Who is a Posek

Rabbi Gil Student just published a wonderful piece summarizing different positions about the role of Rabbi.  One of the highlights of the piece was the Rav’s claim that a Rabbi’s job is much more than being a posek:

If the position of the Rav [community rabbi] were connected solely with halachah, Din Torah and the spreading of Torah knowledge, then the halachah that one may not appoint a leader without first consulting the community would not apply. Rabbinic appointment would in that case be in the category of the appointment of a Sanhedrin or a Judge, which is effected from above…

If, however, the Rabbinate finds expression in socio-political functions (care for general welfare, kindness, charity, representation and the like), then he is not only a Moreh Hora’ah and Dayyan but also a leader and his appointment requires the sanction of the community. It is unnecessary to stress that the history of the Rabbinate endorses the second definition. The Rav has never been only the Moreh Tzedek, but also the faithful shepherd of his flock…

What follows logically from this position is that just because someone is a shul Rabbi, and even a great shul rabbi, he may still not be a posek.  This point seems to have been lost in much of popular discourse, and the people inexcusably move from the claim that a Rabbi has roles that are more central than posek to the tacit assumption that if someone is a dynamic pastor, he is qualified to be a posek.

When it comes to deciding who is a qualified posek, as the Rav already notes, the acceptance of the community does not suffice, and may in fact be irrelevant.  (They may choose to ask someone else, but that is a separate issue.)  The Rav notes that the status of posek is similar to the status of dayan.  In that context, the Rambam writes:

רמב”ם הלכות סנהדרין פרק ג הלכה ח

כל סנהדרין או מלך או ראש גולה שהעמידו להן לישראל דיין שאינו הגון ואינו חכם בחכמת התורה וראוי להיות דיין, אף על פי שהוא כולו מחמדים ויש בו טובות אחרות הרי זה שהעמידו עובר בלא תעשה, שנאמר לא תכירו פנים במשפט, מפי השמועה למדו שזה מדבר כנגד הממונה להושיב דיינין, אמרו חכמים שמא תאמר איש פלוני נאה אושיבנו דיין, איש פלוני גבור אושיבנו דיין, איש פלוני קרובי אושיבנו דיין, איש פלוני יודע בכל לשון אושיבנו דיין, נמצא מזכה את החייב ומחייב את הזכאי לא מפני שהוא רשע אלא מפני שאינו יודע, לכך נאמר לא תכירו פנים במשפט, ועוד אמרו כל המעמיד לישראל דיין שאינו הגון כאילו הקים מצבה שנאמר ולא תקים לך מצבה אשר שנא ה’ אלהיך, ובמקום תלמידי חכמים כאילו נטע אשירה שנאמר לא תטע לך אשירה כל עץ אצל מזבח ה’ אלהיך, וכן אמרו חכמים לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף אלוה הבא בשביל כסף וזהב זה הדיין שמינוהו מפני עשרו בלבד.

Loose summary: Anyone who appoints a judge who is not qualified enough in Torah learning, even if he absolutely delightful in every other way, and has other positive qualitieshe violates a lo taaseh…. It is as if he built a matzeivah and planted an asheirah. 

The standards to qualify as a posek are rigorous, and just because someone can draw a crowd in shul, doesn’t mean he makes the cut.

The sugya of what qualifies a good posek is too long, but I will suffice by summarizing the principles that Mori VeRabi Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein outlines in his article in Leaves of Faith: Chapter 6: “Get You Wise Men: Marshalling the Rabbinic Alumni to Meet Contemporary Halakhic Problems.”   R. Lichtenstein takes as a given (p. 120-121) that the standards to be dayan and a posek are similar and therefore draws on that parallel.

R. Lichtenstein beings by summarizing what a posek needs to be – a lomdan and a tzadik.  (In this regard, see Shut Ri Migash 114, who discusses cases in which the tzadik element is more important than the lomdan element.)  He breaks it down by analyzing the Rambam in Sanhedrin 4:8, based on Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:8.

  1. Chochmah (in Sifrei, Binah as well) –
    1. Mastery of basic texts, both the content and the historical development of the Halakhic institutions discussed.
      1. He must not have everything at his fingertips, but as suggested by Rambam – enough familiarity that he can with reasonable notice rule on any question.
  2. The ability to analyze the texts and concepts – recognize what is similar and what is different.
  3. Imagination – the ability to grasp a problem and use his knowledge to deal with it.
  4. Familiarity with methods of pesak, especially as the implications of any given pesak has more global ramifications because of the nature of our mobile society.
  5. Unflinching honesty, personal and intellectual.
  6. Totally committed to Torah and its values.
  7. Profound Humaneness.  He must be between those who would destroy every Jew for a din and those who would destroy every din for a Jew.
  8. Firm, and at times aggressive.  He is the custodian of the mesorah.
  9. Humble – “as every in my Taskmaster’s eye.”

He then goes on to explain how difficult it has become to be a posek, as a posek must know the realia extremely well, and that gets harder every day.

Rabbi Lichtenstein notes that lamdanim are often not qualified to be poskim because they do not have the patience to deal with the tediousness that is often pesak.  Thus, even being a Talmid Chacham is not sufficient to be a posek.  Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef makes this point very forcefully in the Hakdamah to Yabia Omer.

To close the summary I want to make two points.  First, just because someone is a posek doesn’t make him a bad person or even a bad rabbi.  Yes, a rabbi should know a decent amount of Torah, but as long as he can answer the basics and knows who to go to when he can’t, he can function and accomplish great things.  However, he must understand his limitations.  Chazal reserved particularly harsh rhetoric for those who poskan when they are not worthy/sufficiently capable of issuing rulings.  The Gemara in Sotah (22a) lists many people who destroy the world.  One is a “child whose months are not completed.”

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף כב עמוד א

ת”ר: בתולה צליינית, ואלמנה שובבית, וקטן שלא כלו לו חדשיו – הרי אלו מבלי עולם…

Second, on a more positive note, I heard from one of my Rebbeim, I think it was Rabbi Lichtenstein but I cannot be sure, that Shemiras Shabbos KeHilchasa was the first modern sefer to really grapple with modern Halachic issues in a systematic way and update the application of Halachic principles to an entire section of Shulchan Aruch.  Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, zecher tzadik leveracha, the author of Shemiras Shabbos, who passed away this week, was an awesome example of someone who fit all the criteria above.  For anyone who wants to take pesak seriously, studying his work provides an excellent example of how one can apply rigor, care, and erudition to ensure that Halachah can respond to changing realities.  Yehi Zichro Baruch. 

Bli Neder, I will post more extensive thoughts about the nature of pesak next week.

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