Friday, March 9, 2012

The Shul Rabbi is the communal authority

One of the key rules we set up for our Beit Midrash when we started almost three years ago was that no member of the Beit Midrash is allowed to pasken. All questions are referred to the shul rabbi. I always reiterate this in halachah shiurim, as well.

From time to time, people challenge me on this; after all, popular custom is for everyone from gemara rebbeim to roshei yeshiva to non-practicing musmachim to opine freely on halachic matters. Why won't I?

I have several reasons, including:
1. The shul rabbi knows the community, and knows the impact of an answer given to a particular party;
2. The shul rabbi is responsible for setting a communal standard, which could be easily wrecked by amateurs;
3. The shul rabbi is the one who will need to pick up the pieces if there is fallout from the ruling;
4. The original system of semichah was designed this way, to have just one ruling authority in any given location.

The other day I came across reinforcement in the Chasam Sofer. Addressing a question put to him, he wrote (Chasam Sofer 1:123):

לא ידעתי אם יש רב יושב על כסא הוראה דקהלתכם כי אז אליו תשמעון ודברי כלא היו
I don't know if there is a Rabbi sitting on your community's seat of halachic authority. If there is, you should listen to him, and my words are as nothing.

I think he was pretty clear on the subject.


  1. The first person to challenge the idea of a yeshiva was the rabbi of Mir. He held that the Mir yeshiva should not be independent but under the authority of the local rabbi. This was taken to some beit din and the yeshiva won the case. I have discovered most shul rabbis don't know the one subject that they supposedly got semicha for --yoreh deah (as Rav Aberejan from Safed discovered with chasidic rabbis that were in charge of shechita).

    In this generation it is clear to me if a person wants to know a halacha, the place to go is to the people that are involved in learning Talmud most of the day.

    Semicha in itself has become a problem of legal positivism. I gather from your blog that you are in Canada so you might not have seen this. But in America this was like getting a bucket of ice water in the face for me. In America, the rabbis believe and teach that their decrees have the power to nullify anything in the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch.
    As bad as this sounds it is the approach Orthodox Rabbis teach. They are the sole and absolute authority. They use the authority of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch to mask this fact.

    There was a story with Rebbi Nachman. There was Chasidic rabbi that was making war against him. Rebbi Nachman told his disciples to check up on any pesak of that rabbi. They went to the Shulchan Aruch and saw that whatever the rabbi said, the Shulchan Aruch said the exact opposite.

  2. Rabbi T,
    This is assuming only one shul and one shul rabbi per community. Community today is defined geographically by location. Lots of those locations have multiple shuls within them, with multiple rabbis. Our community alone has 8 "shul rabbis," and there are places in Brooklyn where you can get those 8 shul rabbis per square block. People today may daven in more than one shul, depending on time of day or day of the week.

    Yes, perhaps for a personal question where the rabbi's knowing who you are and what your situation is is important, going to the rabbi of your shul makes the most sense. But for communal questions, those affecting more than just yourself, does the psak of one rabbi from one of 8 shuls in the community really "trump" the psak of the others? What if those rabbis all or mostly pasken differently from each other? And what of situations where expertise is required of a specific type, such as scientific or medical expertise, in order to pasken? Are we to assume that one goes to their shul rabbi regardless of expertise?

  3. I agree with ProfK.

    I think there are a number of issues being conflated here. A rabbi who is a member of a shul usurping the prerogatives of the congregational rabbi, and also the issue of a person having one rabbi he listens to le-chumra and le-kula.

    But the reality is that we don't have one rabbi, and even if we do, that may be for declaring tzara'at and for issur ve-heiter, that we shouldn't/can't go shopping around.

    I think for most matters, we end up using a combination, variously weighted, of the following four elements, in no particular order:

    1. books. We know what books say, and we make judgment calls. ArtScroll says you can't do X, or Feldheim says you can do Y.

    2. normative practice in our community. We look around us and see what other people in our circles tend to do.

    3. our LOR. We ask the congregational rabbi, or chashuveshe posek.

    4. our brains.

    So let's say I want to know if I have to wash three times for bread. In my mind, I probably look it up in books, I ask around what others do, I discuss it with my LOR, and I use my brain about what makes sense.

    You need to use all four. You can't just follow what people do blindly. Nor can you just follow books. Nor your LOR. Nor your own common sense alone. You probably use, to varrying degrees, all four.

    With regard to asking a smart guy with smichah who happens to daven in your shul, that's effectively akin to looking up something in a book, and seeing what is normative in your community. How often do people ask for a psak anyway? In issur ve'heter, sure. But there are ways to word questions, and then decide for yourself. And even if you ask the guy with smichah for a psak, I'm not sure that is usurping the prerogative of the congregational rabbi in many instances. Plus what's the problem? That the mara d'asra is the final authority? Nobody is saying he isn't. That you should follow one rabbi le-kula and le-chumra? Nobody does that anyway anymore. The Rabbis Feinstein Brothers don't follow everything in the Igerot Moshe. Nobody follows one rabbi for everything, as ProfK said.

    I'm not seeing the issue with either asking a smart guy with smichah something, nor the smart guy with smichah answering.

    Obviously there are exceptions that apply. The congregational rabbi remains the final arbiter for a lot of things. But not for everything.

    The other problem is the smart guy with smichah hiding behind not wanting to pasken, and then looking wishy washy. And from a practical standpoint, it's nice to say everyone should have an intimate relationship with their congregational rabbi, but especially in big shuls with high utilization rates it's not so simple to ask the congregational rabbi every shaylah.

  4. There's even the better one where Chasam Sofer visits a community where they denied normal burial to a Jew who was murdered by highwaymen -- "the Gemara says if someone deserved the death penalty by decapitation, it might be carried out by bandits, so clearly this guy deserved it." He writes had that been the ruling of the local authority he wouldn't have messed with it! But as the authority wasn't around at that point and they were asking him ... he was going to um, set them straight.

  5. Adam-
    There's nothing I can do with such generalizations, other than to say that my experience varies. The shul rabbis I have met in Toronto are first-rate.

    Good questions. On the "field of expertise" issue, I agree, and a good rabbi will know that. But in terms of multiple rabbis, I would say to go to the rabbi of the shul where one davens. And I do believe that shul-hopping is unhealthy, precisely because it undermines the formation of a strong relationship with a guide.

    As I understand it, your fundamental question is where librarianship ends and psak begins. For this I refer you to the Tur Yoreh Deah 242, a piece of which says:

    ולא מקרי הוראה אלא כשמורה על מעשה שבא לפניו אבל שאלו לתלמיד הלכה כדברי מי יכול לומר מה שבדעתו כיון שאינו מורה על מעשה שבא לפניו ולא מקרי הוראה אלא בדבר שיש בו חדוש לשואל אבל בהוראה ידועה שהיא פשוטה לכל כגון נותן טעם לפגם או איסור שנתערב בהיתר לבטלו בס' וכיוצא באלו שכשמתירין לו אינו נראה לו דבר חידוש שכבר שמע הוראה זו ופשוטה לכל שרי
    "It is not called a 'ruling' unless one rules regarding a case which comes before him. If they ask a student [generically], "Whom do we follow", he may reply with his opinion, since he is not ruling about an actual case. It is not called a 'ruling' unless some novelty for the questioner is involved, but known rulings which are obvious to all, like noten taam lifgam and nullification of prohibited items in a mixture with a ratio of 1/60, in which he has heard this ruling before and no novelty is involved and it is obvious to all, are permitted.

    Indeed; thanks.

  6. This idea that rabbis differ in quality has been brought to my attention by R. Zilverman in Jerusalem.
    When this is the case I am happy to agree.
    In fact I did notice in Israel there very rigorous exams that people have to take to get to be part of the rabanut or to be a dayan. so in spite of my reservations, I agree that there are many qualified people.

  7. and of course there is the notion that a rav gets a little extra heavenly help when he paskins an actual shailah.
    Joel RIch

  8. I see it's time, once again, for me to fulfill my function of inquiring, in these comments, from an uninformed outsider's point of view. Roll eyes, snort, and/or chuckle as needed.

    Speaking of case #1, why is the impact of the answer on a particular party relevant? How can the same action be permissible to one party but not to another? Is this not "a little bit pregnant" territory?

  9. Not sure if this is my thought or perhaps part of what was in mind in the Rebbetzin's Husband's original post. I think this is a particular issue in smaller communities, ones with shuls and a yeshiva, where perhaps the authority of the Rosh Yeshiva is exalted over that of the shul Rabbeim. The problem, or tension, is that the goals or interests of the yeshiva and Rosh Yeshiva are not necessarily those of the shuls and Ba'alei Batim. For example, in Kashrus. A Yeshiva community might, for example, be completely indifferent to the presence of kosher restaurants, but Ba'alei Batim might want them, both for themselves and to grow the community. All want kosher food, but Ba'alei Batim may accept even a Glatt kosher (or the dairy or parve "equivalent") standard which does not meet the greater restrictions of the Rosh Yeshiva or his world. Or, to take another example, a Rosh Yeshiva and his community will have no need for a boys' high school, because they send their boys away, but they need a girls' high school, whereas the Ba'alei Batim might want both and might even be willing to entertain mixed secular studies to make such possible. The latter might not exactly be a matter of paskening, but I think both cases illustrate the negative side of deferring to the authority of a Rosh Yeshiva or Rosh Kollel over that of the shul Rabbeim.

  10. Joel-
    We can hope, anyway!

    No eye-rolling warranted, of course!
    Often, halachic decisions require the balancing of competing halachic imperatives, including domestic peace and economic survival. Those factors certainly are subjective.

    Thanks for commenting; all quite relevant.

  11. Rabbi,
    Shul hopping is sometimes a necessity of time and/or distance. Would it be any healthier to not go to minyan because of time constraints--the shul where you daven on Shabbos does not have an early enough minyan to get you to work on time. Or, you work very far away from your regular shul and so attend a minyan for mincha in a shul near where you work. Or you get home from work late and your regular shul does not have a maariv minyan at that time but another local shul does. Or perhaps your regular shul is a 16 block walk and it's pouring rain or snowing or 2 degrees out, and there is another shul only 2 blocks away. And there is the walking versus driving aspect as well. Your preferred shul may simply be too far to walk to on Shabbos, but you go there when you can drive during the week. Lots of reasons for shul hopping that are matters of practicality.

  12. ProfK-
    That's not what I meant by "shul-hopping". To me, someone who goes to one shul during the week and another on Shabbos has the opportunity to bond with two rabbis. I thought you meant making the rounds of different shuls each Shabbos.

  13. People join a shul and, over time, the shul's rabbis come and go. The new rabbi may not always agree with the old on matters of halachic interpretation. Does joining a shul mean that a member has to accept any future rabbi of that shul as a posek?

    Also there may be halachic areas where, relative to other local rabbis, one's current shul rabbi is an amateur. Should we assume that any shul rabbi will consult as needed?

  14. Bob-
    These are tough issues... ask your shul rabbi... heh heh.

    As I understand it, joining a community means you accept the norms of that community.

    The issue of a shul rabbi who is paskening out of his depth in a particular issue is not simple; this really deserves its own post. Hmmm.

  15. Nowadays. many communities have few native traditions, as most residents came from somewhere else, and are most comfortable with the ways of the place they came from. With multiple interest groups within the communities sometimes at odds over policy, it's entirely possible that the balance of forces will shift, so the type of rabbi selected will also shift.

  16. Bob-
    It's not about their native traditions; rather, it's about the obligation to act in a manner which is consonant with the norms of the current community.

  17. I'm saying that many communities have not developed their own norms to the point that these don't change whenever the personnel change.