Slippery Slope 3 and Some Thoughts on Globalization in Halacha

One of the questions that has come up several times in the last few days in discussions about the nature of the Slippery Slope Argument and the Halachic process in general is how do we balance the needs of the individual in the context of a community.  This is even more difficult considering the globalization of our community.  I cannot here flesh out the issue entirely, but I just put together a few comments that have been made, and hope to return to the issue in more detail. 

  1. Rabbi Shlomo Brody makes a point that I often make – the cost of living in a global world means that there is rarely a decision that is actually local.  Sometimes this means that an individual must be limited more than he or she should have been (or at least the posek will not be able to grant him or her a leniency he might have in another time.)  In his piece about women and Tefillin he writes (here):

These arguments also raise the question of whether legal rulings (particularly those of great social sensitivity) can and should take into account individual situations, which may (or may not) impact a given ruling. Rabbi Melamed and Rabbi Henkin discuss one potential situation: where a generally pious woman insists that this would be beneficial for her religious growth and is willing to dontefillin in private. Other complex situations might include school or other educational environments, pluralistic institutions like Hillel Houses, potential kiruv opportunities or challenges,50 keeping someone from leaving Orthodoxy, and a host of other questions. One could argue that all psak (legal rulings to specific questions)must remain local and individualized, thereby preventing a given individual’s needs from being overlooked in the face of a larger legal and social battle (in which the individual may have no stake or interest). One might counter, however, that in our hyper-connected world, the notion of a fully individualized psak is not feasible, especially in sensitive areas of halakha. One must assume that any psak given to an individual will be (mis?)interpreted as a global statement or taken as a precedent for others. The brouhaha created in the current case points to the great difficulty of issuing individual rulings, particularly when tefillin are worn in a public context.

2. Rabbi Dr. Beni Lau in his article in תקשורת ויהדות (here) deals with some of the problems of modern media and psak/Torah study.  He develops both the advantages and disadvantages.  He correctly notes that Chazal were worried about teaching students who were not hagun (proper in multiple senses of that word), partially for fear of their words being misconstrued.  This problem has only been increased where everything is up for grabs.  I encourage reading the article, but I cannot find any online copy of the article.

3. R. Nathaniel Helfgot (here) develops a point I have heard from Mori VeRabi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein – that in a global world, the entire notion of local authority is weakened, and communities are often defined ideologically rather than geographically.  I would add that this means that it is harder for poskim is impose a chumra on their community, because if it makes their constituents feel ideologically out of place, they can always find another posek who does fit their ideology.  This is easier to do than physically moving communities which might have been necessary in a less global world.  Below is a relatively long quote from his article.

The Talmud in Shabbat 130b records a tannaitic dispute regarding which aspects of the performance of a circumcision push aside the Sabbath restrictions. R. Akiva maintains that only actions that could not be prepared before the Sabbath are permitted to be done for a circumcision on the Sabbath. In contrast, R. Eliezer posits that one may even chop wood on the Sabbath to prepare coals necessary to later fashion the knife for the actual incision. The halakhah is in accord with R. Akiva and yet the Talmud notes, quite positively in fact,36 that “In R. Eliezer’s locale they would chop wood on Shabbat to make coals to fashion iron instruments (for circumcision).” In a similar fashion, the Talmud mentions the dispute as to whether the rabbis extended the prohibition of eating milk and meat beyond the biblical parameters. The majority view that became normative halakhah is that the co-mingling of chicken and milk was forbidden by the rabbis as a protective fence. In contrasts, R. Yosi the Galilean rejected this extension. The Talmud thus states: “In the locale of R. Yosi the Galilean, they would eat chicken and milk together”. The Talmud thus affirms that though the majority and even consensus psak amongst the Jewish people had ruled in a certain issue in one fashion, the inhabitants of the locale of a dissenting authority were fully entitled to continue to maintain and practice their lenient behavior. This Talmudic statement is a sharp affirmation of the power of the local authority, the mara de-atra to have full control and autonomy over the halakhic practices and customs in his bailiwick.37 This Talmudic statement is cited and expanded in a number of responsa literature of the middle ages. Rashba in the responsa cited earlier, makes it clear that the Talmudic statement as to locale should not be understood restrictively to those actually alive at the time of this authority’s life or who actually live in the locale of that particular rabbi. Rashba mentions that any community that has consistently adopted for itself the rulings of a specific authority, such as the rulings of R. Yitzchak Alfasi or Maimonides is fully entitled to continue following those rulings even when they fly in the face of majority or consensus practice that is common amongst the rest of the Jewish community. This ruling of Rashba moves the concept beyond the limitations of specific time and place and makes the ideological and halakhic affiliation with a particular authority’s rulings at the center of the mandate. One can plausibly extend this concept beyond the boundaries of any reference to geographic area as well. Once one claims that the concept of following the view of an individual scholar extends beyond his death or his actual place of domicile, the road is clear to an expansive reading of this notion. Thus, a Belzer Chasid who lives in Capetown, South Africa or a transplanted Washington Heights yekke who was a member of Kehillath Adath Jeshurun and was now living in San Jose could continue to follow the practices and psakim that they felt loyalty to in their day to day life.

4. Note, however, that some issues remain local, as R. Heflgot adds in his footnote (see my shiurim on Minhag and Lo Titgodedu for more details):

It would seem, however, that public manifestations of a practice that fly in the face of the accepted custom of a specific town or in our contemporary contexts, synagogue, would not be sanctioned. Such actions would contradict the principles outlined in the fourth chapter of Pesahim that require one who moves to a new locale to accept the public practices of the community that one is now residing in, especially when public actions to the contrary would cause discord and strife.

5. In a global world, it is even more important for anyone making public decisions to make sure there is a public record so that he or she can challenge those who misquote them.  Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt (here) noted this in explanation for his specifically speaking about the Tefillin controversy not on Shabbos so it could be recorded.

6. Rabbi Rosenblatt makes many important points about the balance between individuation in general and in educational settings, highlighting the limitations we must place on individuation in certain communal settings.  As usual I am deeply impressed by his wisdom, but I am not yet finished watching the entire video.   From what I have heard so far, there is nothing I could add and encourage everyone to watch him.  One can learn from both his insights and his mentchlichkeit. 

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2 thoughts on “Slippery Slope 3 and Some Thoughts on Globalization in Halacha

  1. I just wanted to add that if a posek gives a private psak which he is sure we’ll stay private, then the individual’s concerns van be given far greater weight. Similarly in clear situations of sh’at hadechak one can make this argument (and poskim do) since the broader systemic implications area limited.

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