Saturday, March 3, 2007

To Shop or Not To Shop

For years I’ve compared the rabbinic establishment to the fading glory of a monarchy barely hanging on to power. Those monarchies which managed to survive and slip into the twentieth century did so as eunichs. They were no longer the wielders of power, but represented the fading beacon of traditions and customs of years gone by, relatively powerless in the new political power structure with their dignity diminished.

Within the Jewish world, the Yeshiva culture whether it be of a misnagdishe or Chassidishe persuasion is too struggling to maintain its authority in its hopeless quest for expanding its influence. The stature of the Rosh Yeshiva or Admor in pre World War Two Europe was vastly greater than the shrunken image of their successors today. Boasting of large numbers of adherents and swelling number of yeshiva students is the antidote, but if one judges by quality and substance and not by quantity they are on the wane. They simply cannot command the same respect that they once did, nor do they have the intellectual muscle that they once possessed.

As the failing monarchs were the repositories of the pomp and ceremony rather than governance, so too, the yeshiva world is stuck in the dimension of arcane detail, irrelevant to the world in which we live and preoccupied with maintaining their dignity.

To cite one example, this blogger receives daily e-mails related to Jewish thought, philosophy and halacha. In one particular e-mail, Daily Halacha, penned by Rabbi Eli Mansour, the following question was presented: “Is it beneath a Rabbi’s dignity to conduct certain tasks”? The answer was framed with another question: whether or not it was appropriate for a Torah scholar to shop at a supermarket on Erev Shabbat. It was claimed that based upon the halacha exempting a torah scholar from the obligation of Hashavat Aveidah, (it is beneath their dignity to be involved in such mundane matters), it follows that a rabbi must refrain from any activity that diminishes his honor.

On the other hand, the teshuva continues that the Chavot Yair (Rabbi Yair Bachrach) ruled that a rabbi who plays a musical instrument may do so at a wedding because of the Mitzvah of Simchat Chattan V‘challah, even if it could be considered beneath his dignity. The Chavot Yair based this ruling upon the incident of David and Michal.At the installation of the Aron in Jerusalem, David danced ecstatically and was criticized by his wife that in so behaving he was demeaning himself and his position. David’s behavior however, was deemed appropriate because in the eye of the public he was performing a Mitzvah thus his status wasn’t demeaned. The Chavot Yair goes on to comment that in the case of Hashavat Aveidah it isn’t known that the scholar is performing a Mitzvah, thus he diminishes the honor of the Torah he represents. For a rabbi to play an instrument at a wedding while it may appear to be below his dignity, everyone knows he is performing for a mitzvah, and thus deemed appropriate and praiseworthy.

From the case cited above, the ruling is that a scholar can shop at a supermarket Erev Shabbat, because everyone knows he is doing mitzvah, so he isn’t diminishing the honor of the Torah. The e-mail summarizes the halacha as follows: “ A rabbi may engage in an activity that would ordinarily be deemed beneath his dignity, if it is clearly recognizable as a mitzvah….”

This teshuvah raises several questions and issues. It appears as though the real issue isn’t whether a mitzvah is being performed, but whether or not the rabbi’s esteem remains in tact. The sub-text is really suggesting that the rabbi’s esteem is in great question and thus everything must be done to salvage his self respect- even at the expense of others. Although there was a time when rabbis wielded enormous power, Rabbi Yair Bachrach lived at a time when the power of the Kehilla and by extension, the power and authority of the Rabbi, was being called into question.

Some other issues come to mind when reviewing this teshuvah. Intent and purpose has been undermined and superseded by public opinion and perception. Clearly it is form and not content that drives this teshuvah. Superficiality and concern for public opinion are at the heart of the consideration of the decisor, thus the teshuva lacks integrity. If the community perceives the rabbis behavior within the context of performing a mitzvah than his reputation remains in tact. In an odd and perverse way it appears that a mitzvah is rendered a mitzvah, only when it is so defined and perceived approvingly by the public.

Had the teshuva contained integrity, it would have been concerned with clarifying extenuating circumstances regarding the family structure. Does the wife work? Are they pressured financially and thus have no help in the house? Are there many children and are they of school age? Are both husband and wife in relatively good health? Which of the two spouses has more time to do the shopping? These questions were not raised in the teshuvah, concern only being with perception, therefore, this teshuvah is flawed.

This brings to mind another issue with the teshuvah: misplaced emphasis. The author of the teshuvah, Rabbi Eli Mansour, didn’t focus on the act in question- instead he concentrated on the time frame. It isn’t relevant whether or not it is Erev Shabbat or Tuesday evening when the act of shopping by a Rabbi occurs. Shopping must be done if there are six kids at home, two with colds and four doing homework; the rebbitzen, busy cleaning and feeding them after coming home from a long work day. It would seem appropriate that Kavod Harav should perform the shopping, thus giving resonance to Kavod Hatorah.

Rabbi Eli Mansour who presented this Halacha did an injusice to those who are serious about halacha. While he may quote Rabbi Yair Bachrach, a late 17th century German scholar, a Psak can’t be rendered on that basis alone. Bachrach’s concerns were of a different nature and so was the social milieu of the time he lived. Halacha doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is intended to guide us, enhance us and enlighten our lives. The formula he used has the reverse effect-it is repressive, inconsiderate of the weak, and all the while, bolstering the waning authority of the rabbis.

After reading a trivial shaila posed by Rabbi Mansour, it is apparent why the status of Rabbis has decreased so much. Rather than concerning themselves with the pressing issues of our time they have resorted and descended to dealing with inconsequential and irrelevant matters.