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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Who gets to decide if climate change is real?

Daf Yomi Sotah 22


This evening, I gave a shiur on climate change.  It was a response to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si encyclical.  I examined each argument he made, pointing out the relevant sources in the Talmud.   Strikingly, whereas the Pope offered his feelings on the issues, in Judaism we can produce hard texts and sources for everything.  It’s not up to our thoughts and opinions; every issue has Talmudic precedent to rely upon, from which we derive our contemporary responses.  Some sources agreed with the Pope’s positions, others did not.  The main thing, however, is that we have source-material for every issue and we can determine contemporary halachic ruling based on the text.

Beraisa: Mishnah reciters destroy the world.
The Gemara asks:  Could you think they actually destroy the world?
Ravina explains: They make halachic rulings based on the simple text of the Mishnah.
Rabbi Abahu quoted Rav Huna in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of the verse in Proverbs, “For she has cast down many victims and great are the ones she has slain?”   “For she has cast down many victims” refers to a Torah scholar who has not reached the level to issue halachic rulings and he nonetheless issues such rulings.  “And great are the ones she has slain” refers to a Torah scholar who has reached the level required to issue halachic rulings and fails to step up and give halachic rulings.

Despite my wonderful shiur on climate change, in reality it has no bearing on halacha whatsoever.  I picked a few precedents that looked similar to the questions at hand.  But the truth is, who am I to determine that I am drawing the correct parallels and issuing the right halachic decisions?

Our halachic system is complex.   Very few individuals in each generation have the halachic mastery and wisdom to issue halachic rulings.  We might all be able to ‘recite the Mishnah,’ but most of us do not have the knowledge, experience, or insight to make a precise determination.  Just because something in the classic texts looks similar to a contemporary issue does not guarantee that the linear connection may be drawn.  There are often ‘meta-halachic’ issues at play that are way beyond the average rabbi’s paygrade.

Unfortunately, the attitudes of many today are worse than ever.  Every little person who has learned a bit of Talmud and Shulchan Aruch believes that they can innovate in halacha based on the parallels they have drawn.  It really is not that simple.  On the contrary, it is hubris to believe that you can issue irregular halachic rulings based on limited information. 

So who gets to issue new halachic rulings?  Who should we rely on?  A good rule of thumb is if a rabbi is expert in every area of halacha, he can probably be relied upon in specific areas.  The rabbi whose sole area of expertise is the issue that he has built his life’s activism around is really not a good source of halachic authority.  Unless one is expert in the entire halachic system, one does not have the capability of issuing psak (halachic rulings), other than what is clear in the Mishnah Berurah (commentary on the Shulchan Aruch).

We can all offer ideas, the likes of the shiur that I gave today.  But to draw conclusions and act upon them, it takes the true halachic giants of each generation.  They understand how halacha works and they are expert in all areas of halacha, not just the parts they choose to be passionate about.


Maintaining the integrity of the halachic system is not a simple task.  We are blessed to have the likes of a “Shmuel” or two in each generation whose advice we are tasked to heed.  May you merit the humility to address your halachic queries to those who are true halachic masters!