Rabbinic Controversy and the Lessons of History

While “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” (Santayana) it is not clear that those who do remember escape it. When it comes to rabbinic disputes, that may not be such a bad thing.

Menachem Butler called my attention to a fascinating article on the controversy regarding machine-made matzos. It appears in the 2004 HUC Annual, and is coauthored by Dr. Meir Hildesheimer (yes he is…) at Bar-Ilan. It is not yet available online. The article offers historical background, analysis of the arguments on both sides of two separate flare-ups of the dispute, separated by forty years, and consideration of economic elements of the disagreement. While the chief protagonists were the Shoel U-Mashiv on the side permitting machine matzos and R. Shlomo Kluger on the other, the list of those who also got involved is more than impressive.

Much of the material will make some of us initially uncomfortable. It shouldn’t, as I will explain shortly. We would like to believe that all halachic decisions are about legal abstraction, with arguments considered in a cool, detached and gentlemanly manner. The historical record, though, includes lots of things that perhaps shouldn’t happen in a perfect world. The chronicle of this dispute includes much name-calling and vituperation – by Torah giants. People who are charged with crimes against halachic humanity lash out at their accusers in retaliation – against the advice of friends and family. Clearly exaggerated arguments and claims enter the fracas. Revisionists appear on the scene, claiming that the original disputants changed their minds, albeit without a shred of evidence. Family feuds are part of the background of the dramatis personae, as well as insinuations that a certain brother-in-law took the wrong side because of a contested claim to an estate. People seized positions and titles that they did not hold. The motivation of some of the less-than-stellar talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) is not always purely halachic. (One of the chief organizers of the opponents of mechanized matzah stands accused of wanting to regain his reputation as thoroughly frum while smarting from charges that he was too chummy with the maskilim (“Enlightened” Jews who rejected tradition, in whole or part). Whole groups of people – to wit, those terrible German Jews – are accused of being less than authentic, and too eager to embrace modernity. The press gets involved, and adds fuel to the fire.

There are some really surprising elements as well, like the Shoel U-Maishiv printing the entire responsum of a Reform rabbi in his community (Lemberg/ Lvov), together with the reasoning of others on his side (The Shoel U-Maishiv, while strenuously fighting Reform, was a harsh critic of fracturing the organized Jewish community, and maintained good relations with Reform rabbis in his city.) Subsequent developments pad some of the impact of the opening rounds: we learn that there were apparent apologies of sorts later on, and that the Shoel U-Maishiv and R. Shlomo Kluger worked together on other issues later in life.

One quote from R. Yaakov Ettlinger (the Aruch L’Ner) will resonate with many:

It seems that those rabbis (those who would prohibit), whose intent is undoubtedly for Heaven’s sake, had no knowledge of the machine, and hearing is not the same as seeing. And if they reject it because it is something new, we, too, the rabbis of Germany, who, thank God, are upright, keep innovations in matters of Torah at arm’s length. But that which was innovated by the craftsmen and sages of nature in natural matters – why should we not accept what is good in them, to repair the lacunae in our knowledge, for the purpose of observing the commandments of the Holy One, blessed be He, with greater power and strength, as any intelligent person will judge in righteousness and equity.

The irony of all of this is that the Afikoman is better than the Achilas Matzah. What became of all the nasty stuff, all the mud-slinging and acrimony? Absolutely nothing. More than a century later, none of it survives, and very few would associate the names of the gedolim on either side with any negativity. People still argue the merits and demerits of machine matzah, but in purely halachic terms.

We still use those arguments today. Proponents of hand matzah point to issues of lishmah (making matzah for mitzvah consumption with focused intent, which a machine cannot by itself provide), just as they did. Those who prefer machine matzah still call attention to the greater number of mishaps that can create chametz problems in hand matzah. Communities that eschew all but hand matzah for all the days of Pesach generally are aware that many of the original concerns about machine matzahs have been solved. They prefer to keep to the practices of older times as a protection against creeping modernity – one of the original issues floated by the rejectionist side – and not because of real halachic concerns.

Interestingly, all of our matzah today has improved because of the original cautions and concerns voiced in the 19th century. Many on the Rav Shlomo Kluger side were reluctant to embrace a new technology because of unforeseen chametz problems they feared would be discovered in the course of time. They were correct. The machinery used did create new challenges that had not been considered, and machinery has been constantly upgraded. The hand matzah process came under fire for its special vulnerability – the employment of non-Jewish or non-frum, unskilled, unmotivated and overexerted workers. (Then – as today – production could not effectively keep up with demand, leading to shortcuts people would have preferred not to take.) Many of us take advantage of a modern fix to that problem, and insist on “chaburah” matzah, where extra eyes and hands compensate for any shortcomings in the regular production.

The halachic process – at least over time – distilled the best reasoning on both sides and preserved it for the future. The other elements must have, in their day, disappointed traditionalists and cheered the hearts of cynics and maskilim. Today, those negative elements belong only to the academic students of history. Halacha has a built-in integrity that recovers from the frailties of Man – even the few that exist within great men. It is forgiving of the past, and preserves its best for the future. It triumphed then, and will triumph again over similar problems that occur from time to time, and doubtless will continue to occur till Moshiach ushers in perfection itself.

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15 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    This “clean-up” process appears isn’t limited to Halachic disputes. Very few people remember today that John Adams was sure Thomas Jefferson will destroy the US, or that Newton and Leibnitz fought over the invention of calculus.

    The arguments used are often useful, so we remember them. The rancor is not, so we forget it.

  2. Neil Epstein says:

    We’d prefer matzot that were as digestable as this article.

    Chag Sameach!!

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Would we today accept matzos made by mid 19th Century machines and methods?

  4. joel rich says:

    If you were asked whether each of the participants in the original debate acted completely in consonance with halacha at that time as far as both content and method of debate, would your answer be in the negative for any of the rabbis (and in particular for any of the gedolim) involved?

  5. Sammy Finkelman says:

    There was a cover article in the Jewish Observer about this issue (I don’t remember the name of the author or the exact date) but it might have been also by Dr. Meir Hildesheimer becaus ethe author was researching it and planning a book.

  6. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Joel –
    Assuming that the narrative in the article was accurate, I would say that I would find nothing blameworthy in the behavior of the chief gedolim (the Shoel U-Maishiv and R. Shlomo Kluger).

    I would decidedly not say the same about several of the other participants – the usual cast of characters, including the kanaim, the gatekeepers to the gedolim, etc.

    When you look at the people on top, my experience is not to be disappointed – even when not finding perfection. One level down in the pecking order, and I want to run and hide for cover.

    Bob –
    My understanding (based on nothing more than asking around among people who order matzos for large groups) is that in many cases we are buying matzos that use methods no better, and in some cases worse, than the matzos baked then. The machine matzos today are in fact much better – which is not to say that there was any trouble with those in the 19th century.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein said above, “I would decidedly not say the same about several of the other participants – the usual cast of characters, including the kanaim, the gatekeepers to the gedolim, etc.”

    This is not the first discouraging statement I have seen along these lines in this blog. Are we and our Torah leaders then forced to accept this as a “usual” state of affairs inherent in our historic golus (exile) or can we finally see some worthy proposed solutions and even their implementation? The typical boss at work says he doesn’t want to be bothered about problems unless they’re brought with an action plan to solve them. Should we be satisfied with less?

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller, are kanaim really a factor of being in exile? Were our ancestors any better in Israel, when the Hashomai kings fought each other of when the Sicarricim killed Jews opposed to the suicidal rebellion against the Romans?

    Maybe kanaim back then had other excuses than Halachic arguments, but does the excuse the kanaim use really matter?

  9. Bob Miller says:

    My point was not that kanaim and the others are only present in exile, but that we should consider taking action to control them even in exile. We’re not as helpless to organize ourselves properly now as some seem to suggest.

  10. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I agree that it’s possible to control them. The only point I disagree with is that the kanaim are only present in exile.

  11. dovid says:

    Bob Miller: “We’re not as helpless to organize ourselves properly now as some seem to suggest.”
    Ori Pomerantz: “I agree that it’s possible to control them.”

    Bob and Ori:

    You are fooling yourselves. We can’t even agree on who is a kanai. My kanaus might be your leniency. And we might even argue deftly our positions to prove that each one of us is on safe halachic grounds. Ask people around about the fellow who beat up the woman in the bus. The answers you will get will range from: He was he a kanai. No, he was a self-righteous idiot. No, he was a nebach case with mental problems. My opinion? None of the above, he is a rasha who should not walk free among us. I am sure I did not exhaust all the possible answers. If Yochanan ben Zakai could not control the kanaim of his generation, when the masses did listen to the gedolim, what chance do we stand today?

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Dovid, I don’t care about the logic or illogic of trying to establish order under the current trying circumstances. All I know is that it has to be done, and, with G-d’s help and our participation, it will be done. It can start with small practical steps to protect the transmission of information to and from the Gedolei HaDor, including the protection of their physical security.

  13. Baruch Horowitz says:

    ” Halacha has a built-in integrity that recovers from the frailties of Man – even the few that exist within great men… It triumphed then, and will triumph again over similar problems that occur from time to time, and doubtless will continue to occur till Moshiach ushers in perfection itself.”

    Related to the integrity of the Halachic system ,is the question of the integrity of the meta-Halachic system(daas Torah community decsions). Another question is whether, over time, there will remain a “center” in the yeshivah/charedi world. What point is spiritual growth of a community, and what should be eschewed as overreactions to problems brought on by our modern world? Another question is what is the proper perspective on the interface between laypeople and leaders? How can we be sure that different vaadim, askanim, etc. are properly representing the laypeople?

    In a different issue and venue, Rabbi Adlerstein recently drew a kal vachomer(a fortiori) to the direction of the “course of the ship of the Torah state” from the Ramban’s comments on edim zomemim, that pointed to a Divine assurance protecting the integrity of beis din’s decisions. One might add that it’s part of Divine Providence, even if we don’t understand it, why today’s generation does not have the equivalent of the Rambam’s guidance to rational approaches to machashavah and to the relationship with secular ideas, even though it can be argued that we need his approach as much as, if not more, than did Spanish Jewry in its day.

    I am inspired by Rabbi Adlertein’s confidence and bitachon, although I admit to sometimes vacillating between hopeful and less- than- hopeful-feelings when contemplating the ” similar problems that occur from time to time, and doubtless will continue to occur till Moshiach ushers in perfection itself.” Perhaps Divine Providence will include providing for a more idividualized and customized Torah guidance and communal niche for all those affected by, or concerned with these types of imperfections. These issues are not on the radar screen of the RIETS community which is not directly effected by them, but there is also silence in the charedi world. If our community organizations, the natural address for these issues, are already aware of these concerns(which I think that they probably are), perhaps there should be communication with the public about these important topics.

  14. michoel halberstam says:

    I address my comments to Bruce Horowitz whose views I have frequebtly found interesting. I question whether anyone, even the Rambam enjoyed the kind of support for his rationality that we all admire in him today. There is ample evidence that many , whom we would call extremists often did not see things his way. In his Hakdama to the Sefer Hamoreh, he makes the famous comment that he isn’t necessarily speaking toi thiose people at all.

    Despite all this however, the Rambam is remembered long after his most irresponsible opponents are forgotten. I think that Rabbi Adlerstein is correct when he says that there is a bult in integrity to Halacha that even the overly zealous, who lack confidence in the Torah’s ability to take care of itself cannot compromise, as hard as they try.

    One should be careful not to relate this issue to the question of Daas Torah, which is a totally synthetic idea and will clearly blow with the wind forever. I doubt that its impact will be anywhere near as great as Mr. Horowitz fears, although in the immediate present it is by far the nost troubling problem, time will certainly heal that wound. In the interim, the best solution is to further one’s own learning as much as possible.

    On another note, isn’t it fascinating how certain of Rabbi Adlerstein’s posts always take us so far away from where we started. I think it’s great.

  15. Mordechai says:

    Re Sammy Finkelman’s comment above –

    The lengthy and quite interesting article by Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan appeared in the April 2004 JO.

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