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Learning From Rabbi Avi Weiss
Wed, 04/02/2014

In his recent Opinion piece, “In the Legacy of the Rav, Allowing Rabbis to Decide” (March 18), Rabbi Avi Weiss sets forth an important lesson that great Torah scholars can learn from the Rav, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Namely, when approached by students who have become community rabbis with questions pertaining to Jewish law, the great Torah scholar should be “persuasive rather than coercive” and “encourage local rabbis to understand that they are the final authorities of psak (legal decisions) in their respective communities,” and therefore they, the community rabbis, should ultimately determine the answer provided that the position they would take had “standing” in Jewish law in the view of the great Torah scholar.

While this is indeed an important lesson, in light of the recent Chag Hasemichah (ordination celebration) of over 230 graduates of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) I believe that two more important lessons can be learned — not from the practice of Rabbi Soloveitchik, but from that of Rabbi Weiss himself. First, that when a community rabbi is presented with a difficult question of Jewish law, he should, as Rabbi Weiss did, seek the guidance of his teacher, the great Torah scholar.

Second, in the event the great Torah scholar believes that his student’s position with regard to such question does not have “standing” in Jewish law, the student should defer to his teacher.  

Chairman Emeritus, RIETS Board of Trustees

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I was very surprised by the final comment of Julius Berman in which he states "in the event the great Torah scholar believes that his student’s position with regard to such question does not have “standing” in Jewish law, the student should defer to his teacher."

It is not difficult to find examples in Halachic history when students disagreed with their teachers on Halachic issues. Perhaps the best example is the Tur whose father was the Rosh. Time and time again you will find the Tur presenting his father's Halachic positions and then deferring to other opinions. In the case of the Tur, not only was the Tur disagreeing with his teacher but he was also disagreeing with his father. That clearly demonstrates how Halachic decision making must be done independently even to the point of being disloyal to one's father.

I'm sorry but this comment totally ignores the gist of Rabbi Berman's letter, which is that the student is free, in the Rav's view, to take a position different from his teacher as long as it has "standing", that is to say a strong basis, in halacha as interpreted and applied by great torah scholars. The Tur when he disagreed with his father was relying explicitly in most if not all cases on other opinions which had such standing, such as the opinion of Rambam, the Rif or one of the great Tosafists who may have disagreed with the Rosh. He was not going off on his own and adopting a position without any significant basis in halacha as interpreted by great torah scholars as a whole.

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