Monday, November 22, 2004

Tradition, Tradition

I got my new copy of tradition on Shabbat. For those keeping track, it was the fall issue, but 2003. Guess they keep Jewish time. The first article is by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, who has written 4 volumes of responsa and a few books in english. His wife is Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who runs Nishmat, a center for advanced Jewish studies for women(in fact, I think that the toanot are trained in part by her). (by the way, RenReb, if you are unappy with the rebbitzin appelation, you can try Rabbanit).

R. Henkin has had my respect for quite a while, as one of the very few who is willing to read the sources as accurately as he can, delineating what is halacha, custom, hanhaga, and othewise, and letting the halachic chips fall as they may, without reading them with a preordained outcome and agenda in mind. Although I may sometimes not like his conclusions, I cannot dispute how he got there. Any gloss comes at the end, not in the reading of the sources. He has taken Rabbi Saul Berman to task(in a chapter in his book Equality Lost) for his makil attitude on kol isha, and in this article, he dismantles someone from the right.

The article is on tzniut, what exactly is the definition, what is allowed, what is not allowed, both in clothing, and in voice. It is a very good study, from the sources onwards, of how we get to where we are. On the way, he SEVERELY critcizes, Rabbi Eliyahu Pinchas Falk, who wrote a book entitled Oz v'hadar Levusha(a quotation from A Woman of Valor- meaning stregnth and beauty are her rainments). R. Henkin shows how R. Falk deliberately distorts sources, including what appears to be deliberate misreading of R. Moshe Feinstein, among others. R. Falk claims in his book that the standards for tzniut or tremendously strict, and he claims that they are all HALACHA. R. Henkin shows what the bottom line Halacha is(in his view) and how other things are obviously minhag, and not a minhag that should be binding on all.

Why is this important? Our religion places a lot of emphasis on tradition, to the point that some traditions are codified and accepted as law- at which point they are unchangable(or said to be unchangable). Declaring something that should be optional or a matter of minhag to be LAW, influences those who are susceptable to accept such declarations, and they behave accordingly. After a while, what should have been optional, becomes the practice, and that practice becomes codified. And, why is it codified? because someone who thought the ends justified the means distorted the truth and led the masses down the path that he thought was right. And the sheep followed him, unthinkingly. After that, anyone who wants to go back and reexamine why the practice became a certain way is thought of as an apikoros, trying to bring sociological issues into the hallowed halls of pesak.

There, I feel better now. Kudos to R. Henkin for showing R. Falk and his book to be the emperor with the unusual clothing. I doubt if it will have any practical effect on the more Haredi communities, but at least the Halacha is there for all to see. As I posted before, if you want to be machmir, gay gezunt, but make it clear what is Halacha, minhag, hashkafa, and what is made up.

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