January 19, 2020

Can Halachah ever be wrong?

Many years ago, one of the most respected Orthodox rabbis of our generation, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, told me the following story — and, of course gave me permission to tell it in his name.

He was still living in the United States and was looking for a rosh yeshiva (a dean) for a yeshiva he was starting. When the selection process had narrowed the applicants to 10 highly learned young talmidei chachamim (scholars), he interviewed each of them. First, he had them read and explain a particularly difficult portion of the Talmud. Each one passed that part of the interview handily.

Then he asked them a question: Suppose you ordered an electric shaver from a store owned by non-Jews, and by accident the store sent you two shavers. Would you return the second shaver?

Nine said they would not. One said he would.

What is critical to understand is why they answered the way they did. The nine who would not return the second shaver were not crooks. They explained that halachah (Jewish law) forbade them from returning the other shaver. According to halachah, as they had been taught it, a Jew is forbidden to return a lost item to a non-Jew. The only exception is if the non-Jew knows a Jew found the item and not returning it would cause anti-Semitism or a Khilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). The one who said he would return it gave that very reason — that it would be a Khilul Hashem if he didn’t return it and could be a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) if he did. But he, too, did not believe he was halachically bound to return the shaver.

The nine were not wrong, and they were not taught wrong. That is the halachah. Rambam (Maimonides) ruled that a Jew is permitted to profit from a non-Jew’s business error.

This same subject came up recently in talking with a rosh yeshiva of a “black hat” yeshiva, a good and decent man, who defended this halachah in order to make the point that it is halachah — not “humanity,” as he termed it, or common sense, or conscience — that determines what is right.

I do not write any of this with any agenda beyond the title question: Can halachah ever be wrong? My high regard for the Orthodox community is well known.

But the number of laws that seem wrong and/or irrational is too large for anyone worried about Judaism’s future not to be concerned. If Rabbi Riskin were not concerned, he would not have told me the shaver story.

Halachah bans men from listening to a woman’s voice because it deems it sexually stimulating (literally, a form of nakedness). Last week, in Israel, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Air Force, Lt. Col. Moshe Ravad, tendered his resignation from a program that integrates ultra-Orthodox soldiers into the Israeli army. The rabbi’s announcement was in response to the army’s decision not to excuse religious soldiers from military events in which women sing (they were excused from entertainment events). About a week prior to that, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, said that if the army insists that all soldiers attend official events with women singing, “You have to leave those events even if there’s a firing squad outside, and you’ll be shot to death.” Better for a halachic Jew to die than to hear a male-female chorus sing “Hatikvah”?

This news item was reported around the world. It did not bring glory to Judaism.

Finally, given that I believe that the Torah is from God and that the Jews are the Chosen People, and because I have values similar to Orthodox Jews, I am often asked why I am not Orthodox. My standing-on-one-leg response consists of three Hebrew words: Yom Tov Sheni. That’s not my only reason, but it’s shorthand for rabbinic law not changing.

The Torah commands us to observe Passover for seven days — an important number, since seven symbolizes Creation — but the rabbis added a day (Yom Tov Sheni) for Jews living in the Diaspora, because at one time Jews outside of Israel were not certain of the calendar. Though we have been certain for thousands of years, the added day has remained (though there was never a day added to Yom Kippur, which leads one to believe that the calendar was always known).

It would seem that one of these laws is immoral (not returning an item to a non-Jew) and the others irrational. But we have long been in a period in which rabbinic, that is, man-made, halachah just cannot change. We are told that we are not on the moral or spiritual level of previous generations (I have no idea on what basis this claim can be made — the generation that was present at Sinai was on a considerably lower level than many Jews today) and that there is no halachic authority that would be able to change halachah (which simply restates the problem).

The great Orthodox theologian, the late Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, called his fellow Orthodox Jews “Karaites of the Oral Law.” By that he meant that just as the Karaites were literalists regarding Torah law, the Orthodox became literalists of the Oral Law. Was he right?

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).