A candid conversation; Shoel: What’s your take on the whole eiruv situation? Meishiv: If you have a halachic question, you need to ask a competent rov. Shoel: Nah, it’s just a hot topic and I’m curious about your opinion • Full Conversation
Shoel: What’s your take on the whole eiruv situation?
Meishiv: If you have a halachic question, you need to ask a competent rov.
Shoel: Nah, it’s just a hot topic and I’m curious about your opinion.
Meishiv: A mediator I know was approached by a couple. What happened? Why were they there? The wife had made noodles for dinner for the fifth night in a row. Her husband yelled at her, and in response she threw the entire pot of boiling noodles over him. He then stabbed her with a kitchen knife. They weren’t there to resolve their issues; they simply wanted the mediator to determine who was right and who was wrong. What do you make of that?
Shoel: It’s crazy! They obviously both need serious help, as does their marriage. Is it even relevant at this point who was justified? They were clearly both wrong, it’s just a matter of to what degree.
So is that what our community is like? We’re all wrong, and we’re just throwing around hot water and stabbing blindly at one another?
Meishiv: No, no, that’s not what I meant. I was pointing out that it’s easy to get caught up in dissecting every nitty gritty detail of a situation, while losing sight of the big picture. In our case, I think that addressing the question as one about eruvin is missing the point.
Meishiv: When the Chasam Sofer was asked about the possibility of moving the bimah to the front of the shul, instead of keeping it in the middle as it has always been, he combed through the subject and concluded that it’s forbidden. He then coined a phrase which has since become famous: “Kol chadash asur min hatorah,” any new “improvements” to Yiddishkeit are forbidden.Shoel: I don’t understand. What’s so deep about the topic of eiruv? It seems to be a technical halachic question with a straightforward answer.
Chazal explain that a chacham is roeh es hanolad-a wise person doesn’t just react to what’s happening in the moment; he plans for the future outcome of every decision.
When creating policies for governments, institutions and businesses, for example, tremendous wisdom and foresight is required. The policy makers must weigh countless elements and potential outcomes to determine what course of action will ultimately serve their cause best.
The same is true with Yiddishkeit. The laws in Shulchan Aruch, traditions in chinuch and guidelines of tznius are all policies that have been expertly designed for us with long-term success in mind. Amending these policies, or creating new ones, is significant, and can have unforeseen and far-reaching destructive effects.
Shoel: Ok, some of what you said makes sense. It reminds me of the law of unintended consequences. Sometimes, when a government implements a new law to fix a specific problem, the new regulations create new, unforeseen problems.
For example, the United States government raised minimum wage in order to help the poor, but many of these poor people were fired because their bosses couldn’t afford so many salaries at that price.
So yes, I agree, creating policy isn’t simple.
But, I take issue with what you said about “chadash assur min hatorah.” If you’re going to take that approach, you may as well stop being a Lubavitcher! When the Alter Rebbe began teaching Chassidus, the misnagdim essentially argued: “Chadash assur min hatora-don’t make new religions!” And following each and every one of the Rebbe’s initiatives, people argued the same.
Meishiv: Good point. But wouldn’t that also apply to the many mitzvos and gezeiros instituted by our chachamim? Aren’t they also new?
But you’re not bothered by those, because it’s understood that when a need arises, it becomes imperative to introduce new initiatives to deal with it. A new disease, r’l, requires a new remedy.
Often, when introducing a new campaign, the Rebbe sought to “defend” himself, so to speak, for introducing “chadash.” The Rebbe explained a) why it’s occasionally necessary to introduce new things, and b) how these initiatives are perfectly consistent with Torah, halacha and mesorah. The Rebbe did this when he introduced “Chassidus via Telephone”; when he introduced saying hareni me’kabel and ach tzadikim; and even when encouraging chassidim to increase in joy during Chanukah.
No matter how minimal the initiative seemed, the Rebbe was sensitive to the fact that it was a deviation from the way things had always been. He didn’t take change lightly.
Shoel: So maybe we should be coming up with new solutions to our ever-evolving needs!
Meishiv: While it’s true that we need to stay in touch with the community’s needs and adapt accordingly, this is no simple task. Many of us can detect a problem, but that doesn’t make us capable of coming up with the right solution.
If, G-d forbid, your house sustained structural damage, would you call any old contractor? Or would you call an experienced structural engineer? Policy-making is a mammoth responsibility and should be treated as such, especially when said policies affect the public.
A prominent rabbi and chassid, who was a lamdan in his own right, wanted to introduce a custom where the chazzan would lead the korbanos and Posach Eliyahuat the amud. Although this doesn’t appear to be a major deviation, he wouldn’t do it without first obtaining the Rebbe’s approval. He was wise enough to recognize the serious responsibility that comes with making change.
Shoel: But many intelligent people, including educators, promote changes, arguing that we have major issues to deal with and these changes can only lead to good things. Are they really all wrong?
Meishiv: Being intelligent doesn’t necessarily mean one has the wisdom of foresight. A member of the Haskala movement accused the rabbonim of being too strict with the young generation, thereby turning them off from Yiddishkeit. “If a fire is burning,” he argued, “you must extinguish it with any water, even dirty. Maybe our ways are dirty, but they’ll put out the fire.” The Rebbe Rashab responded, “But what if your liquid is actually kerosene?”
Shoel: Wait, are you equating those in favor of change with those in favor of the Haskala movement? That seems like a stretch…
Meishiv: No, I’m not. But let me ask you a question. What comes to mind when you think of the founders of the Haskala, Reform and Zionist movements?
Shoel: That’s easy. I think of people who sought to destroy Yiddishkeit.
Meishiv: Actually, it was almost the exact opposite scenario! Let me explain…
Many of the leaders in those movements were tremendous scholars. Some of them were on par with the great roshei yeshiva of the time! They were also, mostly, fine people without any malicious intent. They understood the struggles the Jewish people were facing and honestly believed they had the solution. But despite their good intentions and logical reasoning, their solutions were flawed.
Shoel: So you are suggesting that anyone who introduces new ideas today is doing the same thing as the Haskala!
Meishiv: Bear with me a little longer…
I recently read the history of the Tzemach Tzedek and the Haskala movement, as well as some of the Rebbe Rashab’s dealings with them. It dawned on me that if you and I had been at those meetings, we may very well have not understood the reason for our rebbeim’s staunch stance against them! In fact, there were many very prominent rabbonim who felt that it was ok to concede on certain issues, and that the Haskala leaders had legitimate arguments.
Consider, for example, the proposed mandate for rabbonim to receive training in secular studies and languages. This may seem harmless. After all, the rabbonim would continue learning Torah as usual and would only dedicate a few short months toward getting some basic secular training. Moreover, they were threatened with pogroms if they didn’t concede! Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to agree? But the rebbeim were staunch in their refusal.
Shoel: Did they explain why?
Meishiv: I’m glad you asked, because one thing the Rebbe Rashab said back then was simple but profound, and is perfectly applicable to our discussion today. He explained that because rabbonim are public figures, if they received secular training it would change the tziur klali– the overall standard of Yiddishkeit. This would trickle down, affecting even a simple Jew living in a far-flung town!” 
Shoel: What a powerful idea! I’ve never heard that.
Meishiv: This remains true today. Encouraging our teachers to receive secular education in order to teach in our schools, for example, is no simple matter. And the same goes for changing our standard of dress or speech. We can’t just decide to change these things because we see them as improvements.
Shoel: Ok, I hear your point, and I actually never thought of applying the law of unintended consequence to Yiddishkeit. But I still have a problem.
I suspect that a lot of the objection is not necessarily about right or wrong. Many people are simply afraid of change. These are the same people who won’t adapt to modern technology or who get aggravated with every update made by Windows or Google! So is it any wonder they don’t support change? Have they given it any real thought, or are they reacting automatically to the merest mention of change?
I hear your question, and it leads to another important point. Often, before asking ourselves, “Where will this lead?” we need to ask, “Where is this coming from?”
Suppose a complete stranger knocks on your door and explains to you why the metal bars on your windows are a fire hazard and should be removed. Would you take his advice?
Shoel: If his arguments made sense, I suppose I might listen.
Meishiv: If he was a local, experienced fire-chief, for example, I can see why you’d take him seriously. But would you really take this advice from any stranger?
Shoel: Ok, I guess you’re right. If he was in any way suspicious, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. I’d probably call the police! But only if I suspected he was a criminal. I would definitely listen to a normal person’s arguments.
Meishiv: So can we agree that good arguments for a cause don’t necessarily make the cause itself good?
Meishiv: A young rov disagreed with Reb Chaim Brisker regarding the secular studies issue, arguing that it would save Jewish lives and the Torah. Reb Chaim quipped, “Don’t blame your taavah for learning Russian on the Torah!”
The idea of schools for Jewish girls was also very controversial at the time. It took enormous wisdom and foresight to realize that taking girls out of the home and putting them into schools would actually benefit Yiddishkeit in the long run, and not destroy it. But had this idea come from someone less ehrlich than Sarah Schenirer, and had it not been supported by gedolei yisroel, it would never have been seriously considered by the Jewish community.
Shoel: So you’re saying that we need to look at who’s coming up with the new ideas. I understand that. But as I said earlier, perhaps the “elders” are rejecting change simply because it’s change. Or, maybe the talmidei chachomim and mashpiim are out of touch with reality and don’t understand the needs of the younger generations?
Meishiv: I guess I wasn’t clear. When I said that we need to see where the ideas are coming from, I didn’t mean simply which people are suggesting them.
Let’s back up a second.
Examining the roots of our problems, struggles, ideas and actions is something we all need to do, even great tzadikim.
When the Rebbe Rashab had difficulty learning a new maamar from his father because he was too caught up in reviewing the old one, his father told him that although reviewing is important, his current desire to review was coming from the wrong place.
This story is the source for the Hayom Yom that teaches about the “pious” animal soul and the “chassidic” animal soul. A thought may seem noble and even holy, but it can still be stemming from unholy origins.
And don’t forget the story about Reb Nochum of Chernobyl! Once, he received a large donation from a chassid, and although his own family desperately needed the money, he gave the entire sum to one chassid in need. When asked why, he explained: “Immediately after I received this donation, the chassid came to me, sobbing that he needed three hundred rubles-exactly the amount that I had received. My first thought was to give him the all the money, but then I began to reconsider: Perhaps it would be better to hold on to some of the money for other needy families? In the end, though, I decided to give it all to him. Why? Because once I realized that my calculations were leading to an act of giving less, I realized that my original thought stemmed from my yetzer tov and the reconsideration came from the yetzer hara.”
Shoel: What does this have to do with my question?
Meishiv: When you suggest that erlicheh Yidden are simply afraid of change, or don’t care about our needs, you have to ask yourself: Where is this coming from? A healthy and honest place, or one of bias?
If you heard a child complain that his parents don’t love him because they give him too many restrictions, what would you say?
Shoel: Well, he could be resisting authority like many kids, and every “no” feels like rejection. But it’s also possible that the parents are overbearing and controlling.
Meishiv: So trying to understand where this kid’s claim is coming from would be fair, right?
When we question the good intentions of our chachomim, we need to ask ourselves whether our questioning is coming from an honest place, from personal bias, or maybe from the kid in us who resists authority and wants to do as he pleases.
Shoel: Wow, I’m not used to being put in my place like that, but I think you have a point!
Meishiv: This is what I meant before. When considering the merits of any new idea, we need to put ourselves on the stand and answer honestly: “Whose voice thinks this is a good idea? The voice of yiras shomayim, or the voice of perikas ol?”
Maybe our leaders are against change because they know that in this case it is the most constructive thing to do?
In the words of the Gemara: “If the elders tell you to destroy and the youngsters say to build, destroy and don’t build, for the destruction of the elders is actually building, and the building of the youngsters is actually destroying.”
But there’s more, because sometimes we shouldn’t even need to cross-examine ourselves. You agreed that if arguments came from a suspicious character you wouldn’t listen to them. And when I asked you what you thought about the hot water and stabbing case, what did you say?
Shoel: I said it was absurd.
Meishiv: In other words, if you were sitting in that room, your gut instinct would tell you that this whole discussion is corrupt at its foundation.
Sometimes, when it comes to Yiddishkeit we need to engage our innate sensitivity (our gut instinct, if you will), and based solely on that, categorically rule out some ideas.
At a meeting regarding the question of secular studies for rabbonim, a certain rov asked the Rebbe Rashab for a source to support his unyielding stance. The Rebbe Rashab replied that it simply felt wrong to him.
The rov protested, “You’re making such a decision based on how you feel?!”
The Rebbe answered, “From when I was young, I trained my body to only do what’s right. So yes, I will rely on my first impression.”
“If that’s the case,” said the rov, “I’ll side with the Rebbe.”
Shoel: But based on what you’re saying, we’re in big trouble. Who can claim to have that instinct and foresight today?
Meishiv: Good question. Firstly, we have a rich history to learn from, and a wealth of information in Torah and from our rebbeim to guide us.
Also, the Rebbe once repeated the above story and said, “It’s written that Moshiach will judge the Jewish people by using his sense of smell. What lesson can we possibly learn from this? In the time right before Moshiach arrives, there will be questions to which we cannot look to black and white sources for answers. In these cases we need to use our sense of “smell” to sniff out the right course of action.”
To be continued…
 A play on the law of chadash, new grains at the beginning of the season. See שו”ת חת”ס או”ח סכ”ח.)