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Rabbi Rabi reflects on the so-called soft matzah controversy

May 10, 2010 – 4:56 pm411 Comments

In the absense of halacha, what is the nature of rabbinic authority?

By Rabbi Meir Rabi

For background on soft matzah see this and this.

I wonder what constitutes a “controversy” or a “controversial pesak”?
Is it the tumult raised by parties who are not impartial?
By those who may have something to gain or lose?
By those who have a loud voice?
By those have better connections?

Within our framework, a “controversial pesak” is a halachic ruling, a pesak that appears to contravene what is accepted as the norm. Take for example soft matzah. Many were surprised to discover that matzah could be soft. In their minds, if it is not hard it is not matzah. Does that make it a “controversial pesak”?

Many were under the impression that matzah has been hard and thin for many centuries, even millennia. I use the past tense, “were under the impression” because I believe that as a consequence of the soft matzah tumult, many have now discovered things about matzah that they never knew or questioned. They now know that soft matzah is authentic matzah, that hard thin matzah is no more than 250 years old, and that there is no foundation in halachah to suggest that matzah should be hard. On the contrary, every aspect of halachah indicates that matzah is and should be soft.

Does the original mistaken assumption, that matzah is hard, make the introduction of soft matzah controversial? Perhaps it does in a societal sense; yes, the community was surprised (and delighted) by this “innovation”. However, in a halachic framework, there is no way at all that it can be considered controversial. Which halachah was tampered with? Which halachic opinion was taken up that until now had been the “other” opinion or custom?

In this context, using the word “controversial” is just cosmetic, an attempt to dress up soft matzah as something that should be dismissed and rejected. It speaks of a posture that refuses to discuss the halachah, the backbone of our Jewish identity. It points towards those who have no halachic argument to support their opposition and are seeking alternative methods to push an insupportable opinion. It indicates that some people have gotten their nose out of joint.

I will propose an example that is closer to the truth than what we would like to believe. Let us imagine that a question has been asked of a great, highly respected halachic authority. The query proposes a halachically sound idea, an idea that has absolutely no flaw or opposition from the perspective of halachah. The query has no political agenda or consequence.

The answer received is: this is halachically sound but it is not what G-d wants us to do.

How do we understand and live with this response? We may either accept with absolute confidence that this is a great sage’s ruling, it is almost sacred and not to be questioned; or we may feel that this is a ruling that perhaps applies to those who are ardent followers of this rabbi but is in no way binding or even a consideration for others, since it offers absolutely no halachic foundation or persuasion.

A halachic matter that is subject to a dispute amongst the halachic authorities (I refer here to the great poskim of the previous century and further back) which has been resolved in favour of one side which has consequently become the established practice, is generally deemed a binding halachic practice. If the opposite opinion is now promoted by a particular rabbi or beis din; that is a controversial pesak. The suggestion that today Ashkenazim need no longer maintain the custom of not eating kitniyot on Pesach is a controversial ruling.

If one rabbi or one group, follow a path that rejects innovations that diverge from the practices they have followed, and they feel a responsibility to voice their opposition in order to discourage others from adopting this “innovation”, does that make the “innovation” controversial? Certainly not. Again we are discussing a situation that in no way compromises halachic standards. On the contrary, it actually provides a halachically superior product and service, which is more mehudar from many important perspectives.

This is, of course, the situation regarding soft matzah. Plenty of loud insistent statements but absolutely no halachic substance.

Again, I do not oppose those who have a perspective that binds them to a particular political or hashkafic, i.e. philosophical perspective. However, I am concerned when hashkafic, philosophical perspectives are presented as halachic positions.

Not only is this disingenuous, but it substantiates the suspicions that in order to garner more clout, and provide the community what is considered, from a narrow perspective, to be the “correct” philosophical slant, dogmatic and misleading statements may be made.

In these circumstances it is difficult to persuade the public that the people and bodies issuing these statements are driven by pure and honourable intentions. Suspicions that self-serving considerations taint the hearts of those driving these public organisations linger and gain credibility.

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