Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Techelet Controversy, or: I Can't Understand Why People Won't Wear Techelet

During my shiur on Parshat Shelach, I mentioned the mitzvah of Techelet, which, from the text of the Torah represents an integral part of fulfilling the commandment of tzitzit. Today, as many people are aware, there's a great debate about the identity of the organism that produces the enzyme from which we can manufacture authentic Techelet. The fine folks at the Techelet Institute believe that they have identified the source as a Murex snail, and now produce tzitzit strings from that snail. Others question whether that snail is the correct organism, and reject the notion of wearing blue strings today.
Full disclosure: I wear Techelet on my tallit. I do this for a simple reason. I have no idea whether the Techelet people are correct or not. When I read (and listen to) their arguments, they sound convincing. And then, when I read the opposing view, it sounds convincing. I'm not equipped to decide who's right. But, as someone in the Eim Habanim Semeichah shiur recently asked me, there's a much simpler way to look at things.
He wondered: If I took my regular white tzitzit strings, and colored them with a blue magic marker, would they still be kosher? The answer is yes, without a doubt. That's a clearly acknowledged point in the halachic literature. The Mishnah Berurah writes that it's a hiddur - a beautification of the mitzvah - to have either white strings, or to have strings that match the color of the garment. Clearly, colored strings are not problematic. This being the case, if there's no halachic downside, I simply fail to understand why someone would resist using strings that might be a fulfillment of a Torah commandment. People wear wool tzitzit in the summertime, sweating through the heat because according to a major opinion in the Rishonim, only wool garments fulfill the Torah obligation to have tzitzit. But many, if not most of those very same people refuse to wear a blue string on their tzitzit. Why? I simply have no idea.
I recently listened to a shiur given by Rav Reisman on Techelet, which was powerful, if not convincing. He spent an hour generally explaining the problematic aspects of identifying the Murex as the original chilazon. Personally, I found many of his arguments less than compelling. But his approach and his level of respect for the people who advocate Techelet was refreshing and inspiring. He's ninety-nine (one hundred?) percent sure that the Murex isn't the chilazon. I'm not so sure. I then listened to a rather passionate (and convincing) response from Rav Aryeh Lebowitz. It's also worthwhile to read the response from Dr. Sternman as well. (Both links also appear in the notes to Rav Reisman's shiur on YUTorah.)
As I listened to Rav Reisman's shiur, his arguments raised another issue about psak halachah in my mind. I'll admit it - I've got skin in the game. I wear Techelet, so I want the Murex to be the chilazon. So, as I listened to his arguments, I immediately began to question his arguments, poke holes in his logic, and find fault where I could. But he also, even before analyzing the issue, has a predilection towards the position that the Murex is not the chilazon. Can we really imagine Rav Reisman, a leading figure in the American Chareidi world, rejecting the accepted Daas Torah and deciding on his own that he's going to wear techelet? I don't know him personally, but I doubt it. And if he did, he'd pay a heavy price for doing so. So that fact, in and of itself, clouds his ability to make an absolutely objective analysis of the facts.
This is not a criticism of Rav Reisman personally. It's also not an anti-chareidi thing. (Rav Aviner also came out against wearing Techelet.) When we make decisions about issues, we all have skin in the game. We bring a set of values and attitudes that color our perception of the facts. I want the Techelet to be real, so I find one set of arguments convincing. Rav Reisman has a strong sense of fealty to Gedolim who rejected the Murex, so his predilection is to see the other side. It's not a good or bad thing. It's just there, and I think it's important to point out that this phenomenon exists everywhere. (The reminds me of a recent clip that I saw from the Daily Show about the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices who couldn't agree about whether one member of the Supreme Court put a choke hold on another fellow justice.)
Returning to Techelet, I still have yet to hear a satisfying answer to my underlying question: At the end of the day, there's everything to gain and nothing to lose. If you wear Techelet and when Moshiach finally arrives he tells us that the Murex is the correct and proper source for Techelet, then you've fulfilled a positive Torah commandment. If it ends up not being the real thing, then you've lost nothing. I simply don't understand why Jews - and many of them - who care deeply about meticulous Mitzvah observance, ignore this argument. And I have yet to hear a convincing response that has moved me in the least.
I'll do it when the Gedolim do it? I just don't get it.