Becoming Mekori – Stones in the Path – Part I: The Illiterate Law Student

One of the many problems that often arises among those who decide to join the Mekori movement, is that of Jewish illiteracy. People who can neither read nor understand Hebrew – who are many times unable to even recognize words without them being transliterated into English characters – decide to brazenly throw off all rabbinic guidance, and become determined instead to pursue a path where they interpret Jewish law as they see fit. Armed with Artscroll translations of the Gemara, the Touger English edition of the Mishneh Torah, and a Stone Chumash they decide to take on the entire world of orthodox Judaism.

Now, to be sure – as I explained in my initial post on mekoriut – the majority of people who join the movement do so because of personal trauma they have suffered while in the Haredi or Hasidic community. Thus, many of those who make this poor decision are doing so out of a feeling of desperation and an understandably diminished trust in the rabbinic establishment. But many of them struggle with a different problem: arrogance coupled with a refusal to rely on or take direction from anyone. Hazal tell us that one who is arrogant cannot learn Torah. They also tell us that an ignorant person cannot be properly religious – making this dreadful combination an almost certain recipe for failure. The reality is, however, that many people are simply afraid to admit how little they can actually read/interact with the sources, if at all.

Now, please understand that in this post I am attempting to point out a commonly observed pitfall with being/becoming Mekori. I truly do have compassion for such individuals, but I feel it is necessary to honestly and openly address the issue.

Most often, those who choose to act this way simply have a basic misunderstanding of what being Mekori means. Mekoriut is not akin to Karaism. Being Mekori is not opting for a “do-it-yourself” Judaism where the individual becomes the rabbinic authority. It is a submission to HaShem, His Torah, and to those whom possessed Biblical halakhic authority (cf. Devarim 17:11) – Hazal. In fact, the Mekori movement exists precisely because we do not believe that any one individual can simply change or alter the law at will – and this certainly includes those who are religiously illiterate.

Many of these types of individuals learn just enough to be dangerous. I once knew someone who learned what a qal wa-homer argument was and proceeded to just simply apply it independently across Jewish law in accordance with what made sense to his limited understanding. By misapplying this singular piece of halakhic reasoning, he proceeding to redefine many fundamental elements of halakhah and committed serious violations of Shabbath, etc. Ultimately, this exercise ended in failure and was a disaster for his family. His situation, however, was not due to the Mekori movement. It was due directly to his inability to admit his own level of learning coupled with a refusal to fulfill the directive: aseh lekha rav va-histalek min ha-safek – appoint for yourself a rav and remove yourself from doubt” (Avot 1:16).

Respecting and accepting competent rabbinic guidance is not only correct halakhically, but is smart as well. If a person truly desires to carry out the will of HaShem, then he or she will seek out a qualified person to help them do so. But if a person is really just seeking to do his or her own will, then any answer – even a bad one – will be acceptable to them as long as it allows the person to do what they desire without inhibition. This is something that every religious Jew must guard against.

Lastly, this kind of attitude defies the very nature of education. In order for someone to enter a profession or be considered capable of something, they must first submit themselves to proper education and training. A person cannot become a doctor without medical school, and certainly not if he has not familiarized himself with anatomy and the functions of the body’s various systems. The pursuit of halakhic knowledge is no different. Learning Hebrew is a must, as is familiarity with basic halakhic principles, and the ability to independently access the general breadth of halakhic texts – all the while conferring with and relying on a competent rabbinic expert or group of experts. There is simply no other way to succeed.

But doing this takes work. There are no shortcuts to the goal. And if someone is beginning with little prior knowledge, then he must humble himself and learn from those more experienced than him. As Hazal teach us “Im ein derekh eretz ein torah.”

In conclusion, I would like to share a personal story. One of my rabbinic guides is Rav Ratzon Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono, Israel and head of Makhon Mosheh (www.net-sah.org). He is the chief student and practical successor of the late Mori Yusef Qafih z”l. When I lived in Israel, I had the pleasure of meeting privately with him on several occasions at his office in Kiryat Ono, during which times I was granted the privilege of asking his personal advice on several matters related to my family and Jewish life in general.

On one occasion, I arranged a meeting with him about registering my children in a particular school, among other things. On the application form I was asked to list our family’s “rav ha-posek” and, having not yet formally asked Rav Arussi if he could function that way for our family, I decided to ask him in person out of respect. The conversation began as follows:

Rav Arussi: How can I help you?

Me: I listed the rabbi’s name on the enrollment form for our children as our “rav ha-posek” and I would like to know if it is possible to be the rabbi’s student in a formal sense.

Rav Arussi: My student? You and I are the same. We are both students of the Rambam. But if you need something, I am here for you.

The conversation continued in a similar vein, but this was the main point that I wanted to share.

Out of his great humility, Rav Arussi (may he live and be well) expressed to me that both him and I are ultimately in the same position – we are both students of halakhah. The difference between us consists of education and experience, both of which he made fully available to me as a fellow Jew in search of the service of the Creator. No hasidic “deveikus,” no viewing himself as a “gadol,” and no conditions of obedience or allegiance to him. Only the open humility and willingness to share with me the Torah that he had learned. It was so beautiful, I was stunned.

If only more rabbinic personalities viewed themselves with such humility! Then perhaps people would feel more comfortable submitting themselves to their learning and guidance! I say this with a heavy heart.

I was told something similar by another one of my friends and rabbinic guides, Rabbi David Bar Hayim of Machon Shilo at the outset of our relationship. Having had this very inspiring and humble conversation with Rav Arussi, I decided to see what his response would be – and he did not disappoint. His response to me was:

“Learning Torah is not a fan club or a popularity contest. Whether or not you, or anyone else, seeks halakhic guidance from me is completely up to them. After all, it says ‘appoint for yourself a rav.’ From my perspective, if I can use my learning to help a fellow Jew, then it is my duty before HaShem to do so.”

Again, such humility! I do not take it as a coincidence that both Rav Bar Hayim and Rav Arussi are students and musmakhim of Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, who himself was known for being exceedingly humble and unimposing.

I will write more about the necessary elements of navigating life in mekoriut, but for now I would like to conclude by re-emphasizing that the movement should not promote a self-made, ruggedly-individualistic Judaism. Mekoriut is the pursuit of halakhic truths from Hazal and submitting one’s life to what that search yields. May HaShem help all of us to submit to His Torah.

בֹּאוּ, נִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנִכְרָעָה נִבְרְכָה, לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה עֹשֵׂנוּ.

“Come, let us prostrate and bow, let us kneel before HaShem, our Maker.” (Tehillim 95:6)

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