Monday, 3 November 2014

Can we still learn from Disgraced Rabbis?

I received many comments about my last email on Halloween celebrations. Some said I shouldn't have said it was forbidden just not recommended. But the vast majority of comments were focused on the fact that I quoted Rabbi Broyde as my source. To paraphrase the comments they went something like this. "How can a Rabbi who has been disgraced still be used for halachic rulings? It would be better to quote other Rabbis or at the very least to give a disclaimer of his past deeds."

I decided after talking and emailing with those who made comments that I should write a blog on the permissibility or validity of quoting disgraced Rabbis in halakhic rulings. And even if it is technically ok, is it appropriate to do so? Furthermore, should we continue to learn from their many articles and books?

Before jumping into this question I want to add a further layer to this discussion. To what extent does one's actions at the end of a person's life change forever their legacy. Using an example from the last couple of weeks. Noach is described at first as a righteous man, perfect in his generation, who walked with God. He and his family were saved from the flood and from his family mankind would start all over again. This we all know well. 

However, at the end of the Torah portion, there is a less known section when Noach post flood, plants a vineyard, makes wine and gets drunk. In many ways this could be explained as Noach being depressed and melancholy after the flood for having not saved the world. He then curses one of his children and one of his grandchildren and blesses the rest. This is the last we hear of Noach. Despite living at the same time as Avraham. (Noach was still alive when Avraham was 58). The Torah does not recount a discussion between Avraham and Noach. Could it be that post flood, Noach was no longer the great man?  Or could it be that Avraham would not wish to seek out the man chosen to save the world? Could it be that Noach was now notorious?!

I want to start by discussing two famous personalities of the Talmud Rabbi Meir and his teacher Elisha Ben Avuya/Acher. The following is based on a piece of aggadah from Masekhet Hagiga. Acher was a great Torah scholar, who along with three other great Rabbis entered Paradise. 

"Four men entered the pardes — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Akiva. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace."

This piece of Aggadah which is not to be understood literally, teaches us a couple of important things. First, there are many things beyond human understanding, even great Rabbis cannot understand all of God's ways. Second, Acher found what he saw/what he understood to be very troubling. As a result of this Acher decided to depart from a Torah observant lifestyle. However, his great disciple, Rabbi Meir continued to learn with Acher long after he turned away from God.

The Talmud asks "But how did R. Meir learn Torah at the mouth of Acher? ... R. Dimi said: In the West, they say: R. Meir ate the date and threw the kernel away. Rava expounded: What is the meaning of the verse: I went down to the garden of nuts, to look at the green plants of the valley? Why are the scholars likened to the nut? To tell you that just as in the case of the nut, though it be spoiled with mud and filth, yet its contents are not sullied, so in the case of a scholar, although he may have sinned, yet his Torah remains unsullied."

Although a regular person would struggle to learn from a person like Acher and realise what is Torah and what is not, Rabbi Meir was able to discern the good from the bad. From Rabbi Meir we could possibly conclude the following, I can still learn the writings of these disgraced Rabbis because I can figure out what is clear, unsullied Torah thought from the shortcomings of these Rabbis.  Indeed, Elisha Ben Avuya makes it into Pirkei Avot - a book of our ethical teachings. Without any disclaimers of his appropriateness to learn from. (See Chapter 4 Mishna 20)

Another thing to think about is, in what way did the Rabbi become disgraced? Was it stealing from the discretionary fund or creating online pseudonyms? Is it plagiarizing other Rabbinic works or is it taking advantage of vulnerable members of one's congregation? Are there many incidents or is it just a couple? 

We have seen a few incidents in recent years of highly regarded modern Orthodox rabbis being discredited. The question that is relevant is whether the problem that the particular Rabbi had casts a shadow on his writings. Does one's past deeds invalidate his past rulings?

If we were to say yes, wouldn't that bring into question all the conversions that these Rabbis were involved in?! The very fact that Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz made a public ruling that all previous conversions that were conducted while Rabbi Freundel was the head of the Beit Din in Washington DC are still valid and do not require a second conversion shows that Rabbi Schwartz believes that one's halachic mind is separate from one's misdeeds. I.e. that despite Rabbi Freundel's deplorable behavior over a number of years, while he was acting as a dayan for conversion that was done properly. 

Finally, to the question of should one study from and promote teachings from disgraced Rabbis, I can well understand the position that their positions can be relied upon but that we should not go out of way to bring them as the only sources on a particular topic. With regard to me bringing Rabbi Broyde's ruling on Halloween, at that moment of writing my email I was only aware of his ruling. Had I been aware of other prominent positions I would have brought them instead. 

I know I haven't delved into this completely, but I welcome your comments and positions at the bottom of this piece to develop some of these ideas. I also saw an excellent source sheet by Rabbi Josh Yuter on this topic which can be read here.

1 comment:

  1. When the rules were established for 3 people on a Bet Din, perhaps our sages had in mind the last of the 13 rules of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha,* "When two Biblical passages contradict each other the contradiction in question must be solved by reference to a third passage." With that as the paradigm, should one of the members of the Bet Din subsequently be found to be unacceptable, as long as the other 2 are in agreement, that would seem to validate the decisions of the Bet Din. Now, if ALL of the members are at issue…that’s a question for another Bet Din!


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