Sunday, January 19, 2014

Two reflections from a wonderful Shabbos

I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg speak three times this past Shabbos, on issues related to advances in reproductive medicine and the question of how we define (1) human being, (2) mother, and (3) father. I've read him and many others on these topics before, but live is different, particularly when you are hearing from a person who has discussed these questions with many of the leading halachic authorities of the past forty years.

Listening to the shiurim brought home a couple of key points I have thought about before, but perhaps not as clearly:

1. The hierarchy of halachic authority when dealing with cutting-edge questions
There are people like me, who read as widely as possible and disseminate the information in classes. Our contribution is in making the information accessible, and perhaps, occasionally, raising a question for those higher up to discuss.

On the next rung up are the people who deal with these issues regularly, perhaps professionally, and not only when preparing a shiur. They are fluent in the relevant Torah and technical sources, and they converse with the major halachic authorities of the day. They raise the questions, provide information on the technical issues, study the work of the major halachic authorities and discuss and challenge and debate with them.

On the highest rung are the top halachic authorities. They have achieved this role by dint of their breadth and brilliance, demonstrated in their publications. They possess the creativity and diversity of knowledge to find precedents for dealing with new issues, and the depth of analytical skill to either pick apart those precedents or defend them against challenge.

This is important for someone in my position to remember; there is a real difference between the levels, and it should not be blurred.

2. The centrality of Israel
To the best of my recollection, the only non-Israeli halachic authority from the past 100 years to be mentioned in any of the three presentations was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein – and then only briefly. To my mind, this was not because Rabbi Dr. Steinberg was biased against any of the great halachic authorities of the Diaspora, but because the ones who are dealing with these issues, and publishing articles and teshuvot on them, tend to be in Israel. 

Depressingly, most of the names cited were of authorities who have left this world – Rav Elyashiv, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Unterman, Rav Neuwirth… but the point remains strong: This is yet another example of the fact that Jewish life in Israel is strong, and Jewish life outside of Israel is only, as it should be, a satellite.

Yet another reason for aliyah.


  1. They possess the creativity and diversity of knowledge to find precedents for dealing with new issues,
    So when you look at issues such as ivf with donor sperm and egg, do you think that the precedents cited are the source (i.e. prescriptive) or that the poseik (certainly according to those who understand that hkb"h gives a push to the "right" answer) has a sense and uses the precedent(descriptive)?
    Joel Rich

  2. Joel-
    Based on the way that poskim have changed their minds on the issue, and the way that they apply their precedents consistently across sets of relevant cases, and the way that they often produce unusual results (i.e. multiple mothers), it seems to me that the sources come first.