of sustenance for the Neshama. For this reason, the bracha for Torah study is made just prior to this experience (at the beginning of learning).

When one examines the temporal efficacy of a miracle, the Shevach VeHodaa that one gives is only meaningful as long as the miracle hasn’t been “digested“. If the miracle has been digested, then it loses its impact and it isn’t natural to exalt through the recitation of Shira.

Living our daily lives, we encounter miracles: some through nature which can be explained through scientific principles and others which are elusive and will likely stay that way. The pursuit of science can have two effects. For those who fear the study of nature through science and logic, science challenges their sensitivity of the miraculous. Science is an ogre, something to be avoided, as it may act to desensitise the Neshama through its human explanations of Godly activity . For others, Science is a tool which is also used to meet the Creator and understand His world. Even the most explainable manifestation of his majesty serves to enthuse the Neshama and bring the Jew closer to his Maker.

It all boils down to one’s weltanschauung, the level of their secular education, and their exposure to the world.

כן נראה לפי עניות דעתי

The honour of the Chafetz Chaim

The Chafetz Chaim

One of my beloved Rebbes, Rav Baruch Abaranok z”l, was a talmid and musmach of the Chafetz Chaim. Rav Abaranok was a pioneer in the Melbourne Jewish Rabbinate, and possessed Midos and an Adinus HaNefesh which made me feel that I was in the midst of a real Radin personality.

I am currently reading Rav Hershel Schachter’s new sefer, “Divrei Harav”. I was somewhat surprised to read the following episode.

During the time when there was consideration given to the closing of the Volozhiner Yeshiva, a special meeting of many Rabbonim was called by the Ohr Sameach.

The Ohr Sameach

The Chafetz Chaim was not invited to this momentous meeting, but travelled nonetheless to attend. When the Chafetz Chaim reached  the Ohr Sameach, he  announced to the Chafetz Chaim that he had only invited “great Rabonim from large cities” and that since the Chafetz Chaim was a “small time Rabbi from a small town”, the Chafetz Chaim should not attend the meeting!

Apparently feeling rejected, the Chafetz Chaim turned to R’ Chaim Brisker (who was invited to the meeting) and expressed his angst at the searing words of the Ohr Sameach, while also expressing the Chafetz Chaim’s personal view that the Volozhiner Yeshivah should not be closed. R’ Chaim (according to the Rav) advised the Chafetz Chaim that he agreed with the Chafetz Chaim’s view about the non closure of the Yeshivah and advised him to “gate-crash” the meeting and express his view, despite the Ohr Sameach’s express opposition to the Chafetz Chaim’s attendance.

Rav Schachter believes that the meeting commenced with a pilpul from the Ohr Sameach on the question of whether a person who finds a lost item and  is in possession of the said item, has a din of Shomer with all the concomitant responsibilities. When the Ohr Sameach had completed his pilpul on this topic, Rav Chaim asked his son, Reb Moshe, who was then a lad, to answer the Ohr Sameach. Reb Moshe pointed out that the person who found the lost item could not be considered a Shomer with responsibility of such to the person who had lost the item, because normally a Shomer effectively takes over looking after an item from the hands of the owner, because he takes it out of the hands of the owner. The same applies to a Gazlan who also (forcibly) takes it out of the hands of an owner and therefore must also assume the responsibility to the owner (as a Shomer) in having to guard the item appropriately. However, in the case of someone who finds a lost item, since they have not taken the item out of the hands of the owner (willingly or unwillingly) then, based on Sevara, he can’t be expected halachically to look after the item in place of the original owners (since the owners themselves were in no place to look after the lost item at the particular time the person found it).

Apparently, R’ Chaim asked his son Reb Moshe to respond, to show that even a lad could answer the ‘so called’ pilpul of the Ohr Sameach. Rav Chaim wanted to  “show up” the Ohr Sameach, and thereby show that the Ohr Sameach was also not right in refusing to allow someone of the calibre of the Chafetz Chaim to the meeting of Rabonim.

Ad Kan.

I found this snippet fascinating. Even if the Ohr Sameach had an opposing view to both R’ Chaim and the Chafetz Chaim, why did he deny the Chafetz Chaim entry to the meeting? R’ Chaim it would seem was most aware of the Chafetz Chaim’s stature. Certainly it is true that in those days, the Aruch Hashulchan was considered the Posek Acharon, but that ought not diminish the stature of the Chafetz Chaim? Also, given the gravity of the decision that was to be made, how could a so-called “Daas Torah” be achieved without the Chafetz Chaim’s advice?

If the stature of the Chafetz Chaim grew much later, what changed? Surely it could not all be because of the Aruch Hashulchan’s comments about davening in front of a woman with her hair uncovered or his comments (possibly censored) on Dina D’Malchuso?  Every Posek has their more controversial positions. Even the Chafetz Chaim was criticised for his definition of Shok as the knee area (and not lower down the leg).

What gives?