Appreciating the P’sak of Rav Elyashiv, sh”lita, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

October 6, 2009

There has been a lot of misguided criticism of the “anti-Croc” p’sak of Rav Elyashiv two weeks ago before Yom HaKipurim, when the great Ashkenazic sage and halachik authority suggested that people not wear comfortable Croc shoes on Yom Kippur, even though they are not leather a do not violate the letter of the law – the prohibition of wearing leather shoes. Some on the left and even in the right might view this negatively as part of the “chumra of the month” club. But if they do, they are missing out on two important aspects of Rav Elyashiv’s p’sak, which give important direction to all Jews, and certainly for passionately committed Morethodox Jews.
First, Rav Elyashiv was careful to distinguish between the halacha itself, which allowed any non-leather shoes, even comfortable ones like Crocs, and his personal opinion, his “gut” feeling, as it were, that it was in keeping with the atmosphere of Yom Kippur which is about being a little less comfortable – and fancy and trendy, I may add – than usual. Frankly, the subtlety of Rav Elyashiv’s p’sak is rarely seen in Centrist Orthodox or even in Modern Orthodox p’sak, where everything that is prohibited has to be a Torah violation, or a rabbinic decree going back 2000 years. Rav Elyashiv evinces confidence – reminiscent of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l – that he can suggest something without needing to back it up from Sinai.
Second, Rav Elyashiv is willing to break from the status quo. He is willing to be creative – though it is to be machmir, to restrict, in this case – and to think outside the box. Just because we have always focused on whether a shoe is leather or not, doesn’t mean that that is the only criterion to think about on Yom Kippur. This is refreshing creativity that I believe appears frequently in chareidi p’sak. Again, it is usually used to restrict, and sometimes in an almost cruel manner as in the case of retroactively nullifying a get – a divorce – that the court granted, however, at least a great Torah sage is willing to say something new, something unheard of in a previous generation. That should be a hallmark of the halachik process, and it means all the more coming from a frum posek, and a revered chareidi leader such as Rav Elyashiv, sh’lita.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rav Elyashiv realizes that Yom Hakippurim, as any holiday or halachik practice, needs to be meaningful. The restriction on wearing leather needs to mean something: and in Rav Elyashiv’s opinon, wearing comfortable, cool shoes which many people prefer to leather shoes anyway, takes away from the meaning of Yom Hakippurim – to afflict your selves (nafshoteichem). Morethodoxy needs to learn from Rav Elyashiv and be on the forefront of reading Torah and halacha in a way that gives meaning to Jewish practice, rather than turning it into an ossified, bizarre tradition. For Rav Elyashiv, afflicting yourselves, and not wearing leather shoes, is a living tradition – part of the Living Covenant that Rabbi David Hartman writes about so eloquently.
Not that Rav Elyashiv, sh’lita, needs my approval, but I hope someone tells him that somewhere in galus, in the city that didn’t get the Olympics, is a Morethodox rabbi who is inspired by his p’sak, a rabbi who wore uncomfortable canvas shoes all of Yom Hakippurim.
May we continue to be inspired by our great leaders to continue to see the meaning, creativity and relevance of the Torah and Mitzvot that God gave us.

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Why are we so childish when it comes to Yom Kippur?

September 25, 2009

Yom Kippur will arrive this week and thousands of Jews will attend synagogues.  Why is it that so many attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but not the rest of the year?  What is it about Yom Kippur that draws us?  No doubt because it is a holy day, we want to be present.  But many of us are just hedging our bets.  If we have a bad year we don’t want to have to kick ourselves for not participating in Yom Kippur as we should have.  If we go on Yom Kippur and pray with sincerity at least we will not have ourselves to blame for whatever bad happens.   We will have done what we could.

For many of us even quite religious Jews who go to synagogue every day or every Sabbath, this kind of thinking is still part and parcel of our Yom Kippur.  Some of the liturgy in fact serves to reinforce it, such as the Unisaneh Tokef –which hinges on,“Who live and who will die?”  But such an approach is a very selfish take on the holiest day of the year.  If I am going to pray on Yom Kippur just so that I can have a good year it’s really just about me and my physical welfare, its really just selfishness.

As Morethodox Jews I think we need to turn to the Chassidic commentaries to reclaim the true nature of Yom Kippur.   Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger in his book the Sefat Eemet says that the phrase, which we repeat many times in this season, “Remember us for life God who wants life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, living God” means that we are asking not for lengthened physical life, but rather for the life of the spirit.

Rabbi Levy Yizchak of Bardichev, in his book the Kedushat Levi, asks why we beseech God to write us in the book of life and to remember us, is God is a person who remembers and writes?  God is God, and furthermore no evil can come from God, only goodness.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers by way of a mashal, a metaphor.  He says it is akin to putting a piece of cloth in the sun.  If it is a white cloth it will reflect the light, if it is a black cloth it will absorb the light, if it is a red cloth it will reflect the red color of the light, if blue the blue waves of the light.  The sunlight does not change, only the cloths are different.

So too there is a flow coming from the Eternal One all the time.  It is a flow of goodness and it is our job on Yom Kippur to become people who can absorb the light for goodness.  We are not trying to change God’s mind, God is infinite.  We are not pulling the wool over God’s eyes trying to convince him that we are more religious than we are by coming to shul on yom Kippur, or hoping that somehow that our prayer will magically help us to have a good year.  No, Yom Kippur is the process of changing ourselves, changing our own colors so that we can receive the Divine light that is always flowing for goodness.  God does not change.  Only we change.  May we all change for the better this Yom Kippur.