What is the Role of “Baal Habatim” in Psak?

Last year I devoted my series on the methodology of psak to the issues that poskim deal with when making decisions. This year, I want to explore the role of the “baal habatim” in psak – the balance between authority and autonomy, how one picks poskim, why one is bound to psak, when one can poskan for himself, and other related issues. Anyone who has ideas, please leave them in the comments.

To begin with (here), I outlined five models of psak which highlight the balance of power between poskim and the laity, using mostly teshuvot that I have dealt with in previous shiurim:

  1. When a posek rules by fiat, providing no explanation or transparency, giving no autonomy to the person asking the question.

This type of psak can accomplish different things, and can be negative or positive. For example, I noted that when dealing with controversial cases, one feels something lacking when a posek tries to rule with out explaining why he came to his conclusion. As an example, I mentioned some teshuvot by R. Wosner which he calls his “short teshuvot” in which he responds to questions about the status of non-religious Jews and whether force can be used to stop people from sinning in a few words. In one case he even references sources and poskans, without telling you that he is referring to a machloket in those sources. (I discussed this teshuva here and here.)

However, in other cases, this type of psak can be freeing. For example, the Rav insisted that his psak about womens’ learning would be followed absolutely and provided barely any halachic explanation for his ruling. However, the effect here was (as he noted) to free the school he was ruling for from criticism. By not letting them into his thought process, he became the only target for attack. (I discussed this teshuva here and here.)

In a third case, in Maamar Yirah Tehorah, poskim provide guidelines for people with OCD and don’t give explanation, as psychologically this prevents the suffering questioner from explaining away the response and not being able to recover. (I discussed this teshuva here and here.)

Thus, this model should be recognized has one which can be used in different ways, sometimes easier to swallow and sometimes harder.

  1. Poskim are transparent and allow discussion, but only invite other poskim to discuss.This in theory is what R. Moshe Feinstein writes the goal of Igrot Moshe is – to provide a direction in a sugya for poskim to engage with – and either accept or reject. The Rama also often acts this way – such as when he creates his kula of “Kavod Shabbat”, which he says is another way of saying that he really thinks it is permitted but is usually strict because of minhag (or precedent), but without actually explaining this to baal habatim. It provides a cover. (I discussed this here and here.)
  2. Poskim providing direction, but allow the baal habatim to choose.As an example for this, I mentioned a teshuva by the Torah Lishmah, where, when asked when it is mutar to lie, he provides sources but no psak, encouraging the questioner to find his own way. (I discussed this teshuva here.)
  3. A posek rules on the Halacha, but not on the reality, leaving the baal babatim (or experts) to actual decide how the psak will play out.This model is often seen in medical questions. See also R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s citation of R. Moshe Soloveitchik in “Legitimization of Modernity: Classical and Contemporary,” Leaves of Faith Volume 2, page 293
  4. Posek as encouraging a proper path without poskaning.

Here, the posek is transparent about the fact that the issue at hand is not pure halacha, but still notes that he is trying to guide the shoel in the proper path. As an example, I brought the Chayei Adam’s discussion of shechar akum, where he claims that he cannot prevent people from being lenient like the Rama and only refraing from date beer in non-Jewish stores, but he encourages them to even avoid coffee, as he thinks distance must be created to prevent intermarriage. (I wrote about this position here.)

In each of these cases, one sees a different amount of authority being taken by the posek and left for the baal habayit. Overall, I think there is reason to increase the autonomy or at least transparency, but every model has its place. This year I want to explore these issues in depth.


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