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In The Legacy Of The Rav, Allowing Rabbis To Decide
Mon, 03/10/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

“What do you think?”

These are the words I often heard from my revered teacher, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (known to his students as “the Rav”), when, as a younger rabbi, I came before him to ask questions pertaining to Jewish law.  Rather than directly respond, he would ask, “what’s your opinion.”  Often, he would challenge me to support my own conclusions.  After listening closely, he would at times say that though he was more comfortable with another opinion, my position had standing.  And since I was the spiritual leader of my community and understood it best, it was my responsibility to follow the conclusions I had reached.

These memories come to mind in recent weeks as questions have surfaced in our community concerning partnership minyanim and women putting on tefillin.  In contrast to my experience with the Rav, some roshei yeshiva (rabbinic heads of yeshivot) have adopted an opposite approach.  Their argument is that only those who are on their level of learning are equipped to answer these questions. 

For many years, I have been promoting a vision of a more inclusive, non-judgmental and open Orthodoxy.  Those who identify with this vision believe in the divinity of Torah and are committed to the detailed observance of the practices of Jewish law. But such a faith commitment does not have to translate into rigidity.  We believe in an Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; invites religious struggle and questioning; promotes dialogue across the Jewish denominations; welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance; and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people.

But perhaps the most significant contrast is our attitude toward centralization of rabbinic authority.  There was a time when only the haredi community emphasized the central authority of select rabbis.  But recently, this trend has been growing in other segments of the Orthodox Jewish community. 

The Rav did not feed into this trend.  His goal was to be persuasive rather than coercive.  While the Rav welcomed his students to consult with him, he encouraged local rabbis to understand that they are the final authorities of psak (legal decisions) in their respective communities.

Centralization of rabbinic authority corrodes the nature of psak.  By its very definition, psak must take into account situations and conditions of people in front of you.  When done properly psak is rendered by local community rabbis in consultation, when necessary, with great Torah scholars.  It’s done wrongly when this authority is transferred to those who are outside of the community, ensconced within the walls of the beit midrash (study hall). 

One of the most troubling aspects of the recent rabbinic proclamations concerning partnership minyanim and women donning tefillin appears to be the absence of any real engagement with the people directly involved.  How can one rule on partnership minyanim without reaching out to the men and women who daven there?  Or to the rabbis whose constituents in large numbers leave their synagogues to attend partnership minyanim when they are held in their communities?  How can one rule on allowing high school girls to wear tefillin without talking to the principals or the students involved?  

With so much at stake, shouldn’t it be imperative to seek out and have open and honest discussion with halachic decisors who permit these practices, or those who prohibit them but respect the position of those who argue they are permissible? These issues are tremendously weighty on both sides: communal boundaries on one, and a pushing away of serious committed Jews on the other.  Are we really prepared, with a flick of the wrist, to cast out thousands of Orthodox Jews in America and in Israel who seek spiritual meaning through these endeavors? 

Several years ago, Rabbi Dov Linzer, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), was presenting to a group of community rabbis on the important issue of conversion.  I still remember his opening words, which echoed the Rav’s approach.  Turning to the gathered rabbis, many of whom were his students, he said: “You are in the field.  You know the realities.  What are your perspectives?”  It is this type of humility that we need from our rabbinic leaders.

It is with this vision that we need to train our rabbis. The goal should not be to control, but to empower them.  To empower them with deep ahavat haTorah (love of Torah) and Yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven), to take the tools they have been given and use them in the way they feel is most responsive to individuals and their communities, consistent with tradition and God’s intention. 

Built into empowerment is trust -- trust that rabbis will have the humility to recognize what they know and what they don’t know.  And when unsure, they will consult, while realizing that, in the end, they are responsible to make the important decisions for their own communities.  After all, what does semicha (ordination) mean if not the giving of authority to rabbis to make halachic decisions?

Great leaders do not focus on having followers, but on creating leaders.  That’s what the Rav meant when he would ask, over and over, “What do you think?” This, I believe, is one of his great legacies. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-the Bayit, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.

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A generation ago,when Rabbi Soloveitchik and Reb Moshe Feinstein would come to a halachik impasse,it is well known that they would turn to Rav Henkin,the elder statesman of American Orthodox Jewry to render psak.Rav Aharon Lichtenstein would regularly consult Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach regarding matters of psak,notwithstanding his familial tie to The Rav,Rabbi Soloveitchik.It is unfortunate that although rabbis like Avi Weiss and others of his ilk may be serving important societal functions as activists,feel good do gooders etc....their self -serving version of " psak" casts them as nothing more than impresarios.Instead of peddling the fact that they may have sat in the Rav's lecture hall-why don't these rabbis hell-bent on accelerating a process which can only occur over time-the organic metamorhosis of Halacha-consult bona fide talmedei chachamim and recieve guidance regarding substantial communal issues.SURELY there must be SOMEONE who is alive to consult with instead of interpreting The Rav's statements which were likely intended solely for didactic purposes.
How absurd,that with the passage of time,Rabbi Soloveitchik's legacy is cheapened to the point that the public is subject to a few former students passing off the Rav's style of psak as egalitarian and democratic.So goeth the Artscroll generation......perhaps the weather beaten question of " Who is a Jew" be recast as " Who is a Rabbi.........."

You say "to take the tools they have been given and use them in the way they feel is most responsive to individuals and their communities, consistent with tradition and G-d’s intention."

What you do is not G-d's intention and not consistent with tradition. Just say the truth and pray to Hashem that they will accept it, instead of tearing the Holy Torah in two.

Humble is the G_dly soul, that looks through the heart of another, letting the whole Torah lead each persons path, even if we do not see...

"Those who identify with this vision believe in the divinity of Torah and are committed to the detailed observance of the practices of Jewish law."

Except, of course, for Zev Farber and those who have defended his public rejection of the divinity of the Torah from within the ranks of Avi Weiss's "Open Orthodoxy".

And of course, let us not forget the notorious "Orthoprax Rabbi", as he named his blog, though he admits to being an atheist as well. His colleagues are well aware of who he is.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein wrote in the Forward several years ago. His words are just as relevant today as ever.

Rabbi Weiss argues "One of the most troubling aspects of the recent rabbinic proclamations concerning partnership minyanim and women donning tefillin appears to be the absence of any real engagement with the people directly involved."

I am just a talmid so I do not know what went on behind the scenes. However, let us say that one received a reliable report that a rabbi allowed a camp to, on Shabbas, make a camp fire and roast marshmallows. Would one ask 'how can you poskin on making a bonfire and cooking on Shabbas without speaking with the campers?' Granted, these cases may be more complicated than my example, but they are not that much more complicated.

Semicha constitutes netilas reshus b'alma to rule on whatever one is qualified to rule on. Thus, since we all know that not everyone who gets semicha today can learn a long Shach inside, semicha cannot be a blanket permission for everyone who receives a klaf to undo 500 or more years of tradition.

Weiss is being disingenuous. He knows full well that when a teacher asks, "what do you think," he doesn't mean, "do whatever you want." He means that he wants to know the student's opinion and how he arrived at it, but then he will be sure to tell the student where he went wrong and what the correct answer is.

Here are the Rav zt'l's own words from the book Sanctity of the Synagogue, concerning the issue of mechitza:

"THIS IS THE QUESTION which has been raised: Lately there has been a great increase in the
number of synagogues where men and women sit together. Many of them are attended by Jews
who designate themselves as orthodox. Shall Orthodox Judaism then consider such synagogues as
an inevitable development, and become reconciled to them? Or must it assume a militant stand
against them?

To make absolutely clear my position on this laden question, I would like to relate this incident:

A young man moved into a suburb of Boston, where the only existent synagogue had men and
women sitting together. He asked me what he should do on the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur; until then, on account of the mixed seating, he had not entered the synagogue; but on
the Days of Awe he was very reluctant to remain at home. I answered him that it were better for him
to pray at home both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and not cross the threshold of that synagogue.
A few days later he telephoned me again: he had met the man who was to sound the shofar in that
synagogue, and this man had warned him that if he did not come to the synagogue he simply would
not hear the shofar at all, for the man would not sound the shofar again, privately, for his benefit. The
young man practically implored me that I grant him permission to enter the edifice, at least for a half
hour, that he might hear the shofar blasts. I hesitated not for a moment, but directed him to remain at
home. It would be better not to hear the shofar than to enter a synagogue whose sanctity has been

Note that the Rav did not answer this man, "What do you think? What is your opinion?"

"But such a faith commitment does not have to translate into rigidity." That attitude has sure helped the Conservative movement, hasn't it?

Here's where I'm confused:
Open up any volume of responsa literature, and what do you see?
Learned rabbis turning to rabbis even more learned than they for Halachic guidance.
This has been going on for the longest time.
According to this article, what was the point of all the responsa literature?
Why did the people writing the questions bother to do so?
Why not just take the bull by the horns and rule on their own?

Insightful--but rapid changes in communication need to be considered. A local rabbi is local no longer when the internet spreads his decisions worldwide. That is a question rather than an objection.

Excellent article. I believe all Jews should read it. I am proud to be a part of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-the Bayit.

what utter nonsense! teaching your followers to have Yiras Shamayim means that you don't change a practice of Orthodox Jews for hundreds/thousands of years without asking the CURRENT gedolei hador!

Or in the words of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, "There go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

So according to Rabbi Weiss, when the Bet Din HaGadol/Sanhedrin existed in Jerusalem and centralized psaq, limiting it to only the most outstanding halakhic experts in the field, this was a bad thing. And when it is reestablished in Messianic times it will be a tragedy rather than a blessing?