Religious Jews often talk about halakhah, and by their self-identification will attempt to frame their practices within a halakhic framework, but few if any can offer a logically coherent or consistent system to describe how halakhah is supposed to work. For example, one of the recurring issues in the Jewish community is what are the rules of halakhic adaptation, how does Jewish Law change, and how do we determine which changes are legitimate or flawed.
This is a subject about which I have discussed extensively on this site and even devoted a 30 part series dedicated to describing The Halakhic Process. However, it appears that for many people on the internet it is too much trouble to listen to classes, consult primary sources necessary for an argument, read long posts with a critical eye towards comprehension, let alone suffer the inconvenience of having to substantiate their own opinions with any semblance of rigor. 1
Thus, as a quasi-public service, today I am going to illustrate fundamental differences in approaches to halakhah by actually providing illustrations.
Sign in LBC Clothing
This past Thursday, April 10th 2014, 10 Nissan in the Hebrew Calendar, my grandfather Mayer Bender Meir Yechiel ben Moshe Ephraim v’Leah passed away at the age of 94. The following is an audio recording of the funeral, in which you will hear in detail just what an exceptional person he was. Those who knew him invariably loved him, and I consider myself privileged to have had a relationship with him, and honored to have been his grandson.
Regular readers of halakhic literature will inevitably encounter appeals to “consensus,” either of a select sample of halakhic decisiors, frequently using the Hebrew idiom “rov poskim,” or of a community’s popular perceptions. 1 The distinguishing characteristic of these appeals to consensus is that the legitimacy or rejection of an opinion is not determined by intrinsic, objective, qualifiable criteria or its merits, but by its adoption by certain people. 2 The primary premise of such arguments is that unanimity or a plurality of agreement among a given collective is halakhically binding on the Jewish population 3 and cannot be further contested or subject to review. 4
Appeals to consensus are common and relatively simply to assert, but those who rely on consensus rarely if ever acknowledge, address, or defend, the assumptions inherent with the invoking of consensus as a source – if not the determinant – of practical Jewish law. As I will demonstrate, appeals to consensus are laden with problematic logical and halakhic assumptions such that while “consensus” may constitute one factor in determining a specific psak, it is not nearly the definitive halakhic criterion its proponents would like to believe.
- While in this essay I am focusing on halakhah, similar appeals to consensus are found in discussions of Jewish thought, in particular regarding the status of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. ↩
- In Brisker terms, this would be a distinction between the “heftza” of a position’s content versus the “gavra” of those who accept it. ↩
- This is not to be confused with the use of consensus as a form of colloquial rhetorical flourish. For example, The Talmud records hundreds of claims of “kulei ‘alma,” literally meaning “the whole world” agrees to a particular position. Given the certitude that one can produce a single lone dissenter on the planet to falsify this claim, it seems reasonable to assume that Talmudic sages were conscious of their hyperbole. But even in the Talmudic vernacular, an appeal to “kulei ‘alma” was most often employed to define a point of agreement between specific parties in order to better understand the true point of halakhic contention. See B. Berachot 23a for just one example. These appeals to “the whole world” are not the basis of a halakhic argument – which must be defended on its merits – but instead are descriptive of a certain context, albeit exaggerated, with the intent of advancing a specific point in the discussion. ↩
- Alternative or contradictory opinions may be suggested, but only with the caveat they remain theoretical and are not to be implemented in practice. ↩
Rabbi Yuter’s shiurim go on Passover hiatus with a discussion about fire and Shabbat.
Apologies for the delays in posting, catching up with past shiurim now…
Dear Friends and Loyal Readers,
In shul this past Shabbat I formally announced my intentions to the community to step down as Rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul with the intentions of making Aliyah this summer. 1 For those who know me the decision to make Aliyah itself should not be surprising. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, my immediate family is all there, and of course it’s a religious obligation. 2 But making Aliyah is still a huge step. It’s probably the only time where you can give up a career, family, friends, security, and the entire life you knew for a completely uncertain future and people will still wish you “Mazal Tov” for doing so. 3 The question for me is less a matter of “why” than it is “why now?”
- Ideally on the August 11th Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight from JFK, though I’ve learned from experience nothing is final until it’s in writing. ↩
- See M. Ketubot 13:11 and B. Ketubot 110b. For an interesting halakhic fact, according to Rabbinic Judaism the halakhic consequence for a woman not wanting to make Aliyah with her husband is that she gets divorced and loses her entitlement to her husband’s estate as defined in her ketubah. This is the exact same consequence if a married woman goes out without a head covering (M. Ketubot 7:6). While it is undoubtedly easier to put on a hat than it is to move to another country, women’s head covering has ironically become an identifier of religious commitment among Orthodox Jews, at least in America. ↩
- Tell your parents you’re going to become a rodeo clown and see how that works. ↩
Even manged to throw in some bilingual rhymes again too. I love those.