Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wigs, Torah and Einstein

I'd like to turn away for a moment from the controversial topic of the relative virtues of special education and mainstreaming. A letter by Albert Einstein, written in 1954, has, as reported in many places, fetched $404,000 at auction. In the letter Einstein weighs in on theological issues: "The word of God is," the founder of modern physics writes, "nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish." So the architect of the theory of general relativity offers his perspective upon questions of metaphysics and theology. Jews are not "chosen"; indeed, Judaism "like all other religions" is merely "an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."

I had thought to limit my thoughts on this matter to comments on a couple of other websites (see for example Avi Shafran on Cross-Currents, but while waiting for mincha (the National Library in Jerusalem boasts two afternoon prayer services; take that NY Public Library!), I browsed through the permanent exhibit devoted to Einstein (his papers are collected here). After reading the fine print on one of the displays--an excerpt from one of Einstein's letters--I decided to give the matter some further thought. As the letter details, during a visit to Jerusalem, Einstein and Sir Herbert Samuels, the then High Commissioner of Palestine, walked on a Shabbat afternoon to the Old City. Einstein records finding what he called the "pitiful sight" of a city "swarming with all kinds of holy men," "dull minded fellow Jews, with a past and no present."

So Einstein does not come without his baggage of hostility to the swarming (bug-like?) creatures he found in Jerusalem, but still, when the man who Time Magazine called the "Man of the Century" speaks, aren't we obligated to listen? To answer, I'll relate a principle offered by a former Rosh Yeshiva of mine, Rav Binyomin Moskovitz of Yeshivat Medrash Shmuel in Jerusalem:

'If you want to know about constitutional law, you should naturally ask a consitutional lawyer; if you want to know about particle physics, you should ask a particle physicist (ask Einstein!); if you want to know about mechanical engineering, you should ask, of course, a mechanical engineer. But, if you want
to know about Torah, well: you just can just ask... anyone!'

Rav Binyomin referred to this, with sarcasm, as 'S-L-O-T,' the Special Logic of Torah, that mechanism by which the normal principles of logic, argument and expertise are suspended such that in the field of Torah study, anyone's opinion is as valid as anyone else's. In terms of Torah, notwithstanding Einstein's genius in the physical sciences (and of course he doesn't need my imprematur), he was just "anyone"--even more than that, a Jew from an assimilated family with an axe to grind, writ large in his comments about Jerusalem's natives (Einstein also manifested some personal proclivities, attributed by the exhibit curator to a rebelliousness against "cultural norms"--perhaps contributing to the hostility to the ethical demands of Torah). To be sure, I'd be a good person to ask about the meaning of John Milton's elegiac poem "Lycidas," but if you had a question about the theory of special relativity, I hope I'd have the good sense and the humility to suggest you ask elsewhere. Indeed, a sure sign that someone knows what it means to be an expert is that he's able to say 'I don't know; ask elsewhere.'

Asking 'elsewhere' is not only a virtue to be pursued by those outside of the realm of Torah, but also for within. Which brings me to the next subject of controversy: wigs. Several years ago, a ban was issued against wigs imported from India, since the hair used to make them was alleged to have been employed in the idolatrous practices of the sub-continent--which rendered any benefit from them strictly forbidden. G-d fearing Jewish women, in justifiable fear of transgressing the prohibition of benefitting in any way from idolotrous worship, dispensed with their wigs (there were even stories of wig-burnings in places as far afield as Boro Park and Beit Shemesh). My wife's sheitl macher quickly put up a sign in his store that his wigs were made from only Eastern European hair.

As all of this was happening, I asked several of my trusted teachers their opinion of the ban: they were all skeptical, suggesting that the Hindu practice did not render the hair forbidden. Time passed, and it turned out, my teachers were right: they had intuited what further investigation and rulings by the rabbinical establishment would bear out--namely, that the wigs were not involved in idolotrous rites, and were thus permissible (though as it turns out, many of the wigs worn by Jewish women are from the hair shorn from young Indian women as part of a pilgrimmage ritual). But had, from the beginning, the rabbi (from England) upon whose findings the ruling was based, 'asked elsewhere,' and consulted (let's say) members of the anthropology department of Tel Aviv University, then a great monetary loss would have been avoided. True, the denizens of that department will probably not be honored members of our synagogue community, nor would we likely eat at their homes, but they have expertise that may have been useful before the issuing of a ruling. It's true that the greatest legal scholars rely upon experts to inform their rulings (most notably these days in the manifold contemporary questions of Jewish law and medicine), but in this case, the respect for disciplinary expertise somehow didn't come to the fore until after money had been lost. In any event, understanding expertise goes in both directions.

The Torah is in many ways the supreme discipline--a linguistic science demanding the humanist's sensitivity to linguistic nuance as well as the scientist's proficiency in logic (the true Torah sage or talmud chachum, therefore, has to use both right and left sides of the brain!). The Netziv, the Rosh Yeshiva of thest of the nineteenth century Lithuanian yeshivas, went so far as to proclaim that one needs to demonstrate disciplinary expertise, to have a license, even to give a drash (or homiletic interpretaion of the Torah). So on Saturday afternoon, while the cholent is being digested, it's not just anyone who can offer inspirational words about the weekly Torah portion. To enter the world of drash, and certainly the realm of metaphysical speculations, one needs to be immersed in the languages of Jewish practice and law. If one needs a license for drash, one certainly needs a license for the kind of metaphysical speculation (don't tell Madonna!) that Einstein entertained. But Einstein, when he was offering his opinion on matters of metaphysics and theology, was, as it were, driving without a license. And for those who are not forewarned and careful, he may be a hazard on the roads.


Jewish Atheist said...

But Einstein, when he was offering his opinion on matters of metaphysics and theology, was, as it were, driving without a license.

I disagree. Why is a Torah expert more qualified to opine on such things than the preeminent physicist of his generation? If Einstein were disagreeing about a tosfos, you'd have a point. But on the question of God's existence, Einstein is more qualified.

e-kvetcher said...

Actually, I don't even understand the analogy. As far as I know, Einstein only offered his opinion, which he has a right to do, just as any of us. I may not be an eminent political scientist, but I can still offer my views about the upcoming election. Einstein did not go around saying "As an expert physicist, I also am qualified to tell you the truth about religion or theology, etc."

If anything, the blame is with the people who accept Einstein's opinion, just because he is Einstein.

Maximum Mike said...

Obviously the point here is not whether Eistien was"allowed" to give his opinion, the idea was that he should have known better than to give it. We should all realize that everyone, no matter how insignificant, can be heard by others and that being the case, will have an impact.
That obviously goes double for someone of Einsteins intellect. Einstein had not spent his life studying metaphysics and theology, and hence to dismiss G-d, such a powerful and important figure,existing or not. You don't just dismiss ideas, Einstein, more than anyone should know that, just ask Galileo.

My problem with the post was the license for torah comment, though I'm sure Prof. Kolbrener would a agree, you dont need a license to give a dvar torah, every jew should be able to impart what he or she knows, no matter how little it is, because every drop is precious.

Yaakov A. Mascetti said...

Thanks Bill for the thought-provoking post. I must reveal a certain sense of unease with the misnagged logics of your posting and of your Rosh Yeshiva from Midrash Shmuel. First point to inquire is a relatively simple and potentially explosive one: the concept of Torah is a "fictitious" one, so to speak, since we both know that tradition has not always been the same throughout the ages, nor have comments of the Torah been the same - the Rabbinical mind-set which I think you are referring to is one which has established itself in the past 13 centuries and which, I totally agree, is as complex as quantum mechanics. Second - the principle of expertise is one which cuts out basically all those who are without the rabbinical academies, and this, I must say, is a bit troubling. It may be the chassidic part in me, or my past in Hashomer Hatzair and my readings of Gramsci and of Italian Socialism of the 1920s from the good ol' days in college - yet I may remember something written in that very Torah she bichtav that says something about "not considering the Torah as something beyond your reach!" So within whose reach is it Bill? Is it solely within the reach of some, or can it be tasted by all? And when all taste it, is there an authentic taste and a spurious flavor, or is it all part of the same semantic revelation? Third - as a Skinnerian I invite you to consider the shock of a cultivated German assimilated Jew in seeing the poverty in the Old City and the abyss between the two perspectives on life - to say it nicely, they were not sharing the same lexicon... I agree, one must be immersed in the languages of practice and law, but the definitions of these two terms is heavily dependent on the language-games one lives in, and there is no, and I mean absolutely no, possibility for authenticity in drash. Exegesis is an art one has to learn, I agree - but it is an art which is defined in zillions of different ways. The languages depend on the context, or better, the context is defined by the languages, and vice versa - truth is not "unkennel[ed]" as Hamlet says, but is addressed with an intimidating number of different languages. In sum, I agree with you, but I disagree with you - if the game has to be open-minded, then we have to "open" it up to those who do not share the academic languages of the yeshivot. The sociological effects of the SLOT are not always desirable - the SLOT machine is one that grinds away those who do not want to relate to rabbinical logics, to traditional interpretations, and who want to re-read the texts from their own perspective, or from other perspectives. And since I KNOW that you are not dogmatic, I must express my fear for the potentially dogmatic consequences of SLOT logics. Thank you very very much for yet another thought-provoking posting Bill.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

"If only I could love the greatest zaddik as much as Hashem loves the worst ne'er-do-well!"

"For there is no rung of being on which we cannot find the holiness of Hashem everywhere and at all times."

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

Hey Yaakov a. mascetti. You didn't write that with your mouth stuffed full of cottage cheese did you? LOL. I like your writing! We have a lot in common looking at your blog.

Annie said...

I was saddened to learn that Einstein, who could have been a fantastic ambassador for the Jews, failed in this respect.
We are all entitled to our own opinions, whether enriched by consultation with experts or not. However,when such opinions are potentially damaging in the public forum, wouldn't it be better to keep them to ourselves?
Unfortunately,we often prove to be our own worst enemies.

Daniel said...

“But had, from the beginning, the rabbi (from England) upon whose findings the ruling was based, 'asked elsewhere,' and consulted (let's say) members of the anthropology department of Tel Aviv University, then a great monetary loss would have been avoided.”

Dayan Aharon Dovid Dunner, the London Rav who visited India, has Dayanus, is considered a top-notch Talmid Chacham, and is a trusted confident of the Eida-HaChareidis poskim whose influence is accepted by the majority of the Chareidi world.

If he was convinced that there was a problem, why should he have to speak to the “the anthropology department of Tel Aviv University”?

“asked several of my trusted teachers (Yeshivat Medrash Shmuel) their opinion of the ban: they were all skeptical “.

Is that not a slap in the face to those Gedolei HaDor!

And the reality is that all wigs today do need a hechsher.

William Kolbrener said...

Many thanks Daniel and for the relevant link which presents the facts of the issue from June 2004. I certainly do not intend to slap any of the g'dolie ha'dor in the face: chaz v'shalom!

There is also an interesting psak preceding the 2004 controvery from Rav Eliashiv--Kofetz Tshuvot, Simon 77--where he permits Indian wigs on the basis of an expert of whom he only gives the intials. Which is an example of how the gedolie poskim do rely upon experts where they have themselves have no expertise.

I heard also recently a story about R. Eliashiv who was consulted by someone for advice with a chronically bad back. R. Eliashiv offered sympathetic words, but refrained from giving advice. 'A bracha, I can give,' R. Eliashiv is reported to have said, 'but as for your medical issues, you should follow the advice of your physicians.' In any event, who wouldn't want a bracha from the Gadol HaDor?!

I would also note the citation of my text in Daniel's comment--in which "Yeshivat Medrash Shmuel" was inserted in paranthesis. That was not from my original text nor did I consult anyone from that wonderful institution about the wigs.

I am hoping that the main argument--about Einsteinian disrespect for disciplinary boundaries comes through.--WDK

Yaakov A. Mascetti said...

Bill, I think your argument came through alright. As I wrote, I disagree with your stance here and there, but the statement is obviously clear and well put.
Daniel, you should have to explain to a Leibovitchean heretic like yours truly, how a wig needs hechsher, and how hair can be pagan. In the same way, following your argument, stones are sacred and people too. Which I find a bit disturbing.
I won't even get into the Gdolei Hador thing - acritical respect and adoration for rabbis is a VERY problematic thing - it leads to all sorts of unhealthy situations. But that's just my own apicorsi opinion, not the Truth, right? Daniel I suggest you open a blog, on Authentic Torah or something similar - this way you could state your conceptions positively instead of attacking, in such a disconcerting way, Bill, who is obviously well entrenched in the haredi discourses, and knows his game very well. I suggest you read what Rav Lichtenstein wrote about Bill - and I suggest you apologize too.