Friday, March 16, 2007

Ailu vAilu Intolerant

Ailu v'Ailu (AA) is flimsy and deformed from all the stretching Orthodox Jews have put it through. An interesting idea, certainly accurate within its own context, is now employed in inappropriate situations, to an insincere, immature and intellectually appalling effect. If that famous Bat Kol would grace us today, it would certainly declare, "I retract my previous statement. You guys are objectively wrong."

There are many (ab)uses, but the most troublesome is when AA concludes a Hashkafic
discussion. "Sure, Satmar feels Zionism is a to'evah while Rav Kook considers it the sprouting of our salvation, but that is the beauty of Judaism- Ailu v'Ailu Divrei Elokim Hayyim." Similar statements are made regarding the confrontation of hassidut and litvak ideals, the contrast between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox outlook, or the cultural approaches of Sfardim and Ashkenazim.

These statements are stupid! This is why:
G-d has one Will. He has particular goals and desires for the world. Right? He doesn't want you to murder. He doesn't want you to kiss Prime Ministers of Iran. Conversely, he does hope you infuse this world with kindness, peace, Torah, mitzvot, tzedek, and mishpat. When you contemplate getting up for minyan, G-d cares- G-d is interested in you making the right choice.

So, when deciding between enlisting in Tzahal or sitting in the Mir, does He suddenly disappear with a thunderous, "I don't care- do whatever the heaven you like." When you tell an audience of Bais Yaakov students that "Tznius is a woman's ikkar avodah, like Talmud Torah is for men,"* can you imagine Hashem flatly murmuring, "no comment."
KHAS v'freaking SHALOM, you flaming deist!

These arguments matter to G-d and one side is wrong. That "wrong" position may not be evil incarnate. It could represent a very good, sufficiently efficient way to bring G-d's presence into our world. But the "right" choice, by definition, is more capable of doing so. When presented with both options, settling on anything but the ideal is tragic.

"But Ben, everybody is different! Everyone has their own special skills and taste! How can we all be supposed to approach G-d the same way!" Well, darling, just as different equations have different solutions, so too your unique self has a distinctive role. One single distinctive role. So ask yourself- for a person like me, with my particular strengths and tastes, am I performing at my full potential, or are incorrect and inefficient belief systems encroaching on my Avodat H? More importantly, note that certain personal attributes may not be ideal themselves. Granted, not every Jew contains the sophistication and clearheadedness to study Torah- and for that person, doing so is absolutely incorrect- but if they could press the magic button to change themselves, shouldn't they? Let's not glorify the b'dieved.

Which takes me from Hashkafa to Halakha. This too is troubling: "Some Gedolim hold brushing your teeth on Shabbat is not problematic. I looked into the issue and I see a glaring Issur Daaraita, but Ailu v'Ailu." From the times of the Mishna, Halakhic disputes faced a sole arbiter: Truth. What is Gemara but a back-and-forth of proofs, rebuttals, and counter-proofs! The tradition continued to the Rishonim, who refused to tolerate a differing opinion- they fought a Milkhemet Hashem, using all the tools the rational mind granted them. For if you can bring a proof for your shita, it is not one opinion in a world of AA, it is Right.

This idea scares some people. Our Western culture is one of tolerance and diversity, where right and wrong only exist in questions of terrorism (wrong), cigarettes (wrong), and more tolerance and diversity (absolutely right.) HaRaya!: scan the last five years of Disney movies for a moral message- apparently celebrating our differences is the only ethical ideal. To a degree, this is a fantastic accomplishment. On a practical level, tolerance leads to peaceful and united communities. On a practical level, diversity is an escape from the blinding beige of sameness. But the practical is rarely the truthful and never confuse a utilitarian sense of restraint or a useful willingness to hear every opinion with the strange philosophy that all sides are actually right. Pretend, if it suits you- but never believe.

And don’t get too cocky either. Let not your struggle for Truth convince you that you've actually found it. (Thanks Noah.) The opposite! Upon cognizing that Truth never travels by way of AA but only through serious debate and reason, you’ll find that most heart-felt ideologies melt into uncertainty. The pursuit for answers, you’ll find, tends to culminate with a towering and depressing question mark. So don't forget: It is the self-loving, arrogant believer in AA that quickly designates his personal views as G-d's Truth, while the dedicated rejectionist approaches the world with open ears and inquisitive mind: skeptical, but curious and fair.

And don’t be so frightened! Leaving behind the cozy comforts of AA may appear unpleasant, but bear in mind, you never believed in it in the first place. After all, has anyone ever applied AA to a religious group on their left?: Do Orthodox congregants accept the Conservative movement with warm calls for open tolerance? Has a single Haredi figure ever admitted, "We had Rav Shach and they had JB." Let's be honest for a moment- AA serves but one role: permitting a relatively unique belief (every group to its own degree and no more) to coexist with an emotional attachment to pseudo-traditionalism, simultaneously justifying the foolishness of the frum and the newness of the self. Or, in its Halakhic context, AA enables us to argue with a posek, while concomitantly declaring him infallible.

But more to the point, a simple analysis of the notion itself reveals just how awkward AA can be. When I previously discussed hashkafic issues I only addressed one facet, the behavioral effect of hashkafa. But behind every practical question of joining the army or becoming a hassid or teaching woman Talmud looms conceptual, philosophical discourse. What protects Israel- Torah or Torah with an army? Do a Rebbe's prayers bear supernatural powers? What is the role of women in intellectual and communal life? Answering AA to this form of query - saying two factual opposites are concurrently correct- intimates an irrational approval of contradiction. Yuch! Contradiction is anathema to the Jewish thinker. Halakha recoils from its gruesome countenance, Makhshava flees from its very mention, and so too any human field of study attempts to construct a sizable, useful set of information utterly free of contradiction. Denying this principle is forbidden in Torah, impossible in math and science, and, naturally, foreign from the way humans assess their everyday world.

For if you foster a genuine sympathy for "multiple-truth" or the "beauty of contradiction" you might find the implicit baggage difficult to maneuver with. Go ahead- take this post-modernist route: deny human ability to perceive a single Truth, better yet, deny the artificially constructed notion of Truth itself. Taken to its logical (and in modern times, relatively popular) conclusion, you'll soon realize that moral codes are relative, that one and one equaling two is a consequence of your social upbringing, and that the image before your eyes may be but the dream of a dozing butterfly.

So wake up! Ailu vAilu doesn't demand that sort of subjective nonsense from you. Come with me, my child, you are ready: let us discover Ailu vAilu anew, the way the Bas Kol intended it.

Ailu vAilu relates to a specific meta-Halakhic feature. The hiddush is subtle, and for proper explanation, we must contrast life on Pluto with the death penalty on Earth:

In scientific pursuits, an objective gem of information exists in the universe, waiting to be recorded by man. At times, employing deductive and inductive insight, that slice of knowledge is captured and brought down to Earth. But occasionally, the problem baffles us. After furiously attempting and rebutting every proof, vigorously digesting and reformulating every possible argument, we simply lack the information necessary to recognize the true understanding. With our set of data two mutually exclusive possibilities fit, but obviously only one is correct. This realization means failure, for there exists but one possible explanation, yet we remain unable to detect it. For example, there either is or is not life outside of planet Earth- only one possibility exists- and today's lack of information will never alter that fact.

This description applies equally to hashkafa. Hashem has, as it were, a particular vision for the world and particular method of functioning. Armed with Torah and logic we may uncover these details or we may not- but their eternal, unchanging existence is a fundamental tenet.

Not so for law. When our legal system is confronted with baffling situations, the court searches through potential precedents that may contribute to some form of proof. But when the proceedings fail to find fault in either side and we face two potential verdicts that both jibe with the system- the legalist delights. His decision- a personal selection between two respectable courses- morphs into law itself. (For contrast, imagine if a scientist could simply declare, "the results were inconclusive, but nonetheless I have ruled that there is life on Pluto!") At that moment of human decision, both alternatives beam equally Truthful. Both complement the current set of laws, and as such, are both legitimate. This characterizes a basic aspect of legal systems: they do not depend on pre-existing objective facts. A legal system never claims to reflect a higher emanation of Truth- it seeks only to find resolution within itself.

The same for Halakha. Hashem communicates His will to His people through very limited texts. As such, they are subject to multiple interpretations, many of which fit snuggly into our finite source information.. When that occurs, all such options are equally valid. Since neither the views of the House of Shamai or of the House of Hillel lead to direct contradiction with Halakhic precedent, both express legitimate courses of action. Both are divrei elokim hayyim.

Indeed, how much more so with Halakha, where the minority opinion lives on in the text and its commentaries, plumbed by generation upon generation of budding new students.

But bear in mind- despite the Ailu vAilu conclusion, Halakhic quarrels always commence with just that: quarrel, vicious and merciless. Throw proof-texts as spears and aim for the jugular. If the pasuk, braita, or Rambam challenges the opponent's approach, fling him into the sea of Wrong and remain alone on your island of Truth. Only after passing this unforgiving test can a shita claim the crown of Ailu vAilu. Prima facie respect of an opinion prior to sufficient critique grants idiocy in the place of legitimacy.

In my initial paragraph, I described AA's contemporary use as "insincere, infantile, and intellectually appalling." I wasn't kidding.
Infantile- blurring boundaries and ignoring distinctions in order to relate a specific Halakhic notion to realms unprepared for such comparison. Why? To fulfill a subconscious need for justification in the presence of others.
Insincere- despite its overly open-minded interpretation, AA is employed on an extremely subjective, close-minded basis.
Intellectually appalling- if a frum Jew would step back and consider the epistemological and moral significance of his statement, he would label himself a kofeir gamur.

So why are we so bound to this false interpretation? Why do our teachers relate to it as a Jewish value? Because, as heresy goes, its extremely useful. For the first time in Jewish history, variant strands of religious practice and personal culture exist in the same Jewish community. Lacking a proper education in AA, most religious individuals will resort to vicious intolerance. This does not have to be: one can respect the other as a Jew even if recognizing his faults, but, granted, it is difficult. Simply put, we lack the sophistication to maintain Ahavat Yisrael without resorting to AA- to express esteem without assuming multiple truth. So we fool ourselves: teach the masses that the other is right because it’s the only way to convince him that the other is human. Rejecting our masquerade would only lead to more sectarian tension and disunity, something the religious community obviously can not afford.

Thus, in its place we created a culture of comfortable compromise- to the point that Ailu vAilu is a basic part of our theological identity. But I can't imagine that the simple Jew of two hundred years ago ever considered it. When a Litvak businessman travelled through the heart of Hassadic Europe, he was probably tolerated with warmth- but certainly not gazed upon with the admiring eyes of today's naive Orthodox. Yisrael Sabba may have lived a full life, never having the term Ailu vAilu grace his ears. Although in contemporary society we rightfully value such diversity, let’s not cross the line and project our mistaken, post-modernist, shaat hadakhak philosophy onto G-d’s eternal Self.

Who knows: we might be wrong and He might not be so tolerant.


*I didn't make up the tznius quote in the fourth paragraph. It's compliments of a recent publication of speeches delivered by Ner Yisrael's late Rosh Yeshiva, R. Yaacov Weinberg.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I've Finally Made it!

Recieving indecent spam comments is a troubling, yet strangely satisfying, inconvenience. Someone out there cares, even if it can only be expressed in the most perverted of forms. As such, unfortunately, I am now the self-appointed moderator of my blog. Please, dear reader, leave your comments name included. Anonymous posts have a hezkat pornography. Of course, if at times you prefer anonymity, what the heck, go for it- I'll make sure it gets on.