Innovation in Halacha – Rabbi Barry Gelman

Our tag line – Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth Depth and Passion Of Orthodox Judaism means different things to different people. For me, it is a call to educate the Morethodox public, and others, about the fundamental ideas of Modern Orthodox Judaism. One of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy is that the Torah does not have a limited warranty. The reform movement essentially clams that the rituals of the Torah does not speak to the modern Jew and are unnecessary to live a full Jewish life. On the other hand, certain segments of the Orthodox community believe that (or act as if) when it comes to ritual and practical halacha there is no room for the Torah to expand to incorporate modern sensibilities and concerns.

Below is part of the introduction to the book of Responsa entitled Dor Rivii written by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glassner. The biographical information below a well as the English translation of the text is taken from an article written by Rabbi Yaakov Elman for Tradition magazine, 25(3), Spring 1991, pp. 63-69.

This work serves as an important theoretical basis for some of the practices that some in the Modern Orthodox world innovated. Often the claim again such innovations (women dancing with the Torah, pain blockers administered before a bris, including a mother’s name in a ketubah, double ring ceremony) is that they are not part of the mesorah(tradition) and that 100 years ago they were not practiced by pious Jews. Rabbi Glasner teaches that a Torah scholar “can derive totally new insights which were never [apprehended] before…”

Rabbi Moses Samuel Glasner (1856-1924), an only son of Rabbi Avraham Glasner and a great grandson of the Hatam Sofer through his mother, Raizel (a daughter of the Hatam Sofer’s oldest daughter Hindel), was born in Pressberg, and later moved with his family to Klausenburg, where his father served as rabbi. The younger Glasner succeeded his father as rabbi in 1878, serving in that capacity until his move to Jerusalem in 1923. In Jerusalem, he was involved in Mizrachi educational activities during the last year-and-a-half of his life. …

“For just as in natural science a person produces innovations with his intelligence and understanding based on old principles, so too with the science of our holy Torah. As Hazal say, “if you hear the old, you will hear the new. “The intent is that one who incessantly occupies himself with the Torah that is with us of old and “kills himself over it” can derive totally new insights which were never [apprehended] before; it is in this sense that Hazal said that “the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moses all that an experienced disciple would in future times innovate [in Torah],”commandments ” [the principle] that from that time [of the completion of the Torah as described in Deut. 31:24, even] a prophet may not innovate anything–this refers only to adding to, or subtracting from it, but permission is given to every authorized court [of ordained sages] to interpret it and derive new laws.

Thus, whoever has due regard for the truth will conclude that the reason the [proper] interpretation of the Torah was transmitted orally and forbidden to be written down was not to make [the Torah] unchanging and not to tie the hands of the sages of every generation from interpreting Scripture according to their understanding. Only in this way can the eternity of Torah be understood [properly], for the changes in the generations and their opinions, situation and material and moral condition requires changes in their laws, decrees and improvements. Rather, the truth is that this [issues from] the wonderful wisdom [and] profound insight of the Torah, [which teaches] that the interpretation of Torah [must be] given over to the sages of each generation in order that the Torah remain a living force with the nation, developing with it, and that indeed is its eternity. In this way may we understand correctly the wording of the blessing “Who gave us a Torah of truth and implanted in us eternal life,” which the Tur interprets as follows: “a Torah of truth” refers to the Written Torah and “eternal life” refers to the Oral Torah (Orah Hayyim 138, see Shulhan Arukh thereto).

[The author of] Midirash Shmuel on Ethics of the Fathers (chapter 1, s.v. “Make a fence for the Torah”) makes the same point in this way: “And therefore [the Tanna] says that this Torah was handed over to Joshua to do with it as he wished, making right left and left right according to the time and place [R. Glasner’s emphasis]; in all this it is his, to do with as he wishes, and so too was it handed over to the Elders, etc. and this is one of the reasons that the Oral Torah was not written down but given to the Great Court to do with as it wished [R. Glasner’s emphasis].”

When they contradict that which was [accepted as true until then, their new interpretation becomes the true one [for their generation]; so have we been commanded by Him, may He be blessed, that we “should not depart from the thing (the sages of that generation) tell us either to the right or left” –even if they uproot that which was agreed upon until now. This too is what they intended when they said “Both these and these are the word of the LivingGod . . . .”

Finally, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Below is a quote from Rabbi Glasner as to how halachik innovators were treated in his time. “If one man be found who wishes to remove the thorns and weed the [garden], he is adjudged a rebellious elder, and, God forbid, as one who cuts down the shoots” [= a heretic]. In this way the land is filled with hypocritical flattery in which [each one] suppresses [his sincere] opinions because of the power of those who are willing to use force and intimidation against whoever opposes them”

3 Responses to Innovation in Halacha – Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. Beautiful. Rabbi Glasner’s views need to be heard more often. See also Professor Elman’s article on Rabbi Zadok ha-Kohen in Tradition.

    Thank you for posting this. It’s very important.

    (By the way: the Dor Revi’i is a perush on Gemara Hulin, not shu”tim.)

    I would also like to note that from conversations with David Glasner (descendant of Rabbi Glasner – and the sons of Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, I have determined that Rabbi Berkovits learned under Rabbi Glasner’s son, Rabbi Akiva Glasner, and that Rabbi Akiva Glasner was even the mesader kiddushin for Rabbi Berkovits.

    Indeed, then, a comparison of the views of Rabbis Glasner and Berkovits yields many similarities. I would note two differences, however:
    (1) Rabbi Glasner said the Torah would not become Oral again until the Sanhedrin was reestablished, whereas Rabbi Berkovits seems to have become impatient, seeing too many problems and not enough solutions in the Orthodoxy of his day;
    (2) In the petiha to the Dor Revi’i, Rabbi Glasner discusses how natural morality can itself constitute law. For example, he insists that it is better to eat pork or treif/nevelah rather than human flesh, even though no law against the latter appears in the Torah. Similarly, he believes it superior to cross-dress rather than be naked, even though there is no prohibition against the latter. Rabbi Berkovits also allocates a significant role to ethics in halakhah, except that rather than relying on natural morality to create new laws, he instead sees Biblical and Talmudic morality (kavod ha-briot, hefsed gadol, etc.) as playing a role in halakhah (almost?) equal to the role played by formal textual exegesis. Rabbi Berkovits, as far as my limited learning goes, would be most similar to people like Rabbis Benzion Uziel, Haim David Halevi, and Emanuel Rackman.

  2. It should also be noted that Rabbi Glasner’s view is most heavily based on Rambam’s notice – in the Haqdama to the Mishnah and in Hilkhot Mamrim – that every Sanhedrin may annul the midrash halakhah of a previous Sanhedrin and institute a new midrash halakhah of the pasuq.

    Much of Rabbi Glasner’s haqdama is quibbling over various aspects of Rambam’s notion, whether even midrashim given at Sinai can be re-drashed, or only post-Sinaitic drash; Rabbi Glasner believes Rambam says the latter, but Rabbi Glasner himself believes the former is the truth. (It is of course amazing that Rabbi Glasner feels confident with going toe-to-toe with the Rambam! Rabbi Glasner elsewhere in his haqdama spends much length discussing how he hates pilpul, how he studies mostly rishonim and rarely aharonim, and how he states the truth with no regard to against whom he is speaking.) That Rabbi Glasner discusses this point of Rambam at such length shows how important this notion of Rambam’s was. For if a Sanhedrin can make a new midrash halakhah to replace an old one, what can this possibly mean except that halakhah was meant to be fluid and evolutionary!!! And I’m not sure if Rabbi Glasner mentions the aggadah in Menahot about Moshe seeing Rabbi Akiva, but clearly, Rambam’s notion in Hilkhot Mamrim could easily explain why nothing Rabbi Akiva said was familiar to Moshe.

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