The Sliding Scale of Rabbinic Authority (Halachic Methodology 21)

This week I actually touched on some issues that I have discussed on this blog before.  I spoke about varying levels of authority within Halacha and shared some suggestions about how classic models might have been affected in the moment we live in.  Shiur and sources available: here.

Classically, there are three issues that determine whether someone is allowed to issue a psak on a certain issue.  The first is the intrinsic capabilities of a posek, highlighted by Chazal’s warning that those who are not qualified to poskan cannot and those who can poskan must.  The second is the extraneous factors that may limit someone’s ability to poskan, such as proximity to one’s rebbe.  This is also seen in the limitations of setting up a Yeshiva or giving smicha when one’s rebbe is in the vicinity.  The third is the nature of the issue being ruled on and whether it is defined as a psak (usually requiring a novelty) or simply a case of spit back.  Issues which are explicit in poskim are not defined as psak, and one may prevent an issur from being violated regardless of whether one’s rebbe is around.  All three of these issues are addressed in Yoreh Deah 242, the Siman dealing with Kavod HaRav.  (Rabbi J. David Bleich’s summary in the sources of these issues is sharp and succinct.  The full article is available: here)

Recently, these issues have been discussed at great length in the debates surrounding Partnership Minyanim.  Rabbi Ysochar Katz, in his response to Rav Schachter caricatures his position, claiming that Rav Schachter thinks that all decisions must be made by the Gedolim. In response, he notes that there is an obligation for poskim to rule when they can, which he takes to mean that anyone who can poskan on anything, must.  I do not believe that Rav Schachter meant this, and agree with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s analysis (here) that there is a sliding scale – major questions should be dealt with my greater poskim and minor questions can be dealt with by lesser poskim, a point I believe Rav Schachter agrees with.  His claim that greater must deal with bigger questions is, I think, obvious.  Rabbi Klapper notes, however, that a close read of Pitchei Teshuva indicates that research is a legitimate way of increasing one’s ability to poskan on specific question, contrary to some who claim that only poskim who naturally have the information at their fingertips can rule.

I have previously argued (here) that the obligation of poskim who can poskan to poskan stems, in part, from the fear that if they don’t, those who are not qualified will take their place.  This, I think, was partially behind Chaim Saiman and Yoel Finkleman’s claim that part of responding to gender role changes is providing a positive vision – rather than just going on the defensive and leaving a void of perspective.  Whether their contention was well placed is for others to debate.

Rabbi Klapper’s claim about the role of research recalls several claims I have made about the effect of Bar Ilan (and other resources) on psak.  I have noted (here) that while on the one hand, the ability to research democratizes psak as it moves our focus from soferim to sefarim, it also makes it more important to have people who are well trained in how to use the information.  Rabbi J. David Bleich summarizes this point well:

But halakhic decision-making is indeed an art as well as a science. Its kunst lies precisely in the ability to make judgment calls in evaluating citations, precedents, arguments etc. It is not sufficient for a halakhic decisor to have a full command of relevant sources. If so, in theory at least, the decisor par excellence would be a computer rather than a person. The decisor must have a keen understanding of the underlying principles and postulates of Halakhah as well as of their applicable ramifications and must be capable of applying them with fidelity to matters placed before him. No amount of book learning can compensate for inadequacy in what may be termed the “artistic” component. The epithet “a donkey carrying books” is the derisive reference employed in rabbinic literature to describe sucha person


I have also noted (here) that according to some, the existence of these resources would seem to obligate people to use them.

Rabbi Gil Student (here) notes that the glut of information makes it difficult for anyone to master everything, moving Halacha towards specialization, further democratizing Halacha.  Mori VeRabi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has made related points about specialization as well.

Rabbi Aryeh has made some further important comments about the changes that modern society has caused in how psak is perceived in his most recent dvar Torah (here).  Rabbi Gil Student’s most recent treatment of the possibility of revoking ordination also touches on many of these issues (here).

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