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Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Halacha is not Black & White

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 31


Should we give an aliya to someone who is not Shabbos-observant?  That was the question on the agenda of the ritual committee at the Young Israel of Dayton.  For Rabbi Moshe Parnes the answer was obvious: exclude people who were not yet observant and you might as well close up shop. 
But one stubborn fellow wouldn’t let it go.  “Rabbi, the poskim (halachic decisors) clearly prohibit it!  If we allow people who are not shomer-Shabbos to be called up, what’s next?  Pork-eaters as the chazan?”

Finally, Rabbi Parnes caved in to the man’s obstinacy.  “I’ll tell you what,” he informed the fellow, “let’s ask your rebbe in Boro Park, Rabbi Menashe Klein, what he thinks.”  And so off they travelled to New York to see the counsel of the wise sage.
“Whether or not to call up people who are not shomer-Shabbos?  That’s a very important shayla (question),” responded the Ungvarer Rov.  “Now let me give you the teshuvah (answer).  It is absolutely assur (forbidden) to give an aliya to someone who is not shomer-Shabbos . . . here in Boro Park.  But in Dayton, it’s absolutely assur NOT to give an aliya to someone who is not yet shomer-Shabbos!”

Two people appeared before the beth din (court).  One claimed, ‘This land always belonged to my family.’  The other claimed, ‘The land always belonged to my family!’  One of them brought witnesses testifying that it was family property and he was personally living there.  The other only offered witnesses testifying that he was personally living there.
Rav Nachman ruled: The two testimonies regarding current personal use cancel one another out and we award the property to the one who brought witnesses that it belonged to his family.

The second litigant later produced witnesses that it was family property.
Rav Nachman ruled: We placed the first fellow in the property and we may likewise remove him (and reopen the case).  We are not worried about the consequent disrespect for the beth din.
Rashbam explains: We are not worried that people may mock the beth din, alleging that they contradict their judgments and they appear to be a joke.

Halacha is an art-form.  Very often, questions are not black and white.  Each situation is unique and must be judged on its individual merits.  Rabbi Klein had never been to Dayton, Ohio.  He probably never made it across the Brooklyn Bridge.  But he knew that not everywhere is Boro Park.  Moreover, he understood firstly that each time and place requires unique consideration, and secondly that Rabbi Parnes, as the mara d’asra (city rabbi) was best placed to respond to the specific needs and level of his community.

Unfortunately, there are those who misunderstand the depth of halachic rulings such as Rabbi Klein’s distinction between Boro Park and Dayton.  To them, the rulings appear inconsistent.  How can the same behavior be a sin in one place and a mitzvah in another?  And so they deride the rabbis and their halachic determinations.

Maybe it would be simpler if we just kept things constant and homogeneous?  That way nobody would question the integrity of rabbinic law!  Comes along Rav Nachman and says, ‘No. We have to do the right thing for the question at hand.  Even if that means the naysayers start their mockery and questioning.’  In our Gemara’s case, it meant overturning the previous ruling and starting fresh.  Who knows what people would say about rabbinic process?  Rav Nachman wasn’t worried.  He needed to do what was right for that time and place.

At some point, you might have asked your rabbi a question expecting a certain answer.  Only to find the ruling to be quite the opposite.
‘But you gave so-and-so a completely different response!’ you cry. 
‘What can I say?’ he responds, ‘I love you and I love him.  But, here’s the difference.  For him, he was looking for an out.  You, on the other hand, I know you can handle the more stringent halachic position!’

Now you begin to understand how these things work.  An accomplished rabbi knows how to respond to each shayla uniquely.  Essential to emunas chachomim – trust in our sages – is the belief that ‘there’s a method to the madness’ of rabbinic rulings that you might feel are inconsistent.  If your rabbi knows his stuff and understands his people, he will know exactly how to respond to each particular inquirer.

That’s where Rabbi Google falls short.  He might be able to provide you with answers, but he doesn’t know you and your specific circumstances.  To a large extent, it’s also why you need to have a personal relationship with your rabbi.  Sure, there are rabbis who will respond to anonymous inquirers, but it’s never as effective as having a conversation with a rabbi who knows all the particulars of your situation.


Halacha is not black and white.  It’s complex.  That’s why we have expert rabbis who have spent years pouring over the poskim.  May you have faith in the integrity of rabbinic law and be the first to defend our holy tradition from those who seek to make a mockery of it!