As we discussed in our shiur on Aseh Lecha Rav, one of the central roles of a Rav is to provide a posek that people are both obligated and permitted to rely on. On the one hand, having a posek limits what opinions one can rely on; on the other, one can rely on the kullot of his posek even when it may not reflect the consensus psak. We explored the authority and definition of a Mara D’Atra. The shiur is available here.
The Gemara downright celebrates the freedom that comes from having a local posek. While the majority opinion claimed that while brit milah can be done on Shabbat, all preparatory actions must be done before Shabbat, with no reservations it declares that in the place of R. Elazar, who permitted doing these action on Shabbat, that his position was followed. Similarly, the Gemara does not hesitate when it says that in the Galil, where R. Yosi was the posek, the people ate chicken and meat together. The Ritva notes that having a Mara D’Atra, a local posek, a master of the region, provides people with their own source of authority – to whom lo tasur applies.
However, the Rashba extends this idea beyond a local living posek. He suggests that this model is the basis for the reliance of many communities on the psak of the Rambam. He still is dealing with a model where the constituency is geographically defined, but the posek is not. The posek is chosen ideologically. This model later becomes the basis for the Ashekenazi reliance on the Rama and the Sfardi reliance on the Beit Yosef.
The next logical step is to redefine the relevant constituencies by ideological communities rather than geographic ones. R. Lichtenstein uses this very forcefully to explain why Modern Orthodoxy has the right to choose the Rav as its collective Mara D’Atara.
Once we have made this step, we can begin to conceptualize our global world. We no longer define ourselves primarily by location. Once this is the case, it frees up people to choose the general direction of their religious lives by choosing the community and leaders they identify with. It also opens the possibility to choose multiple leaders who are experts in different things – as long as we don’t get to the point of kula shopping (see Shach).
However, once whose one’s authority is is decided by choice, we must admit that this comes with costs. The Mahari Ben Lev claims that in this type of environment, we are not really relying on Mara D’Atra in the same way, and therefore are not entitled to rely on minority kulot [this is a simplification – see the teshuva itself]. Even if we deny this (which I think we should in its extreme form), there are other issues. The same globalization that allows us to pick our poskim on the other side of the world makes it that many questions that were once local are not global. Thus, we must consider the possibility that we can no longer take the same liberties, claiming that we are simply poskaning for our community – all decisions have the potential to have global impact (see R. Brody who made this point concerning the tefillin controversy). This may prevent us from making those decisions. Additionally, as R. Gil Student notes, people often complain that psak nowadays has become the realm of Roshei Yeshivot rather than pulpit rabbis. This often leads to psak that is more machmir, and less connected to reality. This is a direct result of our embracing the notion of ideological communities rather than geographic ones. This cuts both likula and lichumra, depending on the community one identifies with. Also, there is value to having a posek that you can talk to in person – it allows for more clarity, enables building relationships, and provides more chance for followup and accountability. R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin highlighted this when he oppose poskaning by phone.
In addition, one should remember that the ability to choose a posek does not mean that anyone becomes a legitimate authority. On the contrary, once we have expanded who we can access, we have to raise our standards for who we allow to lead. We should also remember that some questions will always remain local in nature – what nusach a shul davens is decided by the shul, and people should not daven for the amud with a nusach that will confuse those in shul.
Like many other Halakhic questions, the globalization of our lives has changed our the categories can and must be applied. Thus, it is important to analyze the classic issues and understand the extent to which they apply the way they once did, and explores way in which we have to reimagine them.