"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to know if we are headed for the slope

FNQ – thought for the week

From the time prophecy was no longer available Jewish leaders have been struggling to determine which innovations would lead to greater Torah commitment and which innovations would weaken our bond to G-d and His law. It is my opinion that even the greatest of our Rabbinic sages were forced to use a cost benefit analysis before instituting a change in the absence of direct Divine guidance. Without prophecy no one can see the future and predict the impact that a new idea will have. In this post I would like to share some thoughts of mine concerning slippery slopes and how they can be avoided.

To begin the discussion we need to refer back to our Wikipedia definition. A slippery slope is: “A chain of events that, once initiated, cannot be halted; especially one in which the final outcome is undesirable or precarious.” In Judaism it is fairly simple to identify which outcomes are considered undesirable. Any innovation which will lead to transgression of halacha is unacceptable. I think most of the time when Jewish leaders refer to an idea as being a slippery slope what they mean is that although the idea itself accords with halacha it will eventually lead to another idea that will violate halacha (the chain could be a little longer). It is important to note that if the innovation itself veers from Jewish law that isn't a slippery slope that is already sliding to the bottom.

Ideally we could test innovations and give them a trial period before accepting them completely. Perhaps in certain circumstances this is possible and should even be done. However, there are situations where the trial itself may be the first step down the slope. In these cases the fear is that a even after repealing an innovation its impact on the Jewish people may be irreversible. I believe this issue is especially true today when it is virtually impossible to keep an idea contained. A new innovation becomes widely known immediately and to fully reverse it is hopeless. This is perhaps one of the reasons why fear of change is especially prevalent in today's global shtetel.

I thought of a few criteria which may be factors in determining whether an idea is headed for a slippery slope.

  1. Gradual growth - An innovation must be a natural outgrowth of a communal need. It is critical that an innovation is not perceived as a revolution or rebellion against the establishment. Revolutions break down walls too quickly and can leave our traditions vulnerable and defenseless. New ideas should not be instituted based on a desire to reform; they must be based on a clear and present need that exists in the community. Even when there is a clear need the approach taken to deal with it should be gradual change and not radical reform. When ideas are perceived as revolutionary, in my mind, this is a strong indicator that those who promulgate them are headed towards the slope.

  2. Support of Torah Scholars - Innovations must be discussed and conferred upon by the Torah scholars of the community where change is sought. As I said before it is not within human capacity to know the impact of change. That being stated, those who have the greatest wisdom and degree of Divine assistance in matters of the community are Torah scholars. While Torah scholars may not always be at the forefront of activism they remain the eyes of the Jewish people. It is only with their vision and support can a given innovation even be considered.

  3. Intent – On the one hand I think this criteria is the most important factor in predicting whether an idea is headed for the slope. On the other hand it is without a doubt the most difficult to assess. Only G-d can read minds and know one's true intentions. Furthermore, I believe it is very rare that those who dedicate their lives to serving the Jewish people would intentionally seek to lead us towards religious deterioration. One important indication is the adherence to halacha that the innovators display in the privacy of their own life. One's commitment to halacha is perhaps the most basic indicator of one's fear of Heaven; and one's fear of heaven is the most basic indicator of the motivation behind the innovation.
One final note. The Talmud says that efforts alone will not lead to success. It is imperative that any human endeavor be done in conjunction with sincere prayer for Divine assistance. With every innovation we must pray that G-d show us the way towards religious progress and help us avoid decisions that will lead the Jewish people onto the slippery slope towards the desecration of G-d's Name. As always, I look forward to hearing comments that agree or argue on my personal ideas.

What do you think?

Binyamin – always looking for a good question

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