This post is based on a session held on Erev Shabbat Parshat Yitro, 21 Shevat, 5773, February 1, 2013, shortly after the Israeli elections. Unfortunately, it took longer to post this than it took to form the government, but I trust that the issues discussed herein remain very pertinent and relevant.
Thanks to Yonatan Shai Freedman for his assistance in preparing this post.
Kayitz tov to all. Hope to have more posts in the coming weeks, iy”H. Just a reminder: the best way to follow the blog is to subscribe (click on the link on the right side of the page).
Kol tuv and Shabbat shalom,
Question: In the recent Israeli elections and in current coalition discussions, there has been much talk of how to supplant the expired Tal law. How does Rav Lichtenstein think that Israeli society should move forward and how can we respond practically and productively? If they come to you, what would be a good solution to problem?
I will begin by discussing how significant individual issues should be in setting up the government per se. I would primarily advise people with regard to setting up the government what I advise them with regard to selecting their curriculum when going to any university or to any Yeshivah, when selecting the people in whose shiur they want to be, etc. I tell students, repeatedly: if someone comes to me who wants to study history, but he enjoys 18th century French history more than the British history which is being offered by the department within which he is enrolled – I often tell people to go for the man and don’t go so much for the course. If you want to learn how to be a good historian, you’ll be a better historian if you develop historical methods, and have the techniques, the insights, the approaches, the sense of what it means to be included or excluded from the body of material, of a subject – that is far more important than what you know about Louis XIV, or someone else XIV – that is relatively unimportant. For the long term, for the young person starting out and involved in presenting the bounds and the limits of the historical method, getting the method, seeing how a master develops it, is more important, to you and, in the same manner, is more important to the people building a coalition.
That is not to suggest that specific topics are of no significance. Certain things can be done, and you can deal with social issues, sociological issues, in terms of the specifics of a particular government decision, a particular policy – that can be brought into play. But, for the long term, it is more important for society to have people who have the capacity for evaluating situations, when and where certain errors were made, when and where more palpably proven methods could have been suggested. It’s those two.
In elections, you’re voting for the person and you’re voting for the policy, for the values. Which is more important to you? That’s something that you have to work that out with the people, the masters, who provide guidance and direction.
Just who would be ideal to lead us in dealing with the coalition, that admittedly is a formidable and difficult thing to do because there are very few people who have put their stamp on areas of socio-political life over the last generation. I say this with regard to the Israeli scene, and similarly with regard to the situation in the Western world generally. By and large, you deal with people who may be good people, but who might not be first rate people, who are putting their גושפנקא [literally: seal; authorization] on the role, the character, and the contours of government and governmental policy.
With regard to the specific question, I think there’s a legitimate basis for having a certain number of people, who contribute in a meaningful way to the discourse of the beit midrash, who are exempt from army service. As I would agree that some individuals should be exempt because they are great artists, great thinkers – perhaps, even if you are dealing with a population within a given society, if they contribute meaningfully to the quality of life within it, and they deal with a certain dimension of life – which may not be the very top of the needs and the priorities of that particular community but certainly contributes to it. On more than one occasion, I have been called upon to discuss the values and the importance of a range of interests and a range of abilities in trying to limn the contours of any given society.
There’s a gemara in Ta’anit (22a) that says that two amoraim who had the privilege of being invested with a gilluy Eliyahu – and Eliyahu would give them an idea of the nature of people that he was able to trust and evaluate in a meaningful way. The gemara relates that these amoraim were walking with Eliyahu and he pointed out two very average looking people to them, indicating that these men have a share in Olam haBa [the World to Come]. They come over to the men, and ask them what they do. The answer which is given is: we are comedians, and when people are in pain, we provide solace and relief. By what? By dint of our stories. What you have over here is something which enriches the life of the community in general, but it is not something which can be viewed as being high up on the scale – but the diversity itself enriches your perceptions.
What is needed is the שאור שבעיסה [literally: the yeast in the dough], the virus that society requires in order that the full range of its energies and interests be addressed. My wife relates that her maternal grandmother was living with the family in Boston, just after they introduced televised programming of baseball games. They were watching a game, and the grandmother, who had certain memories of what happened in Europe, came running into [my wife] Tovah’s room, and she said: Tovah, come look – grown men are chasing after a ball. I can understand her [bewilderment]. But on the other hand, if one understood more fully what professional sports are all about, it would lend a range of sensibility and a sense of a certain joy of creative competitiveness that her grandmother could not understand. As someone who is aware of what is involved in this area will understand – though it’s perfectly true that you could have attained the same sense of effort, competitive values, etc., of each person doing his or her utmost to enrich the quality, of the fabric of life, in a community, otherwise. It didn’t have to be chasing a small ball, it could have been chasing a big ball, like a basketball, or a volleyball…. The competitive urge and the ability to try to compete to the best of one’s ability – that finds expression somewhere.
The question is: what are the priorities for a given community. Remaining with the sports metaphor, note that there are two answers to that: one is the flat answer, they need to understand what competition is all about and what effort is all about, etc. – this is something that every community needs to learn, and every set of citizenry needs to absorb. On the other hand, one might argue that you can’t give a flat answer to all questions – there are some communities which have already absorbed that lesson, they know all about that, and they need to absorb a different lesson – they need to learn to be aware of the excesses of too much competition, and they have already learned to understand and to absorb the lessons of Grantland Rice: it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. But you can’t deal in the same way with two communities, each of which is in need of a balanced approach to public life, and to the growth and development of the public square – each of which needs that but they don’t both need them at the same time and to the same extent – because some have learned lesson a and need to be taught lesson b, and others have precisely the reverse.
I sat this week with a certain rav, and I was trying to explain to him how you need to balance these different needs. I said to him that I come from the world of sports, and you need to understand that if you’re running a sports team – there are different functions with regard to that. You may need someone who is very good on defense but not on offense, or vice versa; you may need someone who is very good as a center, while someone else is much better at covering the field in general. I tried to explain that it is the same thing in the world of chinnukh and the world of Torah.
Returning to the question of recruiting all Yeshivah students, I cannot imagine a Jewish world within which there is no recognition for Torah – not as a prize for excellence in Torah – though there may be a justification for a certain prize as well – but as supplying a certain quality and a certain character to the community. How much of that a community or a society can absorb depends on other pressing needs it has. Obviously, if you live in a town which has no firemen, and you’re the only one who’s learned how to douse fires, and the question comes up: we have a fireman here, he’s very good at dousing fires, but let’s deal with another issue, let’s let him sit and learn for a while. His learning is as valuable as the learning of someone else who is performing other functions in society, but as long as there is no fireman available, the community cannot afford to let this fellow go and do something else, even if it is very important. You can’t afford that. If you have already five firemen and you’re talking about the sixth – then, if you are talking about it on the basis of justice, it’s still not fair to let one off but not the other. Alternatively, do you say, in due time we’ll find a fireman, but meanwhile we have someone who is a budding Rav Haym – let’s train him to become a talmid chakham – I think that is a legitimate position that I could very well, in good conscience, espouse.
It’s comparable to the question which people sometimes ask me: can Kohanim go to medical school? I tell them that if you told me you are going be a crackerjack doctor, and there is no other doctor in the community who can approach your abilities, and if you don’t go to medical school there is no one else in the area who is willing to do it and who can do it – of course I would have no question whatsoever about your going to medical school. If the physical health of your community is dependent upon your abilities – of course you can do that. But, it’s unlikely that that is the situation, and to a great extent, you need to ask yourself, and ask people like me: is that an accurate account? Well, that depends what you’re dealing with. If you are living in a country where there are five applicants for each spot in the medical school, can you honestly say: if I don’t go to medical school, the whole community is going to be full of people who are sick, some of whom will die? If one can say that honestly, I think we would certainly have to let him go. But, inasmuch as very few people take that position, subscribe to that situation – we’ll tell him: you, go sit and learn in a Kollel, or become a comedian or become a sociologist – or do whatever else will enrich, enhance, enliven the community. Ay, they need a doctor? בסדר, someone else will be a doctor.
Here you come upon a question, which the gemara’s formulation appears in various contexts, with regard to kibbud av va’em [honoring parents] (Kiddushin 32a) and with regard to talmud Torah. Taking the question as formulated regarding the latter: when does a person abstain from learning, and when does he say that there is a normative demand that he sit and learn? The gemara (Mo’ed Katan 9b) cites, with regard to these realms, the factor of: אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים [it can be performed by others], in which case it is not set aside, or אי אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים [it cannot be performed by others], in which case it is. The gemara quotes two pesukim [verses] – one pasuk [verse] says: כל חפציך לא ישוו בה [None of your matters can be compared to it] (Mishlei / Proverbs 3:15), implying that your personal interests, like to advance your standing and your investments – that’s לא ישוו בה [incomparable to learning], and the other pasuk says – כל חפצים לא ישוו בה [No matters can be compared to it] (Mishlei 8:10) – all your interests, in comparison with talmud Torah, with learning and with growing in learning, fade into insignificance. And to resolve this contradiction, the gemara raises this distinction, namely that it depends on אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים or אי אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים.
The problem here is, apart from what some people feel that they have a problem about the inequity on the social scene, hollering the issue of שוויון [equality], pounding away at that, as was done in the previous election campaign, what does אפשר [generally: possible – see below] mean? Assuming that, in principle, it was decided that אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים is a good criterion, how do you define אפשר? The term אפשר in the gemara is so simple, so clear, and a definitive category, and yet, at the same time, it is perfectly clear that it is an inequitable criterion.
The term אפשר appears in Chazal in various connections, meaning: is it possible. What does that mean is it possible? Very few things are impossible – most things are indeed possible, but how possible is the question – is there easy access to alternatives? Secondly, assuming there is easy access, does it depend upon the will, the agreement and the consent of other people? Let’s say you really want to be a doctor, so you think it’s very important to have doctors, and you build up a whole case that is going to determine who gets into medical school based on the consent of other people. But those other people may have decided a long time ago that they don’t want to be doctors, they want to be soccer players, or they want to be musicians – is that אפשר לעשותה or אי אפשר לעשותה.
This is the fallacy in the kind of issues which were raised by people from the Yeshivah community – arguing אפשר לעשותה – you can let people who are now university students – let them go to the army, and we will take care of the spiritual needs. For someone who is convinced of the value of Torah and its critical need for being a שאור שבעיסה, of giving vibrancy, spirituality and continuity to the life of Torah for the community as a whole, there’s no problem about that, we understand it fully. People who don’t have that conviction will have a very difficult time with it, they consider it very unjust and unfair, and, from their point of view, they are right.
The term אפשר appeared in other contexts; in the example we are dealing with here it’s אפשר in terms of whether it’s possible because other people could fill in the gap. But אפשר comes up in contexts which have to do with physical limits. The gemara talks in Pesachim 25-26 about whether it’s mutar [permissible] to be “oveir” [“violate”] various issurim [prohibitions] in order to make life easier or simpler. There is a machloket [dispute between] the amoraim Abaye and Rava, parallel to a dispute between the tanna’im Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon, when do you say that אפשר וקמיכוין [it is avoidable but you intend to benefit] is mutar [permitted] and when do you say it’s asur [prohibited]. There’s a de’ah [view] in that gemara that it depends, where it’s אפשר to travel in a certain way – then follow that route, and even if that entails a greater effort, but it also obtains in letting you follow a certain route in life which will determine, for you personally and for the community generally, what can or cannot be done.
Now what does אפשר or אי אפשר mean in that context? It means that if you live at point x and need to get to a store, to a beit midrash, to a bathroom – to anything which we acknowledge as a need, and there are two ways of reaching it. You have a more circuitous route which will entail a certain effort for you – you’ll have to walk 3 km to get there, and another alternative route is one for which 1 km of walking will suffice. Is that אפשר לעשותו or אי אפשר לעשותו? It’s אפשר לעשותו – you can walk 3 km, you’re a young person – but the question is, at what cost? ‘Cost’ has a very commercial ring about it, but it’s a very real question, and we use the term cost in many different contexts. When I say at what cost: first of all, the cost varies – is it a warm, sunny day, is it a hot summer day? It might be one, it might be the other. Is it crucial for you to be home by a certain time, and if not your wife will be angry and your children will be at their wits’ end? In another case, your children – they are watching some TV program, it has them at bay – that’s a different cost. That’s one variation.
To take the gemara in Chullin (11b-12a), which says that according to Rabbi Mayer (who takes that position that we don’t go בתר רוב [follow the majority] – חיישינן למיעוטא [we take the minority into account]) – the gemara wants to know, according to Rabbi Mayer what do you with regard to consuming meat – if you don’t follow the rov [majority], you don’t know whether the animal might have a problem of tereifah or not. Here, two issues come up: one issue comes up – what are the chances for it being a tereifah, which depends on a variety of factors.
The issue came up some years back, Rav Hershel Schachter decided to stop drinking milk. Why? Because he understands that there is a mi’ut [minority] which have a tereifah-punctured lung – and, while there are poskim who are meikeil [lenient] but still, you can manage without the milk, drink something else, you have other options. That’s one issue.
The other issue is – to what extent can we strain our resources – take a situation where you can get chalav Yisrael but it costs 3 times as much as ordinary Borden’s milk – the gemara says that Rabbi Mayer admits that where it’s אי אפשר, then you let that rov determine. What happens in that case is you allow an economic consideration – the cost of milk – to define for you the halakhic parameters of the risks you take regarding eating tarfut [non-kosher food]. Why, because of אפשר and אי אפשר. What do you mean אי אפשר? I said before, you don’t need to drink milk, or maybe you can spend more money on milk and less money on meat – there are all kinds of options available, and the gemara calls it אי אפשר – which means that there is a recognition of the need for a balanced approach to life. You can’t ask just one question: the question is, for heaven’s sake, will my kids get milk or not? That may be a question. Is it the question? No. Is it a major question? Probably not.
When dealing with social issues, economic issues, you cannot, as I think the charedim tend to do at times, focus on certain issues as if they are so central to human life, and others, which, for them, are not issues at all – for other people they can be. If you come to a charedi and tell him: listen, don’t buy this milk, it’s very expensive, buy other milk. He’ll say: מילא, never mind. You say: no, don’t buy this expensive milk, because if you buy the expensive milk you won’t have money to buy a car or to buy a TV set. He’ll say: TV set? Phuy! I’m glad not to have a TV set in my house. But your neighbor thinks that life without a TV set is a fractious kind of life. There’s the interlocking relationship between many needs, many priorities, and to plan life, at the individual or public level, can only be done intelligently if you have an overall view of a general perception of the facts and the details, and a clear sense of priorities.
That is true for making a government coalition, it is true if you are deciding what to buy, whether a TV set or a new camera, and it is true regarding the question of Yeshivah students entering the army.