Thursday, June 16, 2011

What the iPhone guy did wrong

Please don't miss the follow up question
The Sages were pre-occupied with conformity. Their vision was not unlike the vision of the modern-day Catholic church: One faith, one rite, one people. In fact, they had a fear of breakaway sects that was so profound religious stringencies practiced year round in the Temple were suspended on holidays so that amei haaretz - people lacking meticulousness about purity - would not skip the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and start their own sect. When the Sages ruled on a matter, all Jews were expected to follow it.

At least once they went too far. After Eliezer ben Hurkanus lost his famous debate, the Sages burned all the items he had considered pure, and put him under a ban. For this, the Sages are judged guilty of committing a wrong doing (on'aa) [BT Baba Mezi'a 59b] Later commentators argue that the Sages erred when they attempted to erase Rabbi Eliezer's arguments and perspectives from Jewish tradition. By burning the items he considered pure, and placing him under a ban, they made it impossible for him to continue functioning as a Sage, and effectively prevented him from teaching. All of Israel had to follow the ruling of the Sages, but Eliezer b. Hurkanus was entitled to continue defending his point of view, even if he could not follow it in practice. The attempt to extinguish R. Eliezer's idea was a sin.

The lesson here is that minority opinions remain valid, and that they remain part of the tradition. Even if, for the moment, we are not permitted to follow them in practice, the possibility remains that some future council of Sages will re-enact them.

When the author of the iPhone letter chose to activate his device on Shabbos, he was operating under the assumption that a great Rabbi of the recent past had ruled that using electricity on Shabbos was permitted. As I 've said, I don't know if this assumption is correct, but for the sake of argument let's assume it is. Also, he was acting in complete secret. I believe that an act committed in secret - not in private, but in secret* - is categorically similar to a thought. We are permitted to think that rejected opinions were correct, and we are permitted to teach rejected opinion. The sole prohibition is on action. Because of the value the Sages put on conformity, a value that modern Judaism rejects by the way**, we're not allowed to follow a minority opinion in public, or in private, where spouses or children might see us do of it, but what can be wrong with following it in secret? No damage to conformity is done, and the rejected opinion, as I have argued above, remains a valid part of our tradition. Thinking that the minority opinion is correct does no damage to conformity and neither does performing the act in secret.

However, I still say that my correspondent did something wrong. Once he sent me his letter his action was no longer a secret. Now all of us know that he followed a minority opinion, and this, by my lights, is an offense against the values of Orthodox Judaism. We Orthodox Jews are not required to believe the same things, or to think the same thoughts, but we are required to behave in public as if we are one people, with one set of practices. My correspondent violated that requirement with his letter.

FURTHERMORE Had the letter-writer operated his iPhone in front of two witnesses, I believe he would have been subject to the death penalty administered by the court. Had he done it in front of people with no witnesses, he believe that he would have been subject to a heavenly death. However, he committed the act in secret, because he believed (perhaps in error) that a minority Rabbi permitted it.  We have no way to prove that God kills people before their time for choosing to follow Rabbi A over Rabbi B

QUESTION FOR FOLLOW UP Lets say a hasidic baby is born after the stars come out on Saturday night but before Zman 72. His parents give him a bris milah eight days later, which according to their reckoning, is Shabbos. According to the majority opinion they are being mechalel shabos. Because the majority opinion says Shabbos ends when the stars came out,  this baby was born on Sunday, and his bris should have been on Sunday. Are these hasidic parents chayiv misa bidei shamayim?

*The distinction is something done in private might still be known to intimates. Something done in secret is known only to the one who performed the act. 
** Do you think the Sages would have tolerated the modern variety of rites and liturgies? I don't.

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