Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cross Currents Rhetoric

I have some problems with R' Yitzchak Adlerstein's final response to R' Marc Angel on the current Israeli-American conversion crisis. Not so much halachically, which I am not qualified to judge, but rhetorically. R' Adlerstein uses several cheap tricks to make his points, tricks used forever by less-than-scrupulous Internet posters. I would hope that a Rav would not need to resort to such underhanded tactics.

It seems that in order to construct a "timely" response (read: immediate), R' Adlerstein took a bunch of shortcuts that undermined his whole argument.

I initially submitted this as a comment to the original post, but it was rejected.

* * *

I do not find R' Adlerstein's argument persuasive. Not on the halachic merits, which I am not qualified to dispute, but on structural and rhetorical grounds.

First, R' Angel plays the "race card", which is all too common: Ashkenazi rabbis look down on, or don't even know about, Sephardi poskim, beyond the sages of the current generation. R' Adlerstein tries to counter with "well, this lone Ashkenazi posek was greater than that lone Sephardi posek", but is that necessarily so? Don't we more often go with "halacha kebatra'i", because the later one knows all about the earlier one AND knows his current situation, so can rule more effectively for the current situation?

Second, R' Adlerstein admits he does not know the literature:

"Rabbi Angel asserts that Rav Uziel was not a daas yachid – an isolated voice – swimming against the current. I do not have immediate access to Prof. Shilo’s article; this handicaps me in this part of the discussion. I will venture a guess, however, that my colleagues and I (and yes, I consulted some important ones!) would have heard of many of them if they were among the most important halachic luminaries."

Loosely: I don't know the literature, I can't be bothered to look up your references, but based on the gut feelings of me & my friends, your references don't count, so your guy remains a daas yachid.

Which is a pretty weak argument for the superiority of one's position.

R' Adlerstein further dismisses R' Angel's position (and the position of other supporters of R' Uziel) as a possible conspiracy theory, hence weak:

"the feeling that there was some sort of conspiracy abrew, in which Rav Uziel was unfairly targeted, or moved aside in favor of more politically correct poskim like the Beis Yitzchok and R Chaim Ozer, who somehow ingratiated themselves with that famous cabal, the Elders of Bnei Brak."

I don't think that needs further comment.

Finally, R' Adlerstein pulls a trick common with some unscrupulous Internet posters: it's not me, it's my higher-authority sources. No longer is the Mishpetei Uziel arguing with his near-contemporary R' Shmelkes, he's arguing with Rishonim such as the Meiri and the Nimukei Yosef.

Surely R' Uziel's rishonim (who writes a teshuva today without invoking Rishonim?) should stand up against R' Shmelkes' rishonim. It's a disingenuous argument - you're not arguing against X's analysis, you're arguing against X's sources, who are by definition greater authorities. But of course, he's not arguing against Rishonim without help from his own Rishonim. "My guy's better because he uses rishonim" is pretty disingenuous - everybody uses Rishonim to bolster their positions, and as grist for analysis.

Full disclosure: I know the Rabbis Angel, pere et fils; have davened in their shul many times, but I don't know R' Adlerstein except through the Internet and his occasional articles.

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