Elul 5760 – Halachic Process

1 Elul 5760

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

At least 95% of the time, whenever an halakhic issue is raised, especially on contemporary issues, even before the question is asked, the answer is known: one rabbi will say yes; one rabbi will say no; and a third rabbi will say, “Well, it’s better if you don’t, but if you do it anyway you’re also OK”. Every possible outcome one could imagine before asking the question is found in fact after asking, if you ask enough rabbis or search enough books.

Instead of Halacha being a system that provides clear-cut and meaningful answers to relevant issues, all these halachic debates seem to be just like a game of amusement, in which the outcome is not really important, since all possible outcomes, that are already known at the outset, are equally valid. And if the rule is that you can ask only once, it’s a game of trying to hit the right rabbi on the first shot. So the question is obvious: Why waste time asking and debating these questions in the first place? Why not let each individual just do what he feels comfortable with, and 99% of the time it will turn out that there are valid halachic grounds to support him?

Thank you,

Name and Seminary withheld upon request

Dear Name withheld upon request,

I don’t know what your experience is with the halachic process, but it differs seriously from mine.

Let me first deal with a point that you made that seems to me to be the most important one. You write, “all these halachic debates seem to be just like a game of amusement, in which the outcome is not really important”. I couldn’t disagree more. I think the outcome will determine G-d’s will and our purpose in the world. The possibility of getting that wrong provides NO amusement for me, but rather fills me with a sense of dread. I take the process VERY seriously, more so than medicine, since medicine only affects your body and this affects your eternal soul. As such, when my father had lung cancer, we didn’t nonchalantly say “well, some doctors will tell you one thing and others will tell you another thing – just do what you want, Dad”. Rather we researched and listened and examined carefully the credentials and results of the doctors making the suggestions.

Is it possible to hear whatever you want from a doctor? Sure, that doesn’t mean they’re all right. It also doesn’t mean I’d advise someone who was ill to go to the medicine cabinet and take whatever medication they feel like.

The idea of picking one Rabbi is not much different from following one form of treatment. We believe that Judaism is an organic whole, not a collection of individual laws. As I once explained to someone, the sheet fits the bed perfectly – you can’t pull it to far to one side without it coming off on the other. We don’t “shop around” for a Rabbi who will tell us what we want to hear. We look for a Rav who we believe embodies what Torah stands for, whose knowledge is wide, whose understanding is deep, whose life embodies holiness. Not Rabbi Bob who studied for Semicha, knows little about anything else and whose job is on the line if he doesn’t answer the way we want.

There will of course be disagreements between sages about how to apply halacha to new situations. Sometimes they will agree and other times not. But each view is reflecting a total welterschanng. Not a spur of the moment feeling.

If there is a specific issue you want to deal with, I’ll be happy to discuss it in detail.

Dovid Orlofsky