In a conversation the other day, someone used me as grounds for permitting a certain leniency, extrapolating from another practice I had once permitted.
This was a significant mistake, for two reasons:
First: I had specific halachic guidance, unique to that situation, from a respected authority. The talmudic rule of אין מדמין מילתא למילתא, that we do not extrapolate from one case to another, applies here.
And second, and the focus of this post: Practices and rulings, whether lenient or stringent, are not automatically enshrined as law.
Unfortunately, people often cite precedent unquestioningly. Every shul rabbi knows the Precedent Conversation:
Rabbi: I think we should change shul policy, to do X [such as have the chazan wear a talis/jacket; daven at plag on Friday night; have youth leaders daven hashkamah before running their youth groups].
President/Gabbai/Board/Membership: Rabbi Predecessor didn’t require this. Wasn’t he frum enough?
And so do teenagers learning in yeshiva:
Teen: I don’t feel comfortable doing that [eating in Restaurant X; going to a movie; kissing her uncle] anymore.
Parent: It was good enough for your parents/grandparents, it’s good enough for you.
But argument from tradition is not necessarily valid. I am familiar with the argument that Judaism was classically passed down memetically, by imitation of the previous generation’s behavior, but (1) This thesis is not universally correct, and (2) Saying that general current practice is based on general past practice does not mean that all past practices are carried forward. Respect is our predecessors’ just due, but questioning is warranted.
There are poskim, legal authorities, whose word ought to be automatic law by dint of their proven knowledge, clarity and analysis; their maturity and gravitas; and their apprenticeship to other such authorities. But even then, such guaranteed authority is granted to their explicit rulings, not to vague stories which are open to interpretation.
To return to my opening point, then:
When I move on from this world and my tefillin go to someone else to use, I hope his rabbi will have them checked, and not simply say, “Those were Torczyner’s tefillin, they should be fine.”
When I eat a certain product, I hope that someone who sees me will ask about the hechsher and not assume that I must have done so.
And when someone finds out that I permitted X, I hope he’ll stop and ask, “But does that mean I should do the same?”