Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Responsible P'sak

I read an article today that incensed me. I do not want to link to it, or even hint to it, but I am sure that many people have read it. I would like to respond to it, however, and so, I will give a general summary of the article, and then respond.

The article basically quotes a rabbi as issuing a ruling that is not found in the Shulchan Aruch. Basically, it is a situation where something that is permitted according to all Jewish halachik sources is turned into something that should not be done, and the reasoning is absurd. It is not supported by judicial sources, nor can it be. (I know this is not very specific, and I would love to be more explicit, but I do not want to hint to who said it, or what he said.) Now to my response:

When deciding halacha, especially for a public forum, one must be extremely careful in everything he says. In order to demonstrate that what one writes has authority, there should be quotes from earlier sources and explanations as to how the author reached his conclusions. In the absence of this type of transparency, the writer essentially expects people to accept what he says because he says it. This either will lead people to reject his words outright, or (just as dangerously) to follow what someone writes just because of the persona they radiate, instead of based on reason and understanding. In Judaism, we prefer reason and understanding to blind obedience.

Furthermore, when the descision contradicts clear halachik precedent, the author simply knocks another nail into the coffin or rabbinic reliability and authority.

Extra caution must be taken to assure oneself that the p'sak will not have unintended negative consequences. I am reminded of a true story told to us in our ordination classes by Rabbi Brownstein from M'chon Pu'ah. A rabbi once convinced a secular army wife in Israel to keep the laws of Niddah, family purity. The rabbi was quite impressed with how the husband handled it. One day, after complimenting the military-husband, the husband said to him, "Rabbi, it really does not bother me. When my wife says that she is forbidden to me, i just take care of myself with the girls on the base." Certainly, the woman was doing something good, and the husband was wrong. However, this story illustrates how careful a rabbi must be of unintended consequences. They must be assessed and addressed, even when all seems fine. How much more so does this apply when a rabbi decides to write a p'sak or article which encourages people to act as if something historically permitted is forbidden: there will be unintended consequences, and in this type of case, the rabbi cannot justify his decision in the face of these consequences.

When dealing with an issue, for example, like a new stringency in modest dress, tznius, there are many consequences. (This example of modest dress is simply used as an illustration of the problems that can come up when a rabbi is not extremely careful in the way he issues rulings.) Our present cultural milieu is one where it is common for women to dress in a less than halachikally mandated way. In the Talmud, a woman who did not follow the socio-religious mode of dress was considered a p'rutzah, a wanton woman. However, today, I would not be willing to apply that label, since a wanton woman is one who eschews the norms of social behavior. Although a woman who does not keep to the standards of tznius is not going against halacha, she would not, in our day and age, be considered a wanton woman (in my opinion).

In such a cultural situation, it is imperative that our halachik standards of tznius conform to the halachik requirements, and little more. If we try to set ever-higher standards that are not required by baseline halacha, we will end up pushing women away from keeping the baseline requirements. You simply cannot hoist such a g'zerah on the public, which they will not be able to keep. Also, a Jewish marriage, one of sanctity and reciprocal trust, must be able to keep both partners excited and satisfied with the most intimate parts of their relationship, and this is almost impossible if, in such a society, we put more and more new restrictions on what the standards of modesty are.

Telling the public to keep stringencies which are not halachikally mandated by solid precedent will simply push more and more women and men off the edge, and out of Torah observance, and destroy the shalom bayis the supremely important family-peace, that should rest upon a Jewish home.

(There is an important caveat to this: No way of life places such a primacy on individual study as does Judaism. It behooves individual Jews to learn as much as they can, so that they can judge for themselves, with guidance from someone they have reason to trust, what writings to seriously consider, and what writings to reject. We have access to any sources we need, and we should hold ourselves responsible. It is reasonable to expect us to be able to make judgements, and decide what rabbis we feel have proven themselves to be worthy of our reliance upon them.)

Only through transparency of halachik sources, a deep understanding of the public, and a thorough examination of potential unintended consequences, should a rabbi issue a public ruling. To be any less strict upon oneself would be to issue חומרות דאתי לידי קולות, to try to strengthen observance on one side, while accidentally creating larger problems on another side. Hand in hand goes a warning to individuals to research what they find to be problematic, and to choose halachik authorities with utmost care.


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