The Reliability Of the Moral-Intellectual Compass

A recent discussion on the putative attitude of some (religiously traditional) Jews that the more sense something makes, the less “frum” it is:
R. Natan Slifkin:

Pesach is approaching, which means that many people will be obsessing over the size of the olive-sized amount of matzah which is the minimum quantity to be consumed at the seder. My monograph “The Evolution of the Olive” is the most popular post ever on this blog. It has nearly 5000 views, which doesn’t count all those who received it via e-mail. Countless people have expressed appreciation of it.

Why is this monograph so popular? Perhaps it is because so many people have wondered at the strangely large size of the kezayis given in most halachic works today. The mind cannot help but reel when confronted with a kezayis-book presenting, in pictures, a kezayis as being the size of several olives. And the historical explanation for this incongruity makes so much sense that it is immensely satisfying. “There is no pleasure like the resolution of doubt,” as Redak famously stated (except that most people think that Chazal said it). Likewise, my Matzah Chart for Rationalists is also extremely popular.

Of course, there are some people who dislike the monograph (and it was rejected from a certain halachic journal). In some cases, this is because it reveals that the great Rishonim of Ashkenaz were not omniscient. But I wonder if in other cases the dislike is precisely because it makes so much sense. In a previous post, I asked why a certain theory is regarded as frum when expressed by kabbalists, but quasi-heretical when expressed by Rambam. One person [DF] suggested as follows:

Because one makes sense and one doesn’t, and religious matters do not have to make sense… If it made perfect sense, it would be mathematic, not religious. By contrast, matters which today we call “kabbalistic” [even though they were never received from anyone] you can say literally anything you want, and adherents will nod enthusiastically. The less comprehensible it is, the more kabbalistic is it said to be.

I wonder if that might be the case here too. Perhaps it is precisely the mysteriousness and incongruity of the large kezayis that shows dedication to a higher authority.


שהמון אנשי התורה הנאהב שבדברים להם והערב לסכלותם שישימו התורה והשכל שני קצוות סותרות …
רמבם, מאמר תחיית המתים


Thanks for the cite, though attribution would have been nice. My legions of fans know exactly who “DF” is. (grin.)

The instinct of orthodoxy to adopt the illogical is very strong. That is what is meant by “da’as torah hefech mi’daas ballei battim.” It has nothing to do with whether one works or is in koillel. It simply means the Torah is not logical. Because if something is logical, there is nothing religious about doing it. It is, as I say, mere mathematics.

This can be seen in myriad ways, big and small. Tying your shoelaces – why did the halacah develop such that you put on your right shoe first, but tie it second? Sure, pesukim were found as justification, but the reason people looked for pesukim in the first place, rather than simply doing it the normal way, is because now putting on shoes is something holy. Doing it the normal way would just be…putting on shoes.

This is all part of the allure of “mystery” in religion, as I wrote in my original post, as echoed by someone above me here. Please note, this doesnt mean the fundamentals of the religion itself are wrong. But it does mean that, as far as the practices each religion develops for itself goes, there will forever be an unbridgeable gap between rationalists and non-rationalists.

Actually, the expression “da’as torah hefech mi’daas ballei battim” does not refer to the “[very strong] instinct of orthodoxy to adopt the illogical”, but is rather a contemptuous, elitist disparagement of lay opinion in matters of (civil) halachah; here’s the original statement in context:

ואם תשמע לעצתי ולדידי צייתת לא תשב אצל הקהל בשום דין דידעת שפסקי בעלי בתים ופסקי לומדים שני הפכים הם ואמרו פרק זה בורר כך היו נקיי הדעת בירושלים עושין לא היו יושבין בדין אלא אם כן שיודעין מי ישב עמהם ונאה לתלמיד חכם שלא יכניס עצמו בעסק הבעלי בתים אלא ישגה באילת יעלת אהבים ובזה תמצא חן ושכל טוב וגו’1

In any event, a fascinating counterpoint to this view is that of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Ha’Cohen Kook:

דבר מוכרח הוא שיסגל האדם לעצמו את המוסר הטבעי הפשוט, בכל רחבו ועמקו, ואת יראת ד’, ותמצית הטהור של האמונה הפשוטה, וכל מדותיה ברוחב ובעומק, ועל גבי שתי הסגולות הללו יבנה את כל מעלות רוחו העליונות.

אסור ליראת שמים שתדחק את המוסר הטבעי של האדם, כי אז אינה עוד יראת שמים טהורה. סימן ליראת שמים טהורה הוא כשהמוסר הטבעי, הנטוע בטבע הישר של האדם, הולך ועולה על פיה במעלות יותר גבוהות ממה שהוא עומד מבלעדה.

אבל אם תצוייר יראת שמים בתכונה כזאת שבלא השפעתה על החיים היו החיים יותר נוטים לפעול טוב, ולהוציא אל הפועל דברים מועילים לפרט ולכלל, ועל פי השפעתה מתמעט כח הפועל ההוא, יראת שמים כזאת היא יראה פסולה.2

Prof. Marc B. Shapiro comments:

The upshot of this passage is that some (much?) of what passes for piety today is really nothing more than a corrupted religiosity.

This natural morality that R. Kook spoke of was not only in nature, but also in people. This led R. Kook to a unique understanding of the relationship between scholars and masses. Anyone who has studied in a yeshiva knows that it inculcates a certain amount of condescension for the masses. For what could the masses, the typical am ha-aretz, possibly have to offer the scholar? Yet R. Kook saw matters differently, and recognized that there was an element of natural Jewish morality in the masses that was no longer to be found among the scholars, and the scholars ignored this to their own detriment. And let us not forget that the masses that R. Kook was referring to were not like many of our masses who go to day school, yeshiva in Israel, and attend daf yomi before going to work. The East European Jewish masses never opened a Talmud after leaving heder. They were pious and recited Psalms and came to a shiur in Ein Yaakov or Mishnayot, but without having studied in yeshiva, and lacking an Artscroll, the Talmud was closed to them. Incidentally, the rabbis had no problem with this arrangement, unlike today when Talmud study has become a mass movement.

Had the masses in R. Kook’s day had any serious learning, then he couldn’t have said what he did, because his point is precisely that learning “spoils” some of the Jew’s natural morality.

An even more remarkable, incredibly provocative, radically anti-elitist passage from Rav Kook:

האנשים הטבעיים שאינם מלומדים, יש להם יתרון בהרבה דברים על המלומדים, בזה שלא נתטשטש אצלם השכל הטבעי והמוסר העצמי ע”י השגיאות העולות מהלימודים, וע”י חלישות הכחות וההתקצפות הבאה ע”י העול הלימודי, ומ”מ הם צריכים לקבל הדרכה בפרטי החיים מהמלומדים. והמלומדים צריכים תמיד לסגל לעצמם, כפי האפשרי להם, את הכשרון הטבעי של עמי הארץ, בין בהשקפת החיים בין בהכרת המוסר מצד טבעיותו, ואז יתעלו הם בפיתוח שכלם יותר ויותר. וכן הדבר נוהג אפילו בצדיקים ורשעים שישנם רשעים כאלה, שהחלק הטוב שנשאר אצלם הוא מבונה בכח טבעי עצמי וטהור כ”כ, עד שצדיקים צריכים ללמוד מהם ולקבל מהם, ואז דוקא יתעלו הצדיקים במעלתם העליונה. וכן הדבר נוהג גם בכלל האומות ביחש כל אחת מהם לחבירתה, וביחוד בין אוה”ע לישראל.3

Prof. Shapiro:

This is a an anti-intellectual passage, in which we see R. Kook favoring the natural morality and religiosity of the simple Jew over that of his learned co-religionist. (It was precisely this sort of sentiment that was expressed by Haym Soloveitchik at the end of “Rupture and Reconstruction.”) Can anyone be surprised that this passage was not published by R. Zvi Yehudah? He recognized all too well the implications of these words, which I am only touching on here.

R. Kook continues by saying that the masses need the guidance of the learned ones when it comes to the halakhic details of life. That we can understand, since the masses can’t be expected to know, say, the details of hilkhot Shabbat. But in a passage quite subversive to the intellectual elite’s self-image, R. Kook adds that the learned ones also have a lot to learn from the masses. In fact, if you compare what each side takes from the other, I don’t think there is any question that what the masses give the learned is more substantial than the reverse.

We close with a wonderful statement of Rav David ibn Zimra (Radvaz) that is truly קילורין לעיניים; in the course of refuting his correspondent’s technical argument in favor of requiring one to give up a limb to save the life of another, he insists that this simply cannot be correct, as “[the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and it is necessary that the laws of our Torah should be consistent with intellect and reason …”:

שאלת ממני אודיעך דעתי על מה שראית כתוב אם אמר השלטון לישראל הנח לי לקצץ אבר אחד שאינך מת ממנו או אמית ישראל חבירך. יש אומרים שחייב להניח לקצץ האבר הואיל ואינו מת והראיה מדאמרינן בעבודה זרה חש בעיניו מותר לכוחלה בשבת ומפרש טעמא משום דשורייני דעינא בלבא תליא משמע הא אבר אחד לא והשתא יבוא הנדון מקל וחומר ומה שבת החמורה שאין אבר אחד דוחה אותה היא נדחית מפני פקוח נפש אבר אחד שנדחה מפני השבת אינו דין שנדחה מפני פקוח נפש ורצית לדעת אם יש לסמוך על טעם זה:

תשובה זו מדת חסידות אבל לדין יש תשובה … [ועיין שם שהאריך לדון בזה, ולבסוף כתב:] ותו דכתיב דרכיה דרכי נועם וצריך שמשפטי תורתינו יהיו מסכימים אל השכל והסברא ואיך יעלה על דעתנו שיניח אדם לסמא את עינו או לחתוך את ידו או רגלו כדי שלא ימיתו את חבירו4

The reader is also reminded of Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson’s remarkable assertion that halachah necessarily incorporates a notion of intellectual property since “ולא יהא תורה שלימה שלנו כשיחה בטילה שלהם וזה דבר שהשכל מכחישו”.

  1. שו”ת מהר”י ווייל סוף סימן קמ”ו עמוד צד – קשר, הובא בסמ”ע סימן ג’ ס”ק י”ב []
  2. אורות הקודש, חלק שני – מוסר הקודש, כרך שלישי (ירושלים תשמ”ה – הדפסה תשס”ו) ראש דבר, מוסר ויראת אלה-ים, פיסקא י”א עמוד כז, הובא פה, פה, פה,ופה []
  3. שמונה קבצים א:תסג – קשר []
  4. שו”ת רדב”ז חלק ג’ סימן תרכ”ז [אלף נ”ב] – קשר []

2 thoughts on “The Reliability Of the Moral-Intellectual Compass”

  1. 1. Obligatory joke: “Rabbi, how many olives are a kezayis?”

    2. Regarding דעת בעל הבית etc., I heard but could not confirm an anecdote in which R Meir Simcha of Dvinsk and the Rogatchover were arguing over a Torah issue, and agreed to a bizarre arbitration: they would ask a “balehbos” the question, and whoever he agreed with would lose the argument, since דעת בעל הבית היפך דעת תורה. After hearing the “balehbos”s opinion, the loser/winner on that side of the argument insisted he was still correct, but that their consultant was “such a balehbos that he went around twice”, arriving at the correct psak…

    3. As a rationalist, to think that Slifkin is the very first person in centuries to wake up and say “Hey, wait a minute! That doesn’t make sense!”, doesn’t make sense. To me, at least.

    Does anyone have a working link to his “Evolution of The Olive”? I had trouble finding it last time I tried, and though the way it was described to me it has some big boo-boos, it isn’t fair, they say, to hang a man behind his back.

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