Tuesday, March 01, 2011

On Deference, Questions, and Disputes

There was a question-and-answer session recently which I attended at which a number of excellent issues were brought up, ranging from child and sexual abuse (report to the authorities immediately) to toiveling a new dish (no mikor for using something once before toiveling) to the Rambam's ikkarei emunah, to how much someone should put into their work as hishtadlus (whatever is considered normal for that profession; but one should consider from a personal point of view whether it's worth working 100-hour weeks and never seeing one's family).

One interesting discussion was regarding not da'as Torah per se, but rather what one is expected to follow vis-a-vis halachic precedents, and what one can or should determine for themselves rather than defer to the opinion of another. In summary, I believe the conclusion was that while the subject is a very broad one, it is difficult to break from established traditions taken on by the overall community. If one's own Rav has ruled something, then certainly one may follow that, and people may certainly have different Rabbonim for different issues based on their expertise (i.e. one who knows kashrus, another niddah, etc. - a rosh yeshiva may have little familiarity with hilchos niddah or related matters, and a mashgiach with Shabbos, etc.), though people should be intellectually honest and not be "shopping around" for a psak. In addition, people can of course use their own logic and understanding of halacha to make their own determinations. There's no need, and it can be very difficult, if people constantly seek out a Rav to ask every shaila that comes up. In essence, common sense is as one would think it is.

Yesterday, R' Gil Student raised a closely related but slightly different issue, that of deference. As of this writing, it has over 200 comments due to the subject matter, despite it being a rather "pareve" post overall. He quotes R' Lichtenstein and summarizes:
Rabbis are fallible and, if they lack adequate information, may rule incorrectly. If after discussion and investigation I honestly believe they have ruled based on wrong information, I will ignore their conclusions.

But if it is an issue of interpretation or judgment, I defer to those with greater experience and expertise, those who have devoted more hours to diligently plumbing the depths of Torah than I have or ever will, those more brilliant and wise than I am or ever will be.
This is also along the same common sense line; similar to any other field, if it seems clear the person is wrong, then go your own route. But in a matter of expertise where someone has that expertise, you would defer to their knowledge and understanding. Growing up, this same idea was presented to us in the following way: If you believe you have a great question or answer related to the statement of a commentator, then perhaps you do; but the person you're discussing was no fool either, and had learned the subject in depth. Try to think through it in different ways to see if your question or answer has its own flaws, or to understand why they wrote as they did. (This is actually a great practice for life in general: It allows you to far better understand differing points of view and how people came to the conclusions they have.) Essentially, err on the side of deferment.

R' Gil concludes that he recognizes his status and that "If a top notch Torah scholar issues an opinion, I may ask questions about it but I will not dispute it." In a post about R' Gil's post, R' Natan Slifkin seemingly disagrees with this approach (though I don't know how different they are), and disputes the idea of deference at all. He acknowledges that anyone may choose to defer, but questions if there is really a reason to do so, pointing to an interesting pair of psakim by R' Moshe Feinstein on the subject:
Rav Moshe Feinstein has two important responsa on the topic of disputes vs. deference. One is regarding the propriety of a rabbi in Bnei Brak disputing the Chazon Ish (see translation here), where Rav Moshe says that it is inconceivable that there would be any reason why he would have to defer to the Chazon Ish. He says that even a student may not rule in accordance with his teacher if he disagrees with him - all the more so with someone who is not his teacher. And in another responsum (translated here), he explains why he sometimes disputes Acharonim and even Rishonim. His reason is that everyone has the responsibility to form opinions based on what makes sense to them.
All in all, it seems easy to understand both sides of the discussion, and as noted, they don't seem incredibly different as a practical matter - R' Gil reserves the right of people to disagree, just is more reluctant to do so.

What is most important in this discussion, however, is that it completely demolishes the idea that seems to be expressed more and more that people cannot question Rabbonim, but must defer completely to their judgment. Bracha Goetz wrote an article, republished by BeyondBT, asking Aren't We Supposed to Question? She relates a recent story:
The couple was discussing something about what the rabbi had said in shul, and David piped in with a question about what the rabbi said. I don’t even remember anymore what the actual topic was. All that I remember vividly is the brief exchange that transpired next.

The wife stated very emphatically that one must never question a Rav. David responded very innocently that he thought that Judaism was a religion that welcomed questions, so rabbis would welcome being questioned. “Aren’t we supposed to question?” he asked, and a stiff silence followed. Nobody responded to David. Not even me. I just didn’t know what to say then.
She admits this is extremely troubling:
When did the encouragement of questioning stop?

And why don’t we feel safe anymore to question?

I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since.

It no longer tastes like the Torah we were first offered, when those with clout invalidate sincere questioning by dismissing it as being presumptuous.When people only feel unafraid to voice their doubts and questions as anonymous comments on frum blogs, we can be grateful for these opportunities for suppressed voices to be heard, but it also highlights that a fear of speaking up is prevalent. Instead of feeling threatened by these anonymous comments, and seeking to forbid them by imposing bans on these venues, we need more leaders who can garner genuine respect by encouraging as much open questioning as possible. Then they too can actually benefit from the perspectives and challenges presented.
What seems clear from the posts of R' Gil and R' Slifkin is that there certainly is no basis for the concept of not questioning Rabbonim - even disagreeing with them seems perfectly fine, and expressing that disagreement appropriately is as well. The only point at which disagreement becomes murky seems to be actual psak, and at that point it is a matter of discussion as to when one may or may not and should or should not be following the rulings of others. The question of whether one should follow the psak of others or use their own judgment while researching a subject likely related back to the debate discussed by R' Gil and R' Slifkin, but certainly a person should be open to questioning the wisdom behind the various psakim they may hear about or receive.

Ms. Goetz writes well about how the ability to question is what helped so many grow so strongly in their understanding of Judaism. Quashing that ability is self-defeating, and as she notes as well, ours is not a religion of blind allegiance or infallible leadership.
Painful experiences have taught us to fear communal reprisal, arrogant attacks from those who wield power, and mafia-like intimidation tactics within our midst. We discovered that our leaders made decisions based on financial backing and political favors, instead of on pure spiritual motivations. And we found out that this has been going on unquestioned. As we learned a little more Torah that we hadn’t initially been taught, we also came to understand that in the hands of unscrupulous people, Torah can be misused as a deadly poison (Yoma 72b).
Hopefully, a better understanding of what it means to defer, as opposed to follow without question, will allow us to ask better, stronger questions in all matters related to Judaism - and those in turn will help us ask questions regarding our communities and how they function. We will be far better off for having done so.

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