A Real Solution For Jewish Unity In Our Times
The legal imperative for a base halacha
Scope: This article is humbly aimed at the entire observant Jewish world: including the religious leadership, talmidei chachamim, talmidei chaverim and "the rest of" Am Yisrael.
In my humble assessment, there is a "web of
8 factors" that is now disrupting our ability to accurately understand, apply and
disseminate Jewish Law - in terms of what is
permitted and forbidden. This is having a harmful effect on Jewish continuity,
and needs to be taken more seriously. This "web of 8 factors" will be addressed
below in detail. The bad news is that many
"Observant" Jews are oblivious to
the effects of these ensnaring factors, and the interference it sometimes has on
the accurate purveyance of Torath Moshe.
Unfortunately, some of our righteous Jewish scholars and teachers have
also unknowingly fallen prey to this "web of 8 factors." I suspect that
a few might even be
shocked after being shown these corruptions.1 From
a thousand feet up, this lack of correct understanding and dissemination, which
many times translates into a lack of perceived moral clarity, is hurting our people. Besides being fodder for
some minim and apicorsim, the ramifications of
"non-authentic" dogmatic transmission is also hurting our efforts at Jewish
continuity and Qiruv. Come on folks. Our kids want the original stuff, and can
smell when something is off. We need to do better. The good news is that
this can all be corrected.
Many Jews have instinctively sensed this condition for years, but have not known what to do about it - without being estranged from the community. This lack of guidance leaves many "regular but scholarly Jews" in a state of dazed bewilderment. Unfortunately, the only thing left for them to do is to pick a Rabbi "to hold by" - without understanding the legal implications and liabilities that are still incumbent upon them to fulfill. But what can be done to ease their souls? After all, only qualified scholars can study and understand these issues... right? (To be addressed later).
RaMb'M Raised Red Flag On This Very Issue
On the leadership side, most of our Rabbis and Teachers are moving along with the purest of intentions2. Unfortunately, many box themselves (and their followers) into corners, by forcing themselves to rely upon a roughly-woven mesh of later-day legal precedents and opinions - which have been drastically altered over time. What other choice do they have - is the common explanation. This phenomenon is described further as one of the 8 factors below. Unfortunately, this diminishes the ability to understand and demonstrate the legal issues involved - to their flocks. And while no one would dare deny the greatness and need for strong Rabbonim, the ability to identify and understand the sources is not what it used to be - for anyone. And while no one wants to directly question the leaders of our generation in this respect (by presenting them with a dirty laundry list of corrupted practices), RaMb"M raised a red flag on this very issue - over 800 years ago - when the scholarship was undeniably much higher! In my humble assessment, we really need to replay this warning again, before this generation gets swallowed up (Heaven forbid) in the WEB OF 8 FACTORS.
Question: But before you start this article, why is it really so important to know what is prohibited and what it forbidden in the first place?
Answer: Well, according to RaMb"M, the ultimate tranquility of earth (and the world to come) depends upon it! So yes, it is really important to get these things right.
RaMb"M answers: "I believe that no one should stroll through the garden of Jewish mysticism unless his belly is filled with bread and meat, by which I mean knowledge of what is prohibited and permitted and similar issues relating to the other commandments. Even though these matters were called ‘minor’ by the sages (who said that Ma'aseh Bereshith & Merqavah is a major matter and the halachic discussions of Abaye and Rava are relatively minor matters), it is still appropriate to master the latter first, since they provide basic mental tranquility to an individual. They are a gift of God to promote social tranquility on earth so that we may inherit the world to come." (RAMBAM - Maimonides)
The Web of 8 Factors:
To Avoid The Web of 8 Factors - You
First Have To Know What
Factor #1) The current refusal by (~ half) of our leadership to admit that all "legislation" that came after Rav Ashi & Ravina's court is still non-authoritative - even though the exact opposite perception has been (and is still being) perpetuated and popularized to the masses - by many of our "leaders". My source for this statement is over 40 years of direct observation.3
Factor #2) The ever-increasing level of pilpul & some chidushim (new understandings) - that take unjustified liberties in unnecessarily reinterpreting, coloring or even adding to (or diminishing from) the law. More often than not, these well-intentioned additions wind up causing the exact opposite result that is trying to be accomplished in the first place.4
This is a great sorrow for me - because most of the time - a more detailed (and systemic) analysis of the Mishneh Torah shows these are not real problems in the first place at all - and can be debunked with logic and accurate texts of the Mishneh Torah!
Factor #3) The inability of many of today's teachers and students to admit that they are not qualified (without intensive study of the Mishneh Torah) to correctly deduce the "fully settled" legal issues that were agreed upon by the last legitimate Sanhedrin (and last court of Rav Ashe and Ravinah). Besides the effects of the long exile, the most basic prerequisite for Talmudic understanding of the Oral Law requires a complete and total mastery of the entire Talmud Bavli AND all of the associated, accompanying works required for its elucidation - in a way that completely, contextually, systemically and fully grasps all of these sources together - in an interconnected way. And over here, we are merely speaking about this as a prerequisite for the possibility of being able to correctly learn or teach Talmud - in order to deduce the LAW (which is a really bad idea). The RaMb"M explains why people in his own society were not fully capable of deducing these things - and EVEN MORE SO does this apply to our own times. If in his own times, people were not qualified, how can anyone seriously think they are somehow more-qualified than people that were much closer in time, place and accuracy to the original source materials?
Regarding the ability to learn, my Rav haMuvhaq writes:
However; all that being said, we should still aspire to learn the texts of the Oral Law. But how so? In this article, we are merely arguing the reason(s) how we should or should not learn or rely upon the actual books of Talmud Bavli and associated works (to deduce the law) - and what should be the priority. In terms of law, the priority is to learn & rely upon Mishneh Torah as our legal filter - for the many reasons listed in this article. About the Mishneh Torah, RaMb"M wrote: "Thus, I have called this work the [Complete] Restatement of the [Oral] Law (Mishneh Torah), for a person reads the Written Torah first and then reads this work, and knows from it the entire Oral Law, without needing to read any other book between them."
Regarding the need for Talmudic study (and related works), one can click here for more information. Heaven forbid you think we are dissing Talmudic study!
Factor #4) Subjective & strong cultural loyalties, lineages and / or political motives still keep people from objectively examining the accuracy of the traditions they have been handed & continue to transmit. When we are sure, why would correcting them be an affront to our ancestors. 5
Factor #5) Many times, mystical influence is been allowed to trump existing law, when there is no legitimate legal authority to change the law that came from the last legitimate Sanhedrin, which preserved the legacy of Beit Hillel.
Factor #7) Low study skill levels. For example: an inability or lack of desire to use an "Even HaShushan" dictionary. Another example relates to the lack of a proper Rav or Moreh to learn from in a way that incorporates Hebrew and participation.
Factor #8) Previous censorship of Jewish manuscripts - that continues to have profound effects on our critical manuscripts (even תלמוד בבלי) - to this day. For most, this is a hard pill to swallow. There is definitely a 'lack of access' to pristinely preserved texts. Although not a major factor, it still plays a role. One famous example can be seen in the terms used to describe the definitions of Gevil (for Sifrei Torah), Qlaf (for Tefillin) and Duchsustos (for Mezuzoth). Some versions distort the meaning of these terms, through the obvious copyist errors. 6
To make matters worse, these problems have been around for hundreds of years now. Without going into all the problems mentioned by RAMBAM (even in his own times), what is a descent truth-seeking Jew or Ben Noach supposed to do today, in order to know the requirements of the law?
Below, we explain why the Mishneh Torah is this only extant reliable source we currently have, and how it can unite our people.
Question: What is a "base Halacha?" What is it's purpose?
Answer: To start with, a "base halacha" is a unifying source of Jewish Law that EVERYONE can definitely agree to rely upon - as a starting point. Basically, this is the minimum definition of what "Judaism" is - according to the most accurate preservation of the last Sanhedrin we have. In turn, this definition will certainly become the basis of the next Constitution of the next legitimate Sanhedrin. There is no other logical choice...
But even more importantly, a "base halacha" is the "base" because it most accurately represents the (whole) source of Jewish law left to us by the last legitimate Sanhedrin and court of Rav Ashe and Ravinah.
The role of the Sanhedrin will be as follows. They will be required to choose the best source for this base halacha that is currently available, and to then use it in the formation of their constitution.
This has implications for the multitude of
Jews who desperately need outreach. But it also has implications for all of us,
in terms of creating a STANDARD of moral clarity.
Rationally speaking, how can we not start where we actually left off? The idea that we are going to force feed everything we have "developed" since the close of Rav Ashi and Ravinah's court (during the past 1,500 years) is not working. I know we all love our traditions, but really?
Question: So what could possibly fit the bill? Is there really a "logical choice?"
Throughout all of Jewish history
(even unto this very day), the person with the best historical positioning and
access to ancient sources was RaMb'M.
In addition, he was the only one (even unto this very day), whose stated purpose and mission was to create a work that considered the ENTIRE ORAL AND WRITTEN TORAH, in a pristine, enduring and all-encompassing way, that addressed all areas of Judaism. As we know, his work was called Mishneh Torah.
This isn't an argument for RaMb"M as our Rebbe. On the contrary, this is an argument that uses logic, in order to choose the most accurate and authentic transmission of halacha that still currently exists...
Indeed, only the Mishneh Torah (ie: the Hibbur or MT), recorded by the hand of Rabbi and Doctor Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides or RAMBAM zt"l), documents and outlines the entire (whole) authoritative legal system (legislation) of the last legitimate Sanhedrin (and court of rav Ashe & Ravina). If your Rabbonim are telling you otherwise, they have never truly studied the Mishneh Torah every day, in order to practice it - in this powerfully all-inclusive way. Thus, they are not qualified to understand what I am telling you right now, and will feel threatened by it. In addition, they may do everything in their power to push you away from it.
Please consider this. According to his own words, RaMb"M had access to ancient Talmudic texts that dated back to just 100 years after the court of Rav Ashi and Ravina closed. No other rabbi [that I know of] has ever made this type of claim! They wouldn't and couldn't dare. On the contrary, the Vilna edition of Talmud we use today is based on manuscripts that were burnt and heavily censored by the Church. And although much of it can be reconstructed (like stuff related to avodah zorah and notsrim), much of it still remains lost - or bull dozed. Surely, this has affected the later-day codes of Jewish Law. Does your Rav have access to sources like this? No... he does not. The Mishneh Torah is the closest (resource) [to the original source] that we have in our possession today. In addition, as is explained below, it is STILL the only comprehensive source. ONLY RAMBAM had direct access to a 7th-8th century Talmudic texts.
Exampled in Hilchot Ishut 11:13 :
"There are geonim who rule that for a bogeret, the claim that she did not have hymenal bleeding is not valid, but the claim that her vaginal channel was open is valid. This does not appear [to be based on the proper text of] the Talmud. They had inaccurate versions of the text. I have investigated many texts, including those of an early era, and I have discovered the version to be as I ruled. For a bogeret, the only valid claim is [that she did not manifest] hymenal bleeding." (RAMBAM)
Also, see Hilchot Malveh V'Loveh 15:2, where the RAMBAM states that he had available texts of the Talmud that were almost 500 years old. These would have been written approximately 200 years after the time of the Talmud's composition.
Today, it is still the only comprehensive legal code to fully and accurately describe the ENTIRE breadth and width of the Torah (written and oral) as a whole - based on non-extant, pristine sources. Only the Mishneh Torah considers both the land of Israel and the exiled lands, utilizing the earliest versions of Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, while considering both Temple and post-Temple times, as it pertains to both Jews and Gentiles. At the same time, it was specifically made simple enough for everyone (laymen and scholars alike). All of this was achieved without incorporating or blurring new or incorrect customs with the law.
RaMb”M always made sure to specifically identify new practices (he may have encountered), in terms of when (and by whom) they were introduced. The RAMBAM’s Mishneh Torah was written to put the entire breadth of law into the hands of laymen, women, and children (and even Torah scholars). In addition, it did this without any type of mystical influence.
To answer the original question... if you do not grasp the Torah whole, then how did you grasp it at all? Everything is interrelated. Only the Mishneh Torah records the law with out later-day innovations.
As RAMBAM wrote (with permission from Mechon Mamre):
"In our times, severe troubles come one after another, and all are in distress; the wisdom of our Torah scholars has disappeared, and the understanding of our discerning men is hidden. Thus, the commentaries, the responses to questions, and the SETTLED (some were not settled) laws that the Geonim wrote, which had once seemed clear, have in our times become hard to understand, so that only a few properly understand them. And one hardly needs to mention the Talmud itself--the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Sifra, the Sifre, and the Toseftot--which all require a broad mind, a wise soul, and considerable study, before one can correctly know from them what is forbidden or permitted and the other rules of the Torah." (Intro to the Mishneh Torah - used with permission from Mechon-Mamre)
Maimonides (who learned from one of the top five Talmidim of the RIF) never innovated (by adding or subtracting any content from the original court system) in any way - as was done in ALL other subsequent law codes (& glosses) since that time! This makes his MISHNEH TORAH truly and especially unique and critically relevant (in today's times).
Even the critics of RAMBAM (many of whom burned his works), who felt they had managed to identify new LEGAL ideas in the Mishneh Torah, were hard pressed to prove the small number of cases they managed to latch on to. That is because innovation was not the way of RAMBAM.
In the introduction, he writes:
42 This is so that all the rules should be accessible to the small and to the great in the rules of each and every commandment and the rules of the legislations of the Torah scholars and prophets: in short, so that a person should need no other work in the World in the rules of any of the laws of Israel; but that this work might collect the entire Oral Law, including the positive legislations, the customs, and the negative legislations enacted from the time of Moshe Our Teacher until the writing of the Talmud, as the Geonim interpreted it for us in all of the works of commentary they wrote after the Talmud. Thus, I have called this work the [Complete] Restatement of the [Oral] Law (Mishneh Torah), for a person reads the Written Torah first and then reads this work, and knows from it the entire Oral Law, without needing to read any other book between them.
In our times, we no longer have texts of the Talmud, that are uncensored (Christian or pre-emptive Jewish censorship) and totally accurate.
As was already mentioned, Maimonides himself who wrote (in Hilchot Malveh v'Loveh 15:2,): "and I have already examined the variant texts… and I have in Egypt an excerpt of an old Talmud written on leather scrolls in the manner in which they wrote over 500 years ago." From these words, we can see that RAMBAM had direct access to a 7th to 8th century Talmudic texts. See also Hilchot Ishut 11:13, which show access to full versions of the Talmudic manuscripts - a version which dates back to a mere 105 years after the court of r. Ashe and r. Avina. This totally avoided the censorship of Christian Europe. Christians did not exert influence upon Sefaradíc Jewry until the 13th century. Most Christian censorship began when the Talmud was first burnt (first in France & then in Spain).
As we already mentioned above, with regards to today's times, and even in the time of Maimonides), many important factors hinder(ed) one's ability to learn Bavli. These factors include the correct version, learning ability, access to accurate sources, masorah, censorship, timing, ability to deduce the final conclusions reached by the Great Court, and the historical conditions of the Jewish people.
In addition, we no longer have the tradition required to identify and understand (non-authoritative) conclusions added into Talmud by post-Talmudic sages and Geonim.
I n the days of RAMBAM, a true understanding of Geonic responsa
(the portion that was settled) was known to very few. In RAMBAM's times, exilic influence, lack of language, time limitations, and ability
were already problematic for the majority of people. Thus,
the need for the Mishneh Torah was critical back then, and (through the course
of time) has certainly become more critical today.
n the days of RAMBAM, a true understanding of Geonic responsa (the portion that was settled) was known to very few. In RAMBAM's times, exilic influence, lack of language, time limitations, and ability were already problematic for the majority of people. Thus, the need for the Mishneh Torah was critical back then, and (through the course of time) has certainly become more critical today.
Of course RAMBAM mentions the need for "Talmudic study" (see below for definition) - even with the current learning obstacles mentioned above), in the broader context of a person's daily study routine (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1.10-12).
In Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1.11, the RAMBAM writes the following about gamara:
About this, My anonymous friend and Mori writes:
"Gamara" in the context of Laws of Torah Study 1,10-12 is NOT a book to be read...but your own thinking about the Oral Law materials (whether Mishnah, or Bavli, or Mishneh Torah in the 2nd third). And there is no fixed amount of the 1/3 reading Hebrew Bible, 1/3 reading Oral Law texts, and 1/3 THINKING about the readings and making all of it fit together and make sense in a virtual encyclopedia inside the student's mind. If he learns 1 hour a day, then 20 minutes for each; if he learns 9 hours a day, then 3 hours for each. Got it now? This is very important, but hardly anybody seems to grasp it right.
In a practical sense, this translates into the following:
Most people today are not totally sure about what is required (and not) - in terms of how to practice the law - in general. This is a major problem!
In addition, many continue to blur legitimate practice with the extra-Talmudic customs of the long exile - sometimes to the detriment of the actual law.
Thus, the first priority must be to learn and practice
- straight from the Mishneh Torah (without the need for any other book outside
the written Torah). One who
learns from and follows the record of MT, automatically defaults to a very pure
way of holding, in accordance with the last standing, legitimate Sanhedrin and rav Ashe & Ravina. In
addition to the entire oral law, the Mishneh Torah includes all the binding
decrees, declarations, traditions and proclamations, since the time of Moshe our
Teacher zt"l until Talmudic times. RAMBAM, one of the greatest masters of Talmud ever, was a highly critical
researcher, who possessed all of the above. Most importantly, he was
positioned in the right place at the right historical time. Mishneh Torah preserves the most
authentic (unfiltered) understanding of that literature. Written in
relatively simple, clear Hebrew, it requires far less time to master.
If you are really serious about this, you need to find a learning group that learns and lives by what is recorded in the MT. In addition, the Rabbi of this group needs to be a known expert in this area. As far as I know, there is only one group in the world that does it this way. If interested, you can contact me for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org .
An excellent Yemenite Perspective of the RAMBAM's Mishneh Torah can be found here. Although we may not agree with everything that is written below, we do subscribe to most of it. We are indebted to certain Yemenite Jewish communities. Without them, we wouldn't even have ancient authoritative manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah in our hands.
1 This phenomenon is so large, it is hard to know where to begin - in terms of citing examples of altered practices that lack authority or basis. Thus, the few specific examples below (not in any specific order) will have to suffice:
2 Heaven forbid anyone should misunderstand this article, and think we are trying to indict our own brothers. I honestly believe these errors relate to the times, and not to some purposeful attempt to ignore the law.
3 Basically, this is when congregants are told that everything passed since (i.e.: after) the court of Rav Ashe and Ravinah is directly incumbent upon them (which it is not) - as if it came from SINAI. Usually, this involves pretending to have the authority of a Sanhedrin, and adjusting things - based upon OUR UNDERSTANDING of the reasoning behind the laws. If we had a legitimate Sanhedrin, then these things could be changed.This is further complicated, as many of these things totally contradict with other "pasaqs" of different communities throughout the world. Then perverting the words of R. Hillel and R. Shammai, and telling them that all are the words of the living G-D. This expression was intended for the specific times of the Sanhedrin - not for the rest of eternity. Can you imagine every view that has come about since this time being called the words of the Living G-D (Hallilah)?
4 Traditionally, this has contributed to the creation of myriads of interdependent, post-500ce Chumrahs (strictures) and Heters (leniencies/permissions), that end up hurting the very Torah prohibitions they are trying to protect. To make matters worse, these so-called "rulings" are easily gulped up by the populace, even though they are usually counter productive, unnecessary, misapplied and illegal! Unfortunately, as years go by, a new sub-religion develops, based upon these concepts. Whoever does not comply is seen as a rebel. Usually, this exercise is designed to address PERCEIVED problems in the law or related treatises. Apparently, everyone has to be the CLARIFIER. Many times, these ideas are put forth in the name of great scholars or the "spirit of the Law" - and involve painfully long and contorted explanations. Surely the Torah anticipated these things, and knew we would be in a holding pattern (closed system) - by the times of Rav Ashe and Ravinah. And even as new situations arise that do need some clarification, we surely have enough meat (inside the Torah) to hold us - until the next legitimate Sanhedrin is properly reestablished. Thus, there is no need to forbid what is permitted, or we will ultimately permit what is forbidden. We are not going to put up a laundry list of examples on line.
5 The ability to accurately figure out our original practices is shining brightly into our eyes - right now. It really isn't that hard to figure all of this out now, by honestly examining all of the Jewish communal practices - as a whole. Some geographical Jewish communities preserved their traditions (in certain categories) better than others. The beauty is that all communities have something to contribute. But we need to be honest about all of this. This isn't a free for all. Certain incorrect customs need to be purged! B"H, HaShem put us all together for a reason. But to say "all are right" is revisionist. Today's generation deserves better than that, if Torath Moshe is going to compete for the hearts and souls of our children. We need to pass it down AUTHENTICALLY. This concept isn't going away. It's only going to get stronger in the future.
6 According to the oldest Yemenite texts of Talmud Bavli, Mishneh Torah & Halakhoth Gaduloth (743ce), "qlaf" is taken from the bottom side of the hide (closest to the flesh). Other European versions of these works contain altered (REVERSED) definitions, which means a non-uniformed practice for making Sifrei Torah, Qlaf and Duchsustos. For more on the ramifications, visit the Machone Gevil site.