A Different Model of Answering Halachic Questions

As many people know, I have an obsession with teshuvot, or responsa literature.  As opposed to Halachic codes which deal primarily with Halachic theory, teshuvot force the meshiv to apply and adapt the theory to the reality in front of him.  Rabbi Aaron Ross, on his blog “Learning Teshuvot”,[1] quotes Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet as saying “”There is no life without responsa literature, and there is no responsa literature without life.”

That being said, most teshuvot attempt to answer the question posed to the meshiv.  The shoel does not have the requisite knowledge or halachic insight, so he or she seeks the posek to provide guidance.  The posek normally provides a clear answer.  Admittedly, a good posek will do much more than that, and will use rhetorical and pastoral devices to accomplish other goals, such as calming the meshiv down, making them more comfortable with the psak, etc.  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein claims that his teshuvot are not meant to be universally binding, but rather as guides for other morei horaah, who can examine his teshuvot, assess his arguments, and accept them if they choose.  However, he does at least provide an opinion, and even the latitude he does give is for poskim, not laymen.

However, I came across a very striking teshuvah by the Ben Ish Chai that takes a very different approach.[2]  The shoel asked for the parameters of when it is permitted/appropriate/obligatory to lie according to Halacha.  Instead of providing an answer, he spends many pages listing every passage in Bavli and Yerushalmi that he thinks is even vaguely relevant, as well as a selection of passages from Masechet Kallah, Midrash, Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer, and Sefer Chassidim.  He describes his intention in the first paragraph of the response:

תשובה המצאות של אופנים שיש בהם היתר לא אעשה לכם מדעתי בדבר זה ורק אביא לכם אופנים הנזכרים בלמוד ואתם תלמדו מהם וזה החלי בעזר האל צורי וגואלי.

After listing all the sources he says as follows:

הרי סדרתי לכם שלחן מלא כמה אופנים בענין השקר וגניבת דעת הנזכרים בדברי רז”ל להיתרא ואתם תדקדקו בכל דבר ודבר ותלמדו דבר מתוך דבר.  אך תשימו יראת ה’ על פניכם לבלתי תעשו קולות חוץ מן השורה בדמיון דחוק…

In other words, he tells the shoel that he has given him all the necessary material, and now he expects the questioner to make responsible decisions on his own. He warns him that such a method has pitfalls, and the shoel must have integrity and intellectual honesty when making decisions, but fundamentally he wants to enable the shoel to make his own Halachic decisions, rather than impose his own opinion.

This is a methodology endorsed by many nowadays, but it is rare to see a classical posek making such a move.  I assume that part of the impulse in this teshuvah was that the place of truth in Halacha seems to belong to the world of ethics as well as law (and I am ignoring the fact that in Halacha this distinction is nebulous), and thus it makes sense to expect and allow individuals to make their own decisions.  One hardly needs to do this when it comes to a standard basar bichalav question.  Yet, the model is important to keep in mind.

Note that I am not endorsing that all halachic questions be dealt with in this way – far from it.  The submissive act of asking a shayla and accepting an answer is extremely important.  I have strong feelings on that topic, but not for now.  For those who are interested in beginning to think about which types of  questions are open to a model like this and which are not, Rav Rosensweig recently gave a very helpful shiur on the topic.  It is entitled “When Do I Ask the Rabbi? Which Rabbi?”

[2] Shut Torah Lishmah 364.  This is referenced in Rabbi Mark Dratch’s article “Nothing but the Truth?” available here: http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/740653/Rabbi_Mark_Dratch/Nothing_But_the_Truth, n. 26.

4 thoughts on “A Different Model of Answering Halachic Questions

  1. Well said, as usual !!! But, I’m not 100% sure of what you mean in the title as “different”. Different from what? Yes, usually a question is answered in a conventional way with a straight answer. But I see various methods and ideas in answering a particular sheila. For example, (though not in front of me) I recall a question being posed to (I believe) the maharam about what kind of teshuva is required for killing a person’s son during the crusade (r”l, when the person found out that his son would not have been killed otherwise.) There, the Maharam answered that no teshuva is necessary because to do teshuva would be saying that previous generations were wrong, which is not something he was was willing to do. Indeed, I’ve heard that R’ Moshe never wanted to be be more machmir than his predecessors. He reasoned they were greater, and therefore we should not go against it. Indeed, this idea has its roots in gemara . (Gittin, first perek) There could be other models. For example, I know someone who asked a sheila to a rav about what kind of teshuva should be done for dropping tefillin on a bench. This type of question is difficult, if nearly impossible, to answer using standard approaches. A rav sometimes needs to use the “fifth shulchan aruch”. I see a good rav having a repertoire of skills at hand to answer a question. I await your response.

    1. There are definitely many types of question which require different kinds of responses. However, in most cases a Rav either decides it is not a halachic issue and offers guidance if he can, decides it is a halachic question and answers, forwards the question on to another posek, etc. Rarely do you see a Rav claim that something is a Halachic issue, acknowledge he has an opinion, and refrain from offering Halachic guidance. It is different in the sense that this model is rare.

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