Despite the expectation from its title, Rabbi Herschel Schachter’s recent Beit Yitzchak article “Kuntres B’Inyanei Pesak Halakha” (PDF) does not articulate a system or method of deciding and applying Jewish law. Instead of outlining his views of how pesak works, the article is nearly entirely comprised of sources and anecdotes illustrating the dangers of blindly following observed practices even when they have been approved or enacted by rabbinic authorities. For example in some cases a rabbi could be responding to extenuating circumstances and in a different situation could pasken differently. It is also possible (if not likely) that a person will simply misunderstand or misinterpret the given pesak and thus not be competent to apply that pesak to other cases.
We’ve discussed these concerns in our Perils of Pesak from the perspective of the posek in terms of taking care in formulating responses. Here, R. Schachter passively argues that there is a corresponding responsibility on the recipient or observer of the pesak. Specifically, while non-gedolim are expected to follow the “hachmei ha-mesorah,” the typical Jew is not allowed to apply that pesak or observed practice to other situations since it is likely that a “ba’al ha-bayit” will be missing crucial information or intellectual sophistication to process and apply a gadol‘s pesak on his own.
By itself, this is a completely reasonable position considering how often people misunderstand or misquote Rabbis, but it does raise the question of what should be done. To answer this questions, R. Schachter tacitly argues for an additional level in a rabbinic hierarchy. Towards the conclusion of the first paragraph, R. Schachter refers to Rabba’s statement in (B. Avoda Zara 5b (English) that a person “does not stand/rely on the thoughts of his teacher until after forty years,” meaning it takes forty years to truly understand the methods of one’s teacher. This citation reveals the intention in the article’s first sentence, in which R. Schachter’s refers to his education with R. Soloveitchik “more than forty years ago.” Taking the Talmudic citation and the introductory statement together, R. Schachter establishes himself as one of the few genuine and authoritative interpreters of R. Soloveitchik.1
R. Schachter has previously argued for a restrictive model of halakhic discourse in which only certain individuals are entitled to an opinion. See for example his comments on Yom Tov Sheni:2
If one is a then he is entitled and indeed obligated to research each and every halakhic issue and to follow his own personal view on any matter. But, if one is not higia lehoraah (as the overwhelming majority of people who learned in yeshiva would be classified) then one may not pick and chose arbitrarily from amongst the various opinions of the poskim.
However, R. Schachter does not define exactly who is higi’ah l’hora’ah or how one achieves this status.3 From Kuntres, it is possible he is distinguishing higi’ah l’hora’ah with ba’al mesorah, where one can decide for himself but cannot speak for others, or if the two are in fact synonymous. In either case, pesak must only be made by approved people, but only those with the requisite experience may speak on behalf of the gedolim. I would suggest that for R. Schachter the two must work in tandem, since otherwise anyone who was in the Rav’s shiur 40 years ago would have equal standing for interpreting R. Soloveitchik – a common perception considering how many people claim to speak for R. Soloveitchik.
Practically speaking, R. Schachter’s suggestion further restricts the possibility of personal autonomy in following halakha. Only certain people allowed to go back to the original sources, and everyone else must ask them for halakhic decisions. However, even though one may have a pesak for one case, or observes how someone paskened in another case, one still should not repeat the pesak in other instances, but ostensibly should once again ask for another pesak. In other words, the solution to people not being able to follow the gadol system correctly, is to have an intermediary to explain and apply the gadol’s pesak for us.
While I can understand the pragmatic need for such a position, I think this is ultimately unhelpful since adding the additional rabbinic level simply creates another person to be misunderstood. If there is a risk of misapplying the pesak of a gadol, there is an equal risk of misapplying or misunderstanding the pesak of his student. Furthermore, we would also have to assume that the student does not have an agenda of his own or a desire to see his Rebbe portrayed in a certain light. Again using R. Soloveitchik as an example, there are numerous Rabbis trying to re-create R. Soloveitchik in their own image which requires ignoring or rationalizing certain decisions or behaviors of the Rav which are inconsistent with the student’s perception. For example, one Rabbi remarked at R. Soloveitchik’s funeral that he never saw the Rav reading a secular book. While this may be entirely true, the implication is misleading. Or for another example, despite R. Soloveitchik’s vehement stance against mixed seating, he allowed an uncle of mine to take a non-mehitza pulpit. When I mentioned this to one YU Rosh Yeshiva, the response was, “it couldn’t be – he must have misunderstood.” I cannot comment on who is right here, but the problem is the same regardless. If the gadol is widely accepted (or expected to be accepted), then of course there will be more of a desire to interpret his positions in a particular way to coincide with a student’s own hashkafa.
It would seem to me that the cause of such misapplications of halakha is the very lack of perceived autonomy in the “gadol system” of halakha. We have trained people to simply follow the gedolim, and that is exactly what people are doing. If the problem is that people do not know what they are doing in following the gedolim, then perhaps education in the halakhic nuances of pesak would be a more effective long-term solution.4
1. And by constantly referring to R. Soloveitchik as our teacher (rabbeinu), R. Schachter implies that this authority is sweeping.
2. Hat tip to Shaya for the link.
3. Though it’s clear that he does not consider most smikhas to be sufficient.
4. Or we could change the system, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon.