Volume 10 Number 38
                       Produced: Wed Dec  1 18:29:05 1993

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

         [Avi Feldblum]
Rabbinic Authority (2)
         [Morris Podolak, Shaya Karlinsky]


From: mljewish (Avi Feldblum)
Date: Wed, 1 Dec 93 18:14:54 -0500
Subject: Administrivia

Hello All,

Just a short note to let you know that there has been a large number of
submissions during the last two days, so it may take a little longer for
your submission to be gotten to. A number of them are very well thought
out pieces on the topics of Rabbinic Authority, the Holocaust and
related topics. I want to try and keep to the no more than about 4
postings per day, and if the backlog starts getting to long, I will come
back here and discuss the matter with you all. And now to start putting
the nights mailings together so I can go have dinner.

Avi Feldblum
mail-jewish Moderator


From: Morris Podolak <morris@...>
Date: Wed, 1 Dec 93 05:50:11 -0500
Subject: Rabbinic Authority

Alot has been written about which questions are within the province of
halacha and which are not.  I very much enjoyed the comments of Anthony
Fiorino, Jonathan Goldstein, and Hayim Handeles.  I beg to differ,
however, on several points.

First, I don't understand how there can be non-halachic issues.  I know
there are many rabbinic authorities who feel this way, but I suspect
they are being misunderstood.  A person's job on earth is to do G-d's
will.  Since we are only human we cannot know what G-d wants, and for
this reason He has given us the Torah, both written and oral as a guide.
In every action we must ask "what does G-d want", and this is a halachic
question.  Nothing is so small as to be insignificant, including the
correct order of tying one's shoelaces.  What about a question as to
whether to have a cavity filled.  If you go to your LOR he will no doubt
suggest you ask a dentist.  That answer is, I would argue, a halachic
answer.  You are supposed to take care of your body, and if filling the
cavity is the proper way to deal with it, then you should fill the
cavity.  If it isn't, you shouldn't.  So why doesn't the LOR say "yes"
or "no"?  Because he doesn't know the dental metziut (detailed
situation).  For this reason he tells you to go determine the metziut by
asking the dentist.  Saying "I cannot deal with the problem" is a
perfectly valid halachic answer, although it is easy to see why some
might prefer to categorize this situation as extra-halachic, since the
halachist has put the burden of answering on someone else.

This brings me to my second point.  There are two types of errors a
rabbi can make.  The first is in misunderstanding the halacha, and the
second is in misunderstanding the metziut.  For the usual LOR both are
possible.  I have been present in the sukkah of Rav Simcha Kook the
Chief Rabbi of Rehovot (and candidate for Chief Rabbi of Israel) when he
discussed a halachic issue and although it was evident to me that he
felt one way, he acted differently saying "I heard this from the mouth
of Rav Elyashuv..."  He recognized that in Rav Elyashuv there was a
higher authority, and was willing to assume that he himself was in

The question arises with regard to the gedolei hador (the greatest
authorities in the generation).  Can they be mistaken?  In matters of
pure halacha I think they are very nearly infallible.  Imagine if Rav
Moshe Feinstein z"l had given a psak that all the other authorities
challanged.  Imagine they even brought a host of proofs against him.
Don't you think that his opinion would still be cited.  It might not be
acted upon, and it might be quoted with the preface "a puzzling opinion
is that of ...", but no one would discard it out of hand.  It would
become a part of the halachic literature, and everyone would have to
acknowledge that it is in some sense a valid piece of halacha.  In the
question of metziut, however, everyone is liable to error, as has been
demonstrated over and over again in recent postings.  The trouble is
that it is that the metziut cannot always be correctly gauged, even by
the gedolei hador.  The future is hidden from everyone (I don't want to
get into a discussion here about the powers of tzaddikim, that is a
complicated issue, and nearly all the poskim I have read treat a given
question in the light of logic, and facts that are available to

This brings me to the third issue: "so what do you do?"  There is no
choice but to follow the halachic advice give to you, with two caveats
which I give below.  What if the advice turns out to be wrong?  Too bad.
There is an interesting discussion is Sanhedrin (33a) as to what the
procedure is if you ask a rabbi for a ruling on an issue involving
money, and he gives you the wrong answer.  If he made you lose money,
and you show he was wrong, does he have to pay you back or not?  The
discussion revolves, in part, around the question of whether the rabbi
is a "mumche" (expert) or not.  Rashi, in explaining why the expert does
not need to pay says that since he was an expert it was the litigant's
own bad luck that caused the wrong ruling to be given.  In other words,
we go to the expert, and rely on him because he is the expert.  If it
turns out he was wrong, then it is our tough luck.  Not everyone agrees
with Rashi's interpretation (see the Rif among others) but that is
besides the point.  We are not talking about halacha here but about
haskafa (philosophical outlook), and in this Rashi's opinion is enough
to give the idea validity as an acceptable hashkafa.  I might add that I
recently came across an interesting discussion of the question of did
gedolim err regarding the holocaust in the responsa of Rav Yehudah
Herzel Henkin called "Bnei Banim".  He bases himself on the Sefer
Hachinnuch, but seems to come to similar conclusions.

Finally, the two caveats I mentioned.  First, the person has to really
be an expert.  LOR is not always sufficient as the LOR will be quick to
tell you if he is honest with himself.  I have, on a number of
occasions, seen how Rabbi Avraham Lapin, z"l, who was a respected rabbi
and rabbinic judge, felt that a problem that was put before him was too
difficult for him to decide by himself, and as a result he turned to
authorities he respected.  If the issue is important enough, you go to
the highest authority.  Second: there is nothing wrong with getting a
second opinion.  People seem to think that if you get a psak you are
"stuck with it".  It is not so.  There are certain restrictions on
contradicting an earlier ruling, but that is the problem of the person
GIVING the second opinion, not the person ASKING it.


From: Shaya Karlinsky <HCUWK@...>
Date: Wed, 1 Dec 1993 09:49 IST
Subject: Rabbinic Authority

     The recent postings on Rabbinic authority have been very valuable,
presenting a complex issue in a clear and balanced way.  I am a MJ
subscriber for only half a year, but I find this discussion to have been
MJ at its finest.  If only all discussions of different opinions in the
Torah world could be carried on in such a rational and informed way...
With that in mind, I humbly add my few cents.
     It seems that this discussion got its impetus from the question of
whether Gedolim who advised people not to leave Europe "made a mistake."
Without repeating what has already been said, I think that using the
Holocaust as a paradigm to validate or disprove either position is
misleading.  As Eitan Fiorino alludes (MJ 10/21)

>... it leaves the more fundamental (and more theologically
>challenging) question of "Why were six million slaughtered?"
And in MJ 10/28 Eitan writes:
>And while it is easy to hide behind statements about it being G-d's
>will that six million died -- I just don't see what that has to do
>with the issue at hand.
     The "unanswerable" nature of this question is very relevant to the
issue at hand, in that, IMHO, it renders the results of the advice of
the Gedolim at the time generalizable to the more general discussion of
Rabbinic authority.  I will elaborate.
     There is an important concept introduced in Gittin 56b.  Rabbi
Yochanan ben Zakkai, as Jerusalem was under final Roman siege, made only
a limited request from Asposyanus that he spare Yavneh, rather than
doing the more logical thing and asking that Jerusalem itself be saved.
Rabbi Akiva (or Rav Yosef) explains this by quoting the verse "Meishiv
chachmim achor v'daatam yikaseil," G-d turns wise people backwards, and
their intelligence becomes foolish.  The clear implication in the Gemara
is that RYBZ made a mistake (despite a justification being provided for
his making only a limited request).  But it was "precipitated" by G-d.
This Gemara informs us that when G-d has an agenda for the Jewish
people, as he clearly did in the time of the destruction of the Beit
HaMikdash -as well as during the destruction of European Jewry- He
sometimes distorts the judgment of the leaders that we turn to for our
advice.  This is one of the ways that G-d works, undermining the
judgment of people empowered to make decisions.  So any "mistakes" made
during this period - and telling people that the Nazis would not reach
Poland was a grievous mistake, as has been acknowledged - should not be
used to validate or undermine either position in the general discussion
of Rabbinic authority.

     As far as that general discussion:
In MJ 10/24, Joe Abeles writes:
>Eitan Fiorino has added to the analysis: Rabbis are not always
>answering questions of halacha; sometimes they are, and sometimes
>they are not.
>If this is so, one would think there would be a responsibility, a
>halachic responsibility, for any person such as a rabbi who could
>be construed to be a posek to identify in his answer to any
>question whether the answer is one of halacha or one of opinion.
>As far as I am aware, there is no such responsibility recognized in
     As on who has asked questions of Gedolim in both Halachic and
non-halachic matters, as well as taken Talmidim to help them ask their
questions of Gedolim (when we didn't feel qualified to handle the
question ourselves) all of my experience indicates that they definitely
DO make such a distinction (at least the Litvish Gedolim that we have
contact with).  In areas when the HALACHA is being discussed and
decided, that is made clear.  And in areas where it is a matter of
interpreting the reality, or where an ambiguous reality has a strong
influence on the Halachic issues (questions of parnassa (livelihood),
where and for how long to learn Torah, questions that affect ones
relationship with parents or family, interpersonal questions, etc.) the
answer is always couched in tentative terms, based on this or that being
the reality.  Neither I nor any of my colleagues have ever heard from a
Gadol "You must listen to this, which is Da'as Torah, and if you doubt
me, or deviate in any way from what I am telling you..."
     Oh, yes, we have read it on posters.  And we have heard OTHER
people tell us what the Gadol's opinion was, and that if we didn't
listen to it we would immediately be branded us as Epikorsim.  But we
never heard such an approach from a Posek himself.  I think the idea of
ONE "Universal Truth" is not something that the Gedolim (certainly the
non-Hasidic ones) themselves are responsible for, but rather their
followers who have trouble dealing with ambiguity and anything which
isn't absolute.  (Could this,ironically, be the Yeshiva world trying to
imitate the Hasidic world?)  Gedolim themselves recognize the "shiv'im
panim laTorah", that Torah has seventy different legitimate
manifestations.  It seems to be those surrounding them that may
delegitimize alternative approaches.  (Why the Gedolim end up tolerating
this has always troubled me and is the subject of another discussion...
But personal discussions with Gedolim always seems to elicit a
flexibility not always evident in the publicly presented position.)
     I would like to introduce another element that I didn't see clearly
mentioned in the many postings.
     One is supposed to ask for a "psak", whether it be in halachic or
non-halachic matters, when you have a safek, a doubt.  You don't ask
when you don't have a doubt.  And if you have a doubt, you turn to the
person most qualified in your opinion to clarify the doubt.  If the
doubt is in a matter relating, either directly or indirectly, to
Halacha, you turn to a Rabbinic authority.  If it is which car to buy,
you probably would be better off turning to "Consumer Reports" or to
your neighborhood mechanic. (Hope I haven't offended the automotive
experts by relying on Consumer Reports!) If the source of the doubt in
Halacha is based on a certain perspective of reality that you are
confident about, I would think that you present that perspective to the
authority, pinpoint your doubt in Halacha, and solicit his opinion on
the issue that isn't clear to you.  If he challenges your basic
perspective, especially in an area where you are confident that you are
well versed, it is his responsibility to convince you that you have
overlooked something.  Our experience is that the great Talmidei
Chachamim have insights that can open up directions of thought that
never occurred to us.  If he convinces you, you listen.  But if he
doesn't, you don't.  It is your decision, and your responsibility.  And
most authorities that we have dealt with wouldn't force their
perspective on you.  If you are not convinced, they can answer you based
on your own assumptions of the reality.  In a case where your
assumptions will lead to a violation of Halacha, it is the Rabbi's
responsibility to tell you and explain to you why.  Our system requires
that under THOSE circumstances, you are supposed to listen, (Lo
tasur...) unless you are SURE he is making a mistake in the Halacha or
in the reality.  There seemed to be consensus in recent postings that
this could happen, certainly in questions of "reality."  And it can also
happen in Halacha.  As my colleague, Rabbi Yitzchak Hirshfeld pointed
out when I discussed this with him, we have a whole Masechet, Horiyot,
dealing with how to handle mistakes in Halacha made by Beith Din.
Certainly an individual Rabbi can make a mistake.  But if you think that
is what is happening, you need to validate this with another Halachic
authority, letting him know that you are consulting him on the rebound.
I think you need validation for your conviction.  The fist Rabbi's
"mistake" hasn't clarified the doubt which led you to consult in the
first place.  If you had no doubt, why did you go to ask?
     One of the things that gives Da'as Torah a bad name is the naive
desire to turn our Poskim into n'veeim, prophets.  On the one hand,
"chacham adif m'navi," a wise-man is superior to a navi, because his
wisdom is constantly available, while a prophet is dependent on G-d
revealing prophecy to him.  But Judaism doesn't expect us to abdicate
our own thinking and our own scholarship.  In Judaism, as opposed to
many other religions, it is the responsibility of every Jew to KNOW, to
UNDERSTAND, to the best of his/her ability.
     There are two ways one can be in a situation of safek.  One way can
be due to an in depth study of the issues, the sugya, in which you end
up with equally compelling arguments for two contradictory conclusions.
This is what I call a healthy "I don't know." At this point you are
ready to go to an authority to help clarify the doubts, and you would be
expected to rely on him, unless he says something completely irrational.
(Why did you go to someone like that in the first place?...)  Whichever
side he takes, you had good arguments to support that side, and you
shouldn't have trouble with his expert conclusions.  If we come with
(what I call) an ignorant "I don't know," meaning we have no opinion and
no idea what to do, then we certainly haven't done our homework, and
should not be approaching someone of great stature to do that "homework"
for us.
     When the Gemara use the phrase "Yelamdienu Rabbeinu", our teacher
should teach us, it cuts in two directions.  You go to someone more
knowledgeable than you because you want to learn and understand.  But if
you don't understand, you are allowed - I think you are compelled - to
seek clarification until you do understand.  This tireless search for
clarification and understanding is very much a fulfillment of the
commandment to study and know Torah.  I sometimes wonder if "Rabbinic
authority" is being used to relieve us of some of our own

Shaya Karlinsky
Yeshivat Darche Noam / Shapell's
POB 35209 - Jerusalem, ISRAEL


End of Volume 10 Issue 38