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Halakhic Transparency

Last week there was a bit of a storm for some members of Israel’s religious community, and I am not talking about the meteorological type. It all started when Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig published an article (Hebrew) in NRG about how during the big snowstorm last week the fuse blew in the house where he was staying with his family and children. Taking into consideration the severity of the cold, the age of his children, the disagreement over the halakhic status of electricity on Shabbat, and the status of acts performed in an unusual manner (דרך שינוי), he flipped the fuse back to its on position. There was a lot of pushback from certain rabbis and non-rabbis in the national-religious community, and Rabbi Rosensweig published a clarification of his opinion, although rightfully so, not backing down from his original pesak.

Some people, while agreeing with his conclusion, did not like the tone of his article. My answer to them is that he was writing in a newspaper for goodness sake, not a halakhic journal. In fact, he probably did a huge kiddish ha-shem, a sanctification of God’s name, when he showed that halakhah has a compassionate side that is concerned about young children in temperatures that hovered around freezing. If someone wants to go the way of Hasidei Ashkenaz, be my guest.

One of the loudest critics was by Rabbi Israel Rosen, who only a few days earlier had attached his name to an article (Hebrew) that said pretty much the same exact thing although in a much less personal tone. Rabbis Rosen and Rosensweig have been in communication, and Rabbi Rosen has apologized for the tone of his comments, although he still opposes the manner in which Rabbi Rosensweig presented his opinion and one aspect of his understanding of the halakhic status of electricity on Shabbat. Other people have also been in contact with Rabbi Rosensweig’s teacher, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovich, asking him to publicly condemn Rabbi Rosensweig. Rabbi Rabinovich refused, and in a later conversation with Rabbi Rosensweig he agreed with his halakhic stance.

I think that a recent blog post by Chuck Davidson hones in on what really bothered some people, among them Rabbi Rosen.

This point, that flipping an electrical switch may be prohibited by a Rabbinic, rather than Biblical, injunction, is that which drew fire from the Rabbis. Indeed, such a position is rejected by a majority of poskim, though among those taking the lenient position can be counted some of the greatest Rabbinic authorities. As such, the use of this leniency as one tool in the Rabbis’ repertoire along with other Halachic considerations to permit a prohibition under certain circumstances is quite legitimate. The opposition stemmed not from Rabbi Rosensweig’s use of this Halachic tool, but from his revealing it to the broad public.

Davidson calls for greater halakhic transparency:

The phenomenon of lack of transparency in Halachic writing is widespread. That is, in many cases, and especially in the public sphere, a posek will not reveal all of the considerations that led him to a lenient decision, lest the masses misapply the tool.

And here one may ask: Is Halacha, in its broad meaning, the domain of the entire Jewish people, or, perhaps, only of learned Rabbis? Or in the words of a Rabbinic scholar with whom I consulted: encouraging Halachic ignorance among the Jewish masses lest they mistakenly permit for themselves prohibitions is, perhaps, not a healthy approach. Rather, intensive education for the masses, deep and broad knowledge, and the study of a wide range of conflicting Halachic opinions is the best way to ensure commitment to the Halachic system.

When I lived in Beit Shemesh Chuck and I belonged to the same synagogue and I can vouch that he is a very knowledgable person who knows his Shas and poskim, so people should not think that he is someone who isn’t familiar with the halakhic system. I have written about the lack of halakhic transparency before, and one would think that the halakhic system is moving towards greater transparency, but it may actually be regressing. One of the most popular methods of responsa writing in Israel is through the Internet, Cyber-Responsa, or SMS, and they are almost always devoid of any references to sources.

I am more than ready to sign onto the statement that “intensive education for the masses, deep and broad knowledge, and the study of a wide range of conflicting Halachic opinions is the best way to ensure commitment to the Halachic system.” Unless you want to build a community based upon the norms of North Korea, ignorance is no way to nurture commitment.

2 Responses to “Halakhic Transparency”

  1. 1

    I agree certainly with your closing remark, but does anyone disagree? Who doesnt promote learning and education? Adarabbah, the big problem in the Charedi world today is that there is no gap at all between the rabbis and the laymen. Everyone’s gone to the same yeshivahs, everyone learns the same Gemara. True, the rabbi has more practical experience, but most of that is relegated to niddah and some basic halachic questions that anyone can look up himself if he wanted to. No rabbi can just get up and claim to say what the Torah says, because the entire shul knows everything he does. (of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes the ballei battim know MORE than the Rabbi. And obviously, sometimes the reverse.)

    The electricity thing is intressante. Anyone with any seichel knows it isnt real fire, and like you said, poskim do use that as a snif le-hakel. Where one draws the line between using it as a snif and expanding beyond that is a sensitive arena, in which everyone has his own opinion. I have to admit, just by reading your description alone and not knowing any more than that, it seems to me this Rabbi Rozensweig took it too far. Rationale like that can easily destroy the whole concept of shabbos, and that’s probably what angered the others. How far is too far? Again, hard to say. Its a matter of shikkul ha-daas.

  2. 2
    Dovid Shlomo:

    Sorry, but Davidson is wrong.

    No one, as far as I know, holds that flipping a switch to turn on an electric appliance that will generate significant heat is Rabbinnic. All Opinions, as far as I am aware, are that it is forbidden on a Torah level.

    The distinction between Rabbis is whether flipping the switch on an appliance that DOES NOT generate heat carries a Torah prohibition.

    If an opinion exists that calls what Rosensweig did Rabbinnic (other than using a shinnui, etc), I’d like to hear it.




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