In the first two parts of this essay, we have seen that no objectivity is possible in Halacha. This enables us to understand not only why there are many opposing opinions in the Talmud, such as those of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, but also that the weltanschauung (world view) and ideologies of the halachic authorities play an enormous role in the way they decide halachic issues. In the case of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, we see how both schools differ on whether Halacha should reflect the realistic, here-and-now situation of man’s religious status quo, or whether man’s halachic life style should be an expression of where he would like to be one day (1). Is it mercy that should drive Halacha, or should it be uncompromising truth, however harsh, that stands at its foundation (2)? Is it better to have been born, or would it be better not to have been born so as not to transgress the Divine commandments (3)?
Similar issues are often the motives behind other major differences of opinion.
In modern times, Zionist halachic authorities will often rule on matters related to Israel and its security issues differently from those who do not share their views. Whether to give up land for the sake of peace with the Arab neighbors will depend to a great extent on whether or not one sees in the State of Israel the beginning of the messianic redemption and whether there is any intrinsic religious meaning to the State. The answer to the extremely sensitive question of whether yeshiva students should serve in the Israeli army will depend on whether one believes that learning Torah is at least as crucial (if not more) to the survival of Israel as serving in the army. Another consideration would be the desire to ensure that young religious men not become spiritually tainted by the outside secular world. Is it better to isolate religious communities in protected neighborhoods and keep secular influences out, protecting one’s children from them? Or, perhaps one should ensure that religious Jews live in secular surroundings so that they can understand what the other world has to offer and incorporate its many contributions in religious teachings, while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to influence one’s secular neighbors to become more religiously inclined. Should one ban the Internet and not allow it in one’s home because of the spiritual damage it may cause? Or, should one teach one’s children how to deal with Internet in a dignified way and trust them to do so? Such issues cannot be dealt with in an isolated, mechanical and solely halachic way. They are often rooted in the way people perceive this world and are prepared to face its challenges, and may also depend on whether people are more optimistic, or less so, in their outlook on life. Halachic attitudes towards the non-Jewish world will frequently be determined by whether or not one lives in surroundings that are anti-Semitic, or how one feels about non-Jews in general.
It is often clear that halachic authorities will consult their consciences and rely on their intuition, thereby finding halachic arguments to support what their moral sense has already established, instead of allowing their halachic knowledge to decide on these matters without any other motives (4).
Here, psychology, philosophy and even human emotions enter the domain of halachic decision making. It is therefore a major mistake to believe that Halacha works like mathematics in which none of these have any real influence (5).
Besides the classical interpretation of Torah lo bashamayim hi (the Torah is no longer in Heaven), by which God leaves the final decision to a majority vote (6), this phrase also means that no man can ever be objective, and every rabbi is therefore authorized to decide Halacha as he sees fit, as long as he is able to find halachic sources to support his opinion, even if they may not prove his point of view. Often these decisions are a posteriori, from effect to cause instead of the other way around.
It is remarkable that God leaves these decisions to man. In the wonderful yet astonishing story in the Talmud, God tries to interfere in the halachic process when He states that He agrees with one of the Sages. God is then rebuked by the majority of Sages because He had already established Himself as persona non grata when He declared in His Torah that halachic matters are to be decided by majority vote of the Sages and definitely not by God (7).
Clearly, the Talmud alludes to the fact that God Himself cannot know the answer; answers are the product of the human mind. God has set up the world in a way that makes Him dependent on man and He must await man’s solution. Only subjective human beings can have answers to halachic questions. This paradoxical situation, in which God is no longer omnipotent, but limited because He is too great and powerful, is one of the most daring ideas on which Halacha is founded. Once again, it is absurdity that enters the picture. How, after all, is God not able to answer questions? This time it is not just that Halacha has to deal with absurdity; it is the halachic process itself that reflects incomprehensible dimensions!
(1) See for example: Shabbat 21b, and Michtav Me-Eliyahu by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Vol. 2, pp 120-122.
(2) Ketubot 16b.
(3) Eruvin 13b.
(4) See for example: Rabbi Mordechai Yaakov Breish, Chelkat Yaakov (1959), Vol. 2, Responsum 22, concerning whether one is allowed to perform surgery on the prostate.
(5) Interestingly, there are mathematicians today, such as Reuben Hersh, who argue that even mathematics is not purely objective and is “influenced by politics and culture.” See “The Subjective Underbelly Of Hardheaded Math,” by Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, Dec. 20, 1997.
(6) Baba Metzia 59b.