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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Rabbi Shopping

Rosh Hashanah 14

Are you allowed to go ‘rabbi shopping’?

What is rabbi shopping?   Rabbi shopping is the phenomenon where one seeks to always find the rabbi with the most lenient opinion in every matter of Jewish law.  There are rabbis that will allow you to eat gelatin; there are rabbis that will allow you to walk around bareheaded; there are rabbis that will allow you to eat soybeans on Passover; there are rabbis that permit using a microphone on Shabbat, and so on.

These aren’t all the same rabbis, of course.  But somewhere in the world, there is an Orthodox rabbi that permits each of these practices.  The art of rabbi shopping is mastering the ability to find the rabbi who is most lenient in each particular situation.  Is that okay?

The Talmud teaches: A Heavenly voice announced ‘The opinions of the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai are both the words of the Living G-d.  The Halacha, however, always accords with the House of Hillel.’

Prior to the Heavenly voice, continues the Tamud, ‘if you wanted to act according to the rulings of the House of Shamai, you could.  If you wanted to act according to the rulings of the House of Hillel, you could.   If, however, you were to act according to the leniencies of the House of Shamai and the leniencies of the House of Hillel, that is wicked.’ 

‘And concerning one who acts according to the stringencies of the House of Shamai and the stringencies of the House of Hillel, the verse says, “the fool walks in darkness.”  Rather, one must act either according to the House of Shamai regarding both their leniencies and stringencies or according to the House of Hillel regarding both their leniencies and stringencies.’

Rashi explains that the concern with following the leniencies of both or the stringencies of both only applies when maintaining both positions would be self-contradictory and therefore either wicked or foolish.   For example, the Houses of Hillel and Shamai disagree over whether the loss of one or two vertebrae of a spine renders it incomplete.  According to Hillel, you need just one; according to Shamai, it takes two to make it incomplete.

Thus, for the purposes of transferring impurity, an impure spine with only one missing vertebra would transmit impurity according to Shamai, because it is still complete.  The House of Hillel would demur.   However, for the purposes of deeming an animal treif (non-kosher), an animal with a broken spine that was missing one vertebra would still be complete according to the Shamai and therefore kosher.  For the House of Hillel, it would be incomplete and therefore treif.

In the first case, the House of Shamai is stricter and in the second, the House of Hillel is stricter, even though they are referring to the same question of what constitutes a complete spine.  Rashi explains that to take both lenient or both stringent positions would be a paradox and therefore wrong.

In contrast, Rashi says that you are allowed to adopt multiple leniencies or multiple stringencies from different rabbis in completely different situations.  Of course, we would only adopt this approach in matters where the Halacha has not yet been definitively decided universally accepted, and there remain acceptable halachic differences of opinion. 

And so Rashi would permit rabbi shopping, ‘where one agrees with the rationale of one rabbi in one case and another rabbi in a different case.’  In other words, you shouldn’t go shopping just because you are looking for the easy way out.  But if you sincerely agree with one rabbi in a particular situation and a different rabbi in a completely different scenario, that’s acceptable.

A good litmus test to determine whether you are acting sincerely is to ask yourself how often you adopt the stringent position.  If you never adopt stringencies, then you are obviously just looking for the easy way out and justifying the rationale in each case accordingly. 

Stringencies aren’t just for fools.  If you love someone, then you’ll go to great lengths to please them.  If you love the Almighty, then you’ll bend over backwards to serve Him in the finest way possible.   If your rabbi has ruled stringently on a case, he’s not just doing to make your life difficult.  He’s doing it because he believes that’s what G-d wants.  

But if your heart and head are leaning towards a more lenient position in any given situation, then Rashi says you may go with it.

The most important thing that the Almighty wants from you is that no matter what position you choose to take you do not disparage anyone else for choosing a more lenient or stricter position.   If there is a valid Torah opinion that has ruled one way or the other, then you must show tolerance and respect for anyone that chooses to adopt that ruling in their halachic practice.

If you decide instead to disrespect them, then you haven’t gone the stricter or more lenient route.  May G-d have mercy upon you, you have chosen the non-halachic approach and that is unacceptable! 

May you find the right approach to serve G-d in a halachic manner that is true to Him and true to your understanding; and you may you always have tolerance and respect for those who choose to serve Him in accordance with stricter or more lenient rulings!