[Avodah] Mesorah

Micha Berger via Avodah avodah at lists.aishdas.org
Fri Aug 21 11:57:58 PDT 2015

The word "mesorah" is overloaded with too many meanings.

Literally, it's "that which was passed on". So logically, a common usage
would make it synonymous with TSBP. And yet it's also used for the near
opposite -- we speak of the mesoretic text, its vowels and its trope --
the ultimate in TSBK. And the collections of notes that describe that
text are also called "mesorah". (So the mesorah describes the mesorah?!
And you can join the email list <mesorah at aishdas.org> if you wish to
discuss the mesorah, diqduq, nusach hetefillah and the like.)

More along the lines of the direction I want to head in, unlike talking
about TSBP and thus focusing our attention on Divine origins, when we
speak of mesorah we focus out attention on the chain of people. And so
there is the usage of "mesorah" to mean mimetic tradition, and is often
posed in contrast to textual TSBP.

Notice R/Dr Haym Soloveitchik <www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm>
not only defines "mimetic tradition" as knowing what a kezayis is
because you remember what your father and greandfather ate at the seder
but also considers such cultural mesorah (my term) rather than textual
transmission to be the carrier of value and emotion. It is the loss
of mimetic tradition that he blames for the loss of dread of the Yamim
Noraim and (in speech, not writing) for the loss of what his father RJBS
called the "Erev Shabbos Jew" (from "On Repentance, pp 97-98):
    Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews,
    one can no longer talk of the 'sanctity of Shabbat.' True, there are
    Jews in America who observe Shabbat... But it is not for Shabbat that
    my heart aches; it is for the forgotten 'erev Shabbat'.... There are
    Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no 'erev Shabbat'
    Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating
    souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands,
    with their feet, and/or with their mouths - but there are few indeed
    who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!"

Then we speak of someone "having a mesorah" in two different uses: both
if they have a received practice and cultural (as above) and if they have
a known rebbe-talmid lineage. Still in contrast to texts, we're talking
about the importance of all that Torah that doesn't fit into books.

We also talk about those in the hands-on kelei qodesh, such as a sofer,
a mohel, a shocheit, etc... also of "having a mesorah" from the one who
taught them the craft. And that too is all about the kind of thing you
need to learn with your senses and muscles, and not know from books
discussing the topic in the abstract.

To pasqen mar'os, a rav must also have a mesorah in that sense. It's
a skill, a craft, that is learned from practice under the guidance of
a mentor. Usually called "shimush".

For regular pesaq too there is an element that is a craft, an art,
a skill, the kind of thing one needs to learn from shimush, not
by studying from abstract texts.

    Qara veshanah velo shamash TC, harei zeh am ha'aretz. ...
				    - Sotah 22a

This is why I like R/Dr Moshe Koppel's metaphor of laws of grammar for
some usages rather than always comparing halakhah to civil law. (More
as per his sefer "Metahalakhah" than in the essay "Judaism as a First
Language" <http://azure.org.il/include/print.php?id=588>.) As I wrote
in Feb <http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol33/v33n023.shtml>:
    The "First Language" model is much like R/Dr Haym Soloveitchik's
    mimeticism, but also somewhat different. Halachic rules are an
    approximation of something that is inherently more complex in
    kind than rules and algorithms. Much the way grammar is only
    approximated by ever more complex rules which still never get a
    foreigner studying the language in class to the same feel for grammar
    that the native-speaker has. (And why TSBP loses something when not
    be'al peh.) So the ESL student may know what a past pluperfect is,
    and I don't, but the native speaker is more likely to know what is
    valid poetic license and what will produce non-English results.

    Similarly, a poseiq needs to pick up that feel, not the formal
    rules. Unstructured knowledge.

I have two rather lengthy quotes that help create a feel for what I
am talking about. They're quite beautiful, so I appreciate this excuse
to share them.

Notice how RYBS explicitly defines the word "mesorah" at the beginning
of this first quote, UBiqashta miSham 10:1, pp. 63-65 (tr. RARR, The Rav,
vol. I, pp. 247-250):

    Let me stress the idea of the Mesorah by telling you a personal
    story. I remember that when I was growing up I was frightened and
    lonely boy. I was afraid of the world. For me, the world was a cold
    and strange place. I imagined that everyone was mocking me. But I had
    one friend; do not laugh at me, it was the Rambam [Maimonides]. How
    did we become friends? Simply, we met. Rambam was a constant guest
    in our home. During the days when my father was newlywed, supported
    by my grandfather... father studied Torah day and night. A small
    group of outstanding young scholars gathered around him and eagerly
    absorbed his teachings.

    My father studied with his disciples in the room where my bed was
    located. My wont was to sit on my bed and listen to my father's
    words. He constantly quoted Rambam. His method was to first open
    the Talmud and analyze the text under discussion and the relevant
    commentaries. He would generally say: these are the explanations of
    Tosafot. Now, let us analyze the explanations of Rambam.

    My father would inevitably discover that Rambam rejected the basic
    explanation of the text and differed with Tosafot. My father would
    declare, as if to complain, that we cannot comprehend the approach
    and conclusion of Rambam towards the Talmud text. It was almost
    as if my father were directly saying to Rambam: "Rabbi Moshe, why
    have you taken this approach?" My father would continue, "at first
    glance, the Ra'avad (commentary on the Rambam) is correct at his
    criticism." The students would jump forward and each would express
    his thoughts. My father would carefully listen but would refute
    their proposed interpretations.

    Once again he would exclaim that the words of Rambam were
    incomprehensible. Nevertheless, my father would not give up. He would
    place his head on his hand and soon be engrossed in deep thought. The
    students would not disturb his thought process. Finally, my father
    would gradually lifts his head and begin to expound the true meaning
    of Rambam. Sometimes he would be lengthy, and on other occasions
    brief. I would strain my ears to catch my father's every word. In my
    young and impressionable mind, there developed a duel impression:
    First, that the Rambam was being attacked by enemies who wanted
    to hurt him, and second, that the Rambam's only defender was my
    father. I felt strongly that without my father, who knows what would
    happen to the Rambam? It was as if the Rambam himself were with us
    in the room, listening to my father's words. The Rambam sat next to
    me on my bed. What did he look like? I don't know exactly. He seemed
    to look like an exceedingly handsome and good father. His name was
    also Moshe, just like my father.

    Intensely following my father, the students absorbed his every
    word. Slowly but surely, the tension evaporated. My father continued
    his discourse with strength and courage. New ideas were clarified; the
    laws under discussion were classified and carefully articulated. A new
    light emerged; the questions were resolved and the topic properly
    explained. Rambam emerged triumphant, and my father's face was
    filled with happiness and delight. He had defended his friend,
    Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. The Rambam was comforted and smiled. I too
    was delighted and joined in the feeling of joy in the room. I would
    jump from my bed and run to my mother and cry out the good news:
    "mother, mother, the Rambam won; he beat the Raavad. Father helped
    him. Look how wonderful my father is!"

    But once in a great while my father did not succeed, and despite all
    his efforts the enemies of the Rambam defeated him. Their questions
    were as strong as iron. Although my father mustered all his strength,
    he could not save the Rambam from his detractors. Salvation did
    not come for the Rambam. Deep in thought, my father would lean on
    his head on the palms of his hands on the table. The students and
    I, and even the Rambam, waited in great tension for my father's
    words. But my father would raise his head and sadly state: "there is
    no answer. The words of the Rambam are difficult. The shiur ended
    with no explanation. The students were sad, and even my father
    was depressed. A sense of despair descended upon all of us. I
    cried. Even the eyes of the Rambam glistened with tear-drops. With
    a broken heart, I would walk slowly to my mother and cry out to her:
    "Mother, father cannot answer the Rambam. What will we do? He did not
    succeed today." And my mother would tell me: "Don't worry. Father
    will find and answer to the Rambam. If he does not succeed, then
    when you grow up perhaps you will find an answer to the Rambam. Always
    remember, my son, the important thing about Torah is to study it in
    happiness and enthusiasm."

    It is true that this story is part of my youth. It is not,
    however, the fantasy of a young child or the creation of mystical
    feelings. This story is an historic and psychological reality that
    guides me at all time. When I sit down to learn, the giants of
    the Mesorah are with me. Our relationship is personal. The Rambam
    sits to my right, Rabbeinu Tam to my left. Rashi sits at the head
    and explains, Rabbeinu Tam asks, the Rambam decides the halacha,
    and the Raavad objects. All of them are with me in my small room,
    sitting around the table. They look at me with fondness. They
    world the text out with me, and life a father, they encourage and
    strengthen me. Learning Torah is not just a didactic, formal, and
    technical experience whose purpose is the creation and exchange of
    ideas. Learning Torah is the intense experience of uniting many
    generations together, the joining of spirit to spirit, and the
    connecting of soul to soul. Those who transmit the Torah and those
    who receive the Torah are invited to meet one another at the same
    historic juncture.

And Reflections of the Rav, vol II, pp. 21b-23 (original language in:
RARR's The Rav vol II, pp 186-189) this quote winds up with mention of
the mesorah:

    The old Rebbe walks into the classroom crowded with students who
    are young enough to be his grandchildren. He enters as an old man
    with wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of
    old age. You have to be old to experience this sadness. It is the
    melancholy that results from an awareness of people and things which
    have disappeared and linger only in memory. I sit down; opposite me
    are rows of young beaming faces with clear eyes radiating the joy
    of being young. For a moment, the Rabbe is gripped with pessimism,
    with tremors of uncertainly. He asks himself: Can there be a dialogue
    between an old teacher and young students, between a Rebbe in his
    Indian summer and students enjoying the spring of their lives? The
    Rebbe starts his shiur, uncertain as to how it will proceed.

    Suddenly the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rebbe,
    enters. He is the grandfather of the Rebbe, Reb Chaim Brisker.
    It would be most difficult to study Talmud with students who are
    trained in the sciences and mathematics, were it not for his method,
    which is very modern and equals, if not surpasses, most contemporary
    forms of logic, metaphysics or philosophy. The door opens again and
    another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in
    the 17th century. His name is Reb Shabtai Cohen, known as the Shach,
    who must be present when civil law (dinai mamonot) is discussed. Many
    more visitors arrive, some from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries,
    and others harking back to antiquity -- Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi, Rambam,
    Raavad, Rashba, Rabbi Akiva and others. These scholarly giants of
    the past are bidden to take their seats. The Rebbe introduces the
    guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a
    halacha; the Raavad disagrees sharply, as is his wont. Some students
    interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly
    against the Raavad, as young people are apt to do. The Rebbe softly
    corrects the students and suggest more restrained tones. The Rashba
    smiles gently. The Rebbe tries to analyze what the students meant,
    and other students intercede. Rabeinu Tam is called upon to express
    his opinion, and suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into
    existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of
    daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues.

    All speak one language; all pursue one goal; all are committed to a
    common vision; and all operate with the same categories. A Mesorah
    collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and
    young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern times. This
    joining of the generations, this march of centuries, this dialogue
    and conversation between antiquity and the present will finally
    bring about the redemption of the Jewish people.

    After a two-or three hour shiur, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber
    young and rejuvenated. He has defeated age. The students look
    exhausted. In the Mesorah experience, years play no role. Hands,
    however parchment-dry and wrinkled, embrace warm and supple hands in
    commonality, bridging the gap with separates the generations. Thus,
    the "old ones" of the past continue their great dialogue of the
    generations, ensuring an enduring commitment to the Mesorah.

So there is a community of baalei mesorah that carries down a mimetic
tradition of how to pasqen. A tradition of informal knowledge that cannot
be codified into books and that creates a feel and emotional consequence.
This is RYBS's usual usage of the word, "mesorah".

No better or worse than any of the other usages, but more relevant to
two of the conversations we've (we as in various members of the A/A
chevrah, not necessarily here on Avodah) been having lately.

In the discussion of feminism and Torah (which hasn't been here, but
we have had identical cycles here before), RHS's piece "Preserving Our
Mesorah in Changing Times"
and others like it are often cited. RHS opens:

      What is Mesorah?

      Mesorah is not primarily a corpus of knowledge to master but a
      process of accessing a chain of student-teacher relationships that
      reaches back to Sinai. Moshe received the Torah and transmitted it
      to his student, Yehoshua, who in turn taught it to his students
      and so on, continuing through today.[1] The nature of transmission
      of the mesorah is instruction from a rebbe to his student. We
      connect to the mesorah, to the sacred structure of laws, beliefs
      and attitudes, through our teachers.[2]

      1. Avot 1:1.
      2. For a more extensive discussion of mesorah, see Nefesh HaRav,
      pp. 34-58 and Beikvei HaTzon, pp. 21-37.

Firmly in line with what we've seen from his rebbe, mesorah is used in
the sense of the chain of transmission down time that conveys the art
and culture of halakhah decision-making and Torah as a whole.

And a bit further down he discusses "Who Is Authorized to Institute Change?"
{emph mine):
    Changes in practice require delicate evaluations that only a master
    Torah scholar, a gadol baTorah, can properly conduct. Only someone
    with a broad knowledge and a deep understanding of the corpus of
    halachah, with an intimate familiarity with both the letter and the
    OF THE MESORAH, can determine when a change is acceptable or even
    required. The more wide-reaching the proposed change, the greater
    the expertise required to approve it. The evaluator must not only be
    a master of the mesorah, but he must also be able to consider new
    practices based solely on values internal to the mesorah, removing
    external influences from the deliberation.[14]

    14. See Halakhic Mind, n. 98.

But I think this example from a teshuvah (tr and poor title by YWN
<http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/213379> is
more on-topic:

    Indeed, the Rav would often say (see drasha to Parshas Korach), that
    every person must recognize that he needs a Rav or a Rebbe. Even a
    Talmid Chochom whose Rebbe had passed away must constantly ask himself
    in truth (when they present questions to him) what his Rebbe would
    have said in such a scase, and what stance he would have taken. ...

    The expression that some of those who have permitted this utilize
    that according to the technical halacha a certain act is permitted,
    and that which people wish to prohibit it is because of political
    considerations is incorrect. For even a matter such as changing the
    mesorah the traditions of the Jewish people is in and of itself
    an integral section of halacha. When one rules on the donning of
    Tefillin for women it is not enough to merely examine the ruling of
    the Shulchan Aruch in Hilchos Tefillin and in the sources there and
    treat it as a simple question.

The version of mesorah in RYBS's usage is the same concept RHS invokes
to reject a "but it can be fit to the technical halakhah so your objection
is merely political" attitude. Change must conform to mesorah to be
valid, even if the textualists are satisfied.

This is not an invocation of "daas Torah", because we're talking about
questions of Torah, not politics or other metzi'us; we are invoking
knowledge, if cultural and informal knowledge rather than book knowledge,
and not invoking any metaphysical or mytical power; and because we do
not expect a single correct answer that "the gedolim hold".

But it still makes halachic decisionmaking when it comes to significant
change subject to the skill of a few, and the rest of us are forced to
submit to their understanding.

The other use we've been knocking around, and this was here on-list,
is RYBS's statement (Qinos Mesorat haRav, quoted by RGS here
    Our Torah shebe'al peh is based on Rashi and the Tosafists. If
    Jewish history had not included Maimonides, the Jewish world
    would have missed a great deal. Maimonides enriched our thinking
    and world view tremendously, but the Torah shebeal peh would have
    survived without him. However, without Rashi and the Tosafists,
    there would not have been any mesora, any chain of tradition; we
    could not teach Torah shebe'al peh today. Take as a simple example,
    the Jerusalem Talmud. Many Rishonim, the early Medieval scholars,
    speak about the Jerusalem Talmud, and certain parts were interpreted
    and explained, but without commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafists,
    it is a sealed book...

RYBS identifies mesorah as the ineffible skill to think like a poseiq.
And that we do get from those who explain how the prior generations
developed the law, how the community down the ages conversed about the
law, from living in the culture whose mimeticism is mesorah.

And we saw Sotah's opinion of someone who learns without shimush. From
only a little further down in that sugya (22a):

    Tanna: Hatannaim (those who repeat codified law) are swallowers
    of the world.
    Could you really think [they] are "swallowers of the world"?
    Ravina said: For they are morah halakhah from their repetition
    of the law.
    There is a a beraisa like this: R' Yeushua said, "And are they
    'swallowers of the world? Aren't they settlers of the world,
    as it says 'halikhos olam lo' (Chavaquq 3)?
    Rather, because they are moreh halakhah from their repetition
    of the law.

You can't pasqen from codes, from legal knowledge. It takes knowledge
of how the codes reached their conclusion -- both textual knowledge
obtained from the meforshim, and the skills to pasqen obtained by shimush.

As R Yochanan quotes besheim Rashbi (Berakhos 7b), "gedolah shimushah
shel Torah yoseir meilimudah".

Tir'u baTov!

Micha Berger             When we are no longer able to change a situation
micha at aishdas.org        -- just think of an incurable disease such as
http://www.aishdas.org   inoperable cancer -- we are challenged to change
Fax: (270) 514-1507      ourselves.      - Victor Frankl (MSfM)

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