The Death and Birth of the Halachic Expert
Filling the position of Posek HaDor, the leading halachic arbiter of the Jewish people, has become an almost hopeless undertaking in our complicated and troubled times. We are told that the Posek HaDor must be someone whose halachic knowledge is greater than anyone else’s; someone who is so imbued with Torah knowledge, and has acquired Torah values and refined his character to such a degree that he represents and is qualified to offer Da’as Torah (an authentic and authoritative Jewish view on all matters), which is close to prophecy thereby making him beyond reproach. (1) He has to decide on issues of life and death, literally and figuratively. He must make judgments about political matters – especially in and concerning the Land of Israel – which are so complicated that they are nearly beyond anyone’s grasp. People insist that this person must have wisdom that surpasses anything ordinary mortals could ever dream of. He is asked to singlehandedly decide on matters that will affect hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews and, by extension, millions of secular Jews.
This is most dangerous.
The establishment of the State of Israel cast all Jews around the globe into a new world order and created a need for pioneering religious leadership and a completely new kind of halachic arbiter. Social and economic conditions as well as ideologies have changed radically, creating major upheavals in Jewish life. As a result, unprecedented possibilities have arisen that need to be translated into reality. The question is whether the Posek HaDor will grasp these opportunities and turn them into major victories so as to inspire his people. Developments in the rabbinical world clearly show that we no longer have such extraordinary people. Most of the time, halachic authorities have withdrawn, living in denial and continuing to believe that the world has not evolved and nothing of substance has happened that requires an altogether new approach.
Today, halachic authorities need to lead religious Jewry through a new world order. They must realize that their views will affect Jews as well as gentiles, for their voice will be heard far beyond the Jewish community, transmitted via the Internet; and their observations may cause ridicule and even anti-Semitism if they misrepresent Judaism and Jewish law. Rather unfortunately, this has happened on more than a few occasions.
The posek has to understand that he may be called upon to give guidance to an often extremely secular and troubled world that is in great need of hearing the words of a Jewish sage. His decisions must reflect the imperative that we Jews are to be a light unto the nations—a light that must shine everywhere. It is no longer possible to focus on the often narrow world of Orthodoxy and look down on or ignore the secular and gentile world.
Most Jews today are no longer observant; nor are they even inspired by Judaism. To them, it has become irrelevant and outdated. The reasons for this tragedy are many, but no doubt a major cause is the failure to convey halacha as something exciting and ennobling, like the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Only when a Jew is taught why halacha offers him the musical notes with which he can play his soul’s sonata will he be able to hear its magnificent music.
Just as great scientists are fascinated when they investigate the properties of DNA, or the habits of a tiny insect under a microscope, so should even a secular Jew be deeply moved when he encounters the colors and fine subtleties of the world of halacha. But does the posek realize this, and does he know how to convey that message when he deals with halachic inquiries?
Many religious Jews are nearsighted and in dire need of a wider vision. Is making sure that a chicken is kosher all that there is to kashrut? Or, are the laws of kashrut just one element of a grand Weltanschauung that defines the mission of the People of Israel; a mission whose importance surpasses by far the single question of a chicken’s kashrut? Such inquiries are but one small component of a larger question concerning the plague of consumerism and mankind’s obsessive pursuit of ever-increasing comfort. Should the posek who is asked about the kashrut of someone’s tefillin not ask that person: And what about the kashrut of your much-too-expensive and ostentatious car? After all, the posek needs, foremost, to be an educator. Hard-line narrow rulings will not create the future for a deeply spiritual Judaism.
The first requirement of a posek is to live in radical amazement and see God’s fingers in every dimension of human existence, including the Torah, Talmud, science, technology, and above all the constant changing of history, which may well mean that God demands different decisions from those of the past. Today’s halachic living is severely impeded by observance having become mere habit. As Avraham Joshua Heschel put it so beautifully:
Indeed, the essence of observance has, at times, become encrusted with so many customs and conventions that the jewel was lost in the setting. Outward compliance with externalities of the law took the place of the engagement of the whole person to the living God. (2)
Over the years, this problem has become exacerbated because everything in Judaism has been turned into a halachic issue.
The future posek must reverse this crisis. He can do so only if he is touched by something much larger than himself. It is entirely impossible to pasken (render a halachic ruling) when his own soul is cold and all he does is go by the book. He must live the Divine, and the Divine must emerge from his decisions. To paraphrase Heschel: The posek must feel more than he understands in order to understand more than he grasps. He must touch Heaven while standing with both his feet on the ground, similar to what takes place when one hears the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven and suddenly feels that he is taken on a journey to unknown landscapes. I would even suggest that some poskim actually listen to this kind of heavenly music while contemplating halachic problems presented to them. It will broaden their minds and hearts, and they will see a world emerging that opens halachic possibilities they never contemplated before. They will sense God’s presence because music sets the soul free and evokes in us wonder about who we are and what we live for. As Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth once wrote, “Whether the angels play only Bach in praising God, I am not quite sure; I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart.” (3)
It is the posek’s task to ensure that Judaism is not identified only with legalism. There is an entire religious world beyond halacha – one of aggadah, philosophy, deep emotional experiences, devotion and often un-finalized beliefs. Shouldn’t these be part of the process of deciding how halacha is to be applied? The task of halacha has always been to ensure that Judaism does not evaporate into a utopian reverie, a superficial spiritualism. But the facts on the ground suggest something entirely different. Judaism has developed in a way that has destroyed the delicate balance between law and spirit, and it has turned into a type of sacred behaviorism. Halacha is supposed to be the practical upshot of even un-finalized beliefs. Judaism was never supposed to become a religion that is paralyzed in its awe of rigid tradition. It is a fluid liquid that must be transformed into a solid substance so as to enable the Jew to act. It must chill the heated steel of exalted ideas and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to cool off entirely.
Halacha is the midwife that assists in the birth of not only answers but also profound spiritual questions created by that very halacha. As such, we must ensure that the Posek HaDor does not turn into someone who gives automatic answers on the spot. Instead, he should walk the person through a landscape in which these questions are properly discussed.
It is high time that a group of women, particularly the posek’s wife, be deeply involved in certain halachic decisions when they touch on emotions and social conditions that they may understand better than the posek/husband. Why do we almost never hear about the wife of the Posek HaDor, her wisdom, and especially the sacrifice entailed in being married to such a great man who is needed by so many and often has little time for his own family? (4)
Today’s Posek HaDor is often absolutely sure of the truth of his religion but not informed or aware of the many challenges today’s world presents to religious faith and Judaism. How could such a person be able to understand the many issues of people who live in doubt? The first requirement is to sincerely appreciate the plight and pain of the confused teenager; the Jewish Ethiopian; the bereaved parent; the struggling religious homosexual; the child of a mixed marriage with only a Jewish father; even the Christian or Buddhist who has an affinity for Judaism and asks for guidance.
Is there anyone in this world who has all the qualities necessary to singlehandedly rule on these matters? It is entirely unfair and extremely dangerous to ask one person, however pious and wise, to adequately respond to all these issues. It requires teamwork with fellow rabbis and teachers, who may not be as learned in halacha but are much more familiar with many of the problems of which the Posek HaDor may not be aware. The Posek HaDor should be advised by a team of highly experienced professionals – psychologists, social workers, scientists and even poets and musicians – before giving a ruling, so as to prevent major pitfalls. Halacha should be decided by consensus instead of by one person, even if he is the greatest. Centralized authority has become a dangerous matter. It may be wise to allow people, with some guidance, to decide on their own after having heard all the halachic views and spiritual dimensions of their question.
Poskim should encourage new Torah ideas and shun the denunciation of those books that try to bring together religion and science in harmony. Instead of banning them, as the Vatican used to do in former times, they should encourage these works. In the last few years, powerful rabbis have tried to prevent books from being published, or have condemned them, because they did not agree with their content claiming them to contain heresy. In their ignorance, they tried to ban them and their authors, causing a terrible chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) after secular newspapers were informed of these condemnations and ridiculed them, since they indicated a total lack of scientific knowledge on the part of those who signed and endorsed them. Some of these great rabbis should stop the banning and instead learn to offer scientific and philosophical solutions to possible conflicts between Torah, science and philosophy. But to do so, they need to acquire enough knowledge! What is the point of labeling certain ideas as heresy when one does not have the knowledge to understand the issues involved? In any case, bans and inquisitions have no place in Judaism.
The Posek HaDor must have shoulders broad enough to carry and appreciate different worldviews, including Zionist, non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox. And he must ensure that all these denominations feel his impartiality and his allowance of space for their varied ideologies. Perhaps he could even have an open ear for Reform and Conservative Judaism and realize that many of their adherents are serious about their religion, even though he would not agree with these movements. And when he disagrees, he should be sophisticated enough to explain why he indeed differs.
A true posek should visit women’s shelters, speak personally with abused women and children, and perhaps deny himself food and drink so that he feels the real horror of poverty and rejection. Unless he is a very sensitive soul, he should perhaps get himself hospitalized and spend time observing and even experiencing the lives of sick people. They are in the hands of doctors and nurses who do not always deal with their patients in an adequately compassionate manner, whether due to lack of time, insensitivity, or some other reason. He should also carefully listen to the complaints, problems and frustrations of the medical staff.
Before dealing with the question of agunot and the refusal of husbands to grant their wives a get (writ of divorce), it would perhaps be a good idea for the posek to leave his wife for a period of time (with her consent, of course) and live in total loneliness, so as to understand what it means to live in utter silence and have no life partner.
Above all, it is the Posek HaDor’s responsibility to narrow the serious gap between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society and to come up with creative halachic solutions that will boggle the minds of all branches of Jewry.
Poskim must be people who will propose unprecedented solutions for the status of the tens of thousands of non-Jews with Jewish roots living in Israel. They must ensure that courses on Judaism are so attractive that halacha becomes irresistible. They should instruct their students to welcome these people with open arms, knowing quite well that otherwise we will be confronted with a huge problem of intermarriage in Israel, which threatens the very existence of the Jewish state.
The posek’s farsighted and long-term view must ensure that major problems, such as the exemption of yeshiva students from army service, will be resolved once and for all.
For nearly 2,000 years, Jewish Law has been developing into a “waiting mode” in which it has become the great “Preserver of the Precepts.” It has been protective and defensive, and mainly committed to conformity, in order to ensure the survival of Judaism and the Jews who were surrounded by a non-Jewish, mostly hostile society. It became a “galut halacha”— an exilic code — in which the Torah sometimes became too stultified. It may have worked in the Diaspora, but it can no longer offer sufficient guidance in today’s world and in Israel. (5)
The State of Israel is the great catalyst for this new situation, which we have not experienced during the past two thousand years. Consequently, we are in dire need of “prophetic halacha,” in which not only the rules of halacha are applied but also the perspectives of our prophets who spoke of burning social and ethical issues. This should be combined with melodious spiritual sounds that introduce new points of view on genuine and deep religiosity.
Isn’t it time to leave the final codification of Jewish law behind us; to unfreeze halacha and begin reading between the lines of the Talmud to recapture halacha’s authentic nature?
To be an arbiter of Jewish law is to be the conductor of an orchestra. It is not coercion but persuasion that makes it possible for the other to hear the beauty of the music and to accept a halachic decision, just as one would willingly listen to the interpretation of a conductor—because one is deeply inspired.
To be a posek means to be a person of unprecedented courage; one who is willing to initiate a spiritual storm that will shake up the entire Jewish community. A storm that will free conventional and codified halacha from the sandbank in which it has been stuck. In a revolutionary shift, poskim should lead the ship of Torah, in full sail, right into the heart of the Jewish nation, creating such a shock that it will take days, weeks, or even months before it is able to get back on its feet. With knives between their teeth, like the prophets of biblical days, these great halachic arbiters, of impeccable and uncompromising conduct, should create a religious uproar that will scare the moral wits out of both secular and religious Jews and weigh heavily on their souls.
Poskim should not be “honored,” “valued,” or “well-respected,” as they are now. As men of truth, they should be both feared and deeply loved. Jews of all backgrounds should be shaking in their shoes at the thought of meeting them, while simultaneously being incapable of staying away from their towering, fascinating, and above all, warm personalities.
Halachic decision-making is a great art. The posek should never forget that he is the soil in which the halacha is to grow, while the Torah is the seed and God is the sun. (6)
We are in need of decentralized rabbinical authority in which many more rabbis will have a personal relationship with their flock and consequently be able to respond to the often difficult and very personal questions their followers are asking. There are no longer such unusual great rabbis who know the art of reading people’s minds and hearts without having a personal relationship with them. This was exactly the point that Yitro made when he told his son-in-law Moshe Rabeinu to appoint princes “as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens.” (7) Only the major cases would be brought to a giant authority like Moshe. But alas, they no longer exist.
We should be very thankful that we witness the disintegration of rabbinical authority in our days. Nothing could be worse for Judaism and the Jewish people than having rabbis who are admired as great spiritual halachic leaders when for the most part they are not. We will witness, slowly but surely, the rise of a completely new rabbinical world, which will give us more reason to be proud Jews and live a spiritual halachic life. Yes, it will take time; but it will surely come.
Perhaps our future rabbis should first listen to the heavenly music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, after which they will be able to render a truthful halachic decision. It might do wonders!
With thanks to the David Cardozo Academy’s Think Tank
1. The concept of Da’as Torah is highly questionable and in fact incompatible with Jewish Tradition. Too many rabbis whose Da’as Torah is accepted contradict each other in many profound and disturbing ways, which makes a farce of the whole idea. See the highly critical article by Professor Lawrence Kaplan, “Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority” in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy – The Orthodox Forum, ed. Moshe Z. Sokol (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992) pp. 1-60. I would suggest that there is something we can call Ruach HaTorah according to which differing opinions are stated, which are all rooted in diverse readings of our traditional rabbinic literature.
2. A. J. Heschel, God In Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 326.
3. Karl Barth, “A Letter of Thanks to Mozart,” from the Round Robin in the weekly supplement of the Luzerner Neuesten Nachrichten, Jan. 21, 1956. This is also quoted in his obituary, The New York Times, December 11, 1968.
4. Artscroll Publications did publish a book about the wife of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, well-known leader and halachic authority in Israel’s Chareidi community: Naftali and Naomi Weinberger with Nina Indig, Rebbetzin Kanievsky: A Legendary Mother to All (New York: Mesorah Publications Ltd., 2012). But this is a drop in the bucket to what should and could be done.
5. See: Ha-Halacha, Koha V’Tafkida by Eliezer Berkovits, (Mosad Ha-Rav Kook, 1981) English: Not in Heaven, The Nature and Function of Halakha,( Ktav, NY, 1983).
6. See Samuel H. Dresner, Heschel, Hasidism, and Halakha (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2002) p. 108.
7. Shemot 18: 21-23.
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