Rabbi Herschel Shachter
Rabbi Hershel Schachter

Experimental Judaism: Playing with Fire, Part II

Parshas Breishis describes G-d's originality and creativity which were manifest in His creation of the universe. The Torah tells us that man was created b'tzelem Elokim (Breishis 1:27), and man's desire to be original and creative is a positive expression of this tzelem Elokim. In fact, the Torah instructs us to "go in the ways of G-d" (Devarim 28:9), i.e. to preserve this tzelem Elokim which we all possess (also see On the Matter of Masorah on this topic). Similarly, just as G-d is unique (see Chagigah 3a), so too each person should be unique as an expression of his tzelem Elokim (see Sefer Nefesh Harav, p. 60).

In shiras Devorah we read (Shoftim 5:8) that because the Jews chose to worship other gods, they were punished and war broke out in the cities of Eretz Yisroel. The Jews were not at all prepared for war and had neither any weapons nor shields. The midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 345) offers an additional level of interpretation of that entire passuk: G-d appreciates chidushei Torah and therefore talmedei chachomim engage in "milchamta shel Torah" to come up with correct chiddushim in order to, k'vayachol, please Him. The midrashim, however, speak only of original ideas of a talmid vasik (a fully qualified scholar) as pleasing Hashem (see Sefer Ginas Egoz, p. 5 - 7).

In the introduction to the Ketzos Hachoshen (a classic commentary on Choshen Mishpat) the author points out that often one might come up with an original Torah insight or idea (i.e. a chiddush) which is not correct, and such a chiddush is a distortion of the Torah and of Hashem (since the entire Torah is a veiled description of Hashem). One of the Rambam's thirteen principles of faith is that the laws of the Torah are immutable. As such, while chiddush (a new insight which deepens our understanding of the Torah) is highly desirable, the distortion inherent in a shinui (an incorrect "insight" or idea) is a violation of this principle of our faith. Rav Soloveitchik has pointed out (see note 98 in "Halachic Mind") that there is a fine line between chiddush and shinui, and one must be quite a Torah scholar to discern the difference.

The Chasam Sofer states (in his teshuvos, Orach Chaim #15b) that even to judge whether a new minhag, which is not really a matter of halacha, is "in the spirit of the law" one must be a highly qualified talmid chacham (see my essay, "Tze'i Lach B'ikvei haTzon" in sefer B'ikvei haTzon, page 21, where this is discussed at length).

In Breishis we read about the korbanos brought by Kayin and Hevel. From the simple reading of the pesukim (4:3-5) it appears that Kayin was the original thinker who came up with the idea of offering a korban to Hashem. However, Kayin didn't properly work out all the details of his idea; Kayin thought that since Hashem doesn't really need the korban, and the whole idea of the offering is merely a symbolic act, it would be bal tashchis to bring choice fruits or vegetable, so he offered produce of inferior quality. Hevel, on the other hand, was not the original thinker in this case, and merely copied the good idea of Kayin (see Kli Yakar), but he improved upon it by bringing from the choicest sheep. The Torah tells us that Hevel's korban was accepted while Kayin's was not. The end of the story is very bitter, and its moral is that to be "oisgehalten" (correct and proper) is more important than to be original.

Creativity and originality are important expressions of one's tzelem Elokim when one is a talmid vasik and the chiddush is a chiddush amiti (a correct insight or idea). But if the chiddush is not "oisgehalten", then it's not actually a chiddush but rather a shinui which is not acceptable.

Our generation is not unique in that talmidim shelo shimshu kol tzorchom have come up with original ideas, both in the area of halacha as well as the area of minhag, which are simply not "oisgehalten". The Rema (Choshen Mishpat 25) recommends that whenever a talmid chacham comes up with an original chiddush he should check its validity with other Torah scholars before implementing it. Unfortunately, a talmid who is not a talmid vasik will be lacking the degree of humility needed to realize that there are other contemporary Torah scholars who are greater than him. Hashem recorded in the parsha (see Breishis 1:26 with Rashi) that He consulted with the angels before creating man to teach us that one should always consult with others when it comes to a chiddush even if the others are clearly less intelligent and less learned.

All these lessons from parshas Breishis (tzelem Elokim, creativity, originality, oisgehalten, consulting others) are as important in our generation as ever before.

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