Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Rabbinic Authority

An old exchange. I remember neither who the questioner was nor the context in which it was asked:

1)People have "world views" which distort, or at least direct their
thought, so that people tend to be either more often lenient, or more
often stringent. As an example, a Rav who was very quick to dismiss
someone from some halachic duty when the slightest possibility of
Pikuach nefesh was involved. One man asked him why he is so lenient
about these laws in the face of pikuach nefesh, and he replied, that
it is not that he is lenient in those, but rather that he is very
strict in the halacha of Pikuach Nefesh. So even the people in the
"center" have general attitudes which make them lean in one direction
or another, even in terms of looking for the truth.

2) What if the two sides are really equal in your estimation of their
reasonableness. In that case would a posek be permitted to side with
the more lenient opinion for the sake of convenience? as an example,
the community of Flatbush wanted to erect an eruv, because there were
many women who wanted to go to shul, but had to push baby carriages.
Also, apparent;y some did push the carriages even though there was no
eruv. The problem was with the big highway which was close to the
city. I don't know what the issues were, but there was a discrepancy
of opinion about whether or not a kosher eruv could be put there. The
va'ad Harabanim apparently decided that it was too close to call, and
that both opinions were equally logical. Had they not had a good
reason for putting up an eruv, they probably would have not bothered
and told people it was asur, because why cause trouble when there is
no need? But since they felt the need for an eruv was very great, they
decided to side with the more lenient view, and built the eruv,. The
story is, that thereafter, Rav Moshe called the head of the Va'ad and
told him that in his opinion, the eruv could not be built there, and
was going to write a teshuva which stated that people should not hold
by it. The people who took him as their rav would not be able to use
the eruv. however, he told him, the va'ad of Flatbush has every right
to make decisions on their own,of course, and therefore, the people
who take the va'ad as their posek are permitted to use the eruv. Thus
he legitimized their right to make that decision. Is it true, then
that if the scale is even, it would be permissible for a posek to
adopt the less stringent view because it will be helpful to do so? The
issue with Pruzbul also seems to illustrate this point.

3) What is the deal with the idea that some rabbis are fit to be
poskim and some are not? Clearly if one is aware that a rabbi is unfit
to make good decisions because he lacks knowledge and understanding,
it would be inappropriate to take him as a posek, but many, probably
most "Orthodox" Jews don't think about this too much. Most rabbis, it
is true, don't take the job of paskening halacha on themselves, but
still, many who do offer piskei halacha are probably not really
qualified to do so. In the case of a Jew who follows such a rabbi
because it has never occurred to him or her that a "Rabbi" might be
unqualified in this task, is the Jew actually faulted? What does
"smicha" mean other than that that man's Rav, the one who gives him
the smicha, has decided that that person IS well-enough equipt to psak
halacha. There may be a great many errors here, and perhaps most
Rabbis are not qualified, but a Jew has a right to rely on the
judgment of the one who has given the smicha that this person is
qualified, so if that person gives poor advice to someone, the Rav
might be at fault, or the one who made him a Rav may be at fault, but
the person who does the act is not at fault for listening to him,
since it never occurred to him that a rabbi should be carefully
checked out before his psak is accepted.

4) Is a person who is very learned and erudite and knowledgeable
allowed to make his own piskei halacha even if he was not given
smicha? He may be much more qualified that MOST rabbis at determining
halacha, but he has not gotten smicha. Is he still allowed to paskin
halacha for himself whenever he is very confident that he knows how to
do so? If not, it would seem a bit ridiculous that he should have to
waste a rabbis time in getting an answer which he already knows, and
then what if he disagrees with the Rav's answer. If I learn all of the
halachot about X, for example, like kashrut, then do i still have to
call a rav every time i accidentally use a meat knife to stir cottage
cheese? What is the status of these home-remedy situations?


These are very good questions, and one try at a response will probably
not suffice, but we must get started somewhere, and then we can take
it all further:

1)This is indeed true, and that is why there is flexibility in
Halacha and even argumentation - in which both sides may be correct
under the operant principle of "Eilu va'Eilu Divrei Elokim Chayim" -
there are various different legitimate Halachic perspectives. The
essential precondition here is that the perspective be a Halachic one
and not one conjured up from the individual Rabbi's personal bias or,
more subtly, his subconscious concern with his own image or standing
in his society.

In addition, some Rabbis have agendas such as social welfare
which are non-Halachic but impinge on their objectivity. Care must
always be taken that Halacha precede and inform the formulation of
one's agenda, and not vice versa.

2) No, convenience in and of itself cannot determine one's
outlook or approach. It is sometimes hard to know what motivated one
in one's activities, but to the extent that one can one must attempt
to overcome one's subjectivity and remain objective.

Yet, it is impossible for Man to achieve complete objectivity,
and there is therefore perforce always human input in the process -
this is good, and the way God intended the process to be - but there
is a distinction between the impact of innate qualities (such as an
empathetic and warm person's approach versus that of a cold and
analytic person) on one's psak and the influence of one's Created
trends and tendencies on the psak.

Thus, in terms of eruv, say, one may be lenient ot please one's
constituents, which is an improper reason, or one may be lenient
because one's system of thinking and analysis leads one to concur with
the thinking and arguments of those sources that would permit an eruv,
which is proper (the same constructs can be inverted to clarify
legitimate and illegitimate approaches to a chumra as well).
Now, within Halacha there are also legitimate indicators of an
Halachic permissibility to seek leniency and even devise loopholes,
i.e., b'di'eved, she'as hadechak and hefsed merubeh, etc. Pruzbul was
such a case. No Halacha was directly abrogated or transgressed, rather
a legal circumvention (kind of like selling your Chametz to a Goy) was
officially sanctioned despite the fact that it was clearly against the
Purpose of Shmitta as intended, because the Nature of Jews no longer
allowed them to function at an optimum level.

In the case of Pruzbul, however, no argument existed as to
whether the principle of giving over your loan to Beis Din to collect
was a legitimate circumvention of the Shmitta annulment. It was just
something regarded as distasteful on a mass scale. Eruv, for instance,
however, often entails the introduction of leniencies that are the
subject of Halachic controversy, so the reliance on the lenient
decisors is immediately more problematic. Nonetheless, guiding
principles do exist, such as the possibility to be lenient in
d'rabbanans and stringent in d'orysas. But what is a d'orysa and what
is a d'rabbanan is often unclear, as is what is a she'as hadechak - is
it really, for example, that important to get to shul?

These are judgment calls. Optimally they too should be made as
impartially as possible based on careful analysis. Yet not all Rabbis
are capable of such thorough analysis (most aren't) and rely on their
intuition in following greater Rabbis opinions either l'chumra or
l'kulla. Here the educated Halachic consumer must be wary, and
question whether the gut feeling of his Rabbi is what he really wants
to follow (see below)

3) The modern Rabbinate is just as free market and capitalistic
as any other profession. There is no truly objective standard of
knowledge and expertise for acquiring semicha, and therefore no
inherent validity in the title Rabbi. Indeed, until relatively
recently Sefardim did not give semicha at all, afraid of its pitfalls
in glorifying the title over actual greatness. They had a point.
Therefore, the possession of semicha by an individual is presently
meaningless, and cannot be construed as to give that individual any
Halachic legitimacy, much less any expertise in psak. A Rabbi should
therefore be viewed now as a consultant. If your consultant gives you
improper advice, you may be penalized to a far lesser extent than if
you willfully transgressed a law, but you had better choose the best
consultant you can: a) because you will be likelier to get more
accurate advice; b) because the greater the expert, the less you are
responsible for the the wrongdoing, since your innocence is greater.

4) Since modern semicha is indeed essentially meaningless, the
converse is true as well. Yes, something or issue on which you have
acquired knowledge or expertise you may legitimately paskin for
yourself (even for others) without consulting a Rabbi.
It all boils down, in psak halacha, to a combination (not
necessarily in the following order) of analytic skill, basic
knowledge, or at least the knowledge of where to look, sincerity and
the quest to determine what is reasonably the Ratzon Hashem in the
case in question, and the self critique of honest objectivity in
approach. Titles and positions are meaningless.
As I said, this probably is not yet sufficient, but I hope it's a
useful beginning, and we can continue to build further.


  1. In the interest of community solidarity (or for any other reason), should a person initially take his halachic questions to the Mora D'Asra of his shul? Or should one try to measure the Mora D'Asra's credentials in the halachic subject area against those of others inside and outside the community, and then decide whom to approach initially?

  2. Wow!

    Tough question.

    To be blunt, there are some rabbis who are chosen for reasons other than thei halachic acumen, on the one hand; and there are congregants who have always had their particular posek who join a congregation for reasons other than the rabbi's halachic expertise (great as it may be) on the other hand.

    I would therefore suggest that in our contemporary milieu, she'eilos that have to do with the tzibbur or a significant portion thereof should be brought to the MdA and go through him, while as to individual she'eilos, a person may go to the posek with whom he or she is most comfortable.

  3. When rabbis offer opinions on social issues based on their assumptions that 'this is the norm in the community,' a sort of puk chazi ma amey de bar, should these opinions be accepted as authoritative? After all, most Orthodox rabbis don't know about surveys or polling, have little experience that informs their opinion of what is truly being done out there. So why listen to them?

  4. Can you give examples of such piskey halacha?

  5. The point of appointing a MdA is to have a person who is granted by the congregation the right and responsibility to gauge and assess the community - it would seem.

  6. Examples?

    Communal standards of kashrus, eruv and the like.

  7. Eino domeh, since there is a specific halachah concerning Kiddush HaChodesh of "Atem - afilu mezidim."

  8. Please check Igros Moshe 4:87