The Complexity of Psak

This week I dealt with the complexity of pesak.  After having spoken about some of the factors poskim weigh when making a decision, it was important to deal with how difficult it is to assess Halachic questions.  This is true on several levels.

The first is on the level of theory.   Complex issues deal with a range of Halachic issues and it takes someone who has 1)master of all relevant texts, 2) the ability to analyze those texts, and 3)the imaginative capacity to figure out all potential relevant questions to bring the material together.  I have written about R. Lichtenstein’s description of the ideal posek before: link.

The second is on the level of reality.  Even once one has determined the theoretical issues, one needs to assess the facts.  They can often be difficult to understand, and may change from place to place and time to time.  As an example, I mentioned Rav who spent 18 months with a shepard to figure out the difference between temporary and permanent blemishes (relevant for pidyon bechor).  [See sources for Chasam Sofer and R. Aharon Kahn who deal with the Talmud Torah status of the necessary fact finding for Halachic issues.]

As examples, I mentioned the complexity of ruling about using dishwashers for meat and milk.  The shayla relates to several issues in Kashrus and at least one from Hilchos Shabbos.  Beyond that, the main lenient positions (R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Ovadiah Yosef) have been challenged on the grounds that their understanding of reality was wrong, the reality has changed, and in the case of R. Moshe, his reality may always have been different from that of Israel and Europe.

Second, I noted that when it comes to checking fruits and vegetables for bugs, not only do poskim vastly different on how often bugs must be present for checking to be mandatory, they have no way of determining statistically how often there are bugs.  Thus, even very lenient poskim in theory have trouble being mekal in practice.  Additionally, I noted how facts may change between organic and regular produce.

Lastly, I noted that different Halachic works succeed in dealing with these issues to varying extents.  R. Lichtenstein has noted how shocking it is that the Mishna Berurah, which was written in the twentieth century, fails to mention electricity even once!  Thus, while it is a great work on the level of theory, it is hardly helpful when dealing with modern issues.  This stands in stark contrast to the Shmirat Shabbat KeHilchata, which was written to address modern issues.

With this in mind, I noted how important it is to think of poskim like experts in technical field, and not as just pastors.  A good people person is not necessarily a good posek, and just because a rabbi is good with people doesn’t mean he or others should entrust Halachic decision making with him.  One would not go to a doctor with good bedside manners if he was not skilled, and poskim should be no different.

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