A couple of years ago I called a former teacher of mine to ellicit her advice on a particular diabetes drug that I had always used with good success but which was now getting some bad press. Her first question back to me was "Lord Ironheart, why are you even using that? Why don't you just put your patients directly on insulin?"
My answer was "Well, when you have a patient in hospital, you can do that. You have a team of nurses, insulin educators and assistants to ensure the patient is taught, monitoring and ensured success with the insulin regiment. I generally have 1.4 minutes to explain to the patient that they have diabetes, what diabetes is, and how they now need pills because if there's one thing they know it's 'I don't want the needle!'"
My former teacher is an excellent clinician and educator whose opinion is still important to my practice. However, there is one essential difference between her and me (other than all those based on chromosomes). She works in a large, well-resourced teaching centre. I work in a small, private clinic. Thus when guidelines for a particular condition come out she is in a position to ensure that all the minutiae are attended to. I have to scramble to do the best I can with the limited resoures I have. I understand the guidelines represent the best care but I have to provde the patient with the best care available in the real world. As a result, she has no clue about how
I sometimes wonder if that hasn't happened to some parts of the frum community. The more one isolates oneself from "the trenches", the greater the chance of losing touch with those trenches and forgetting that in the real world not all can be done in an ideal fashion, that sometimes doing the best one can has to be enough.
Yes, it would be nice to hold by every chumrah in the Shulchan Aruch. In theory. But as Homer Simpson, shlit"a, has noted: Yes, but in theory, communism works! In the real world, there must be accomodations to changing circumstances, leniencies to handle difficult issues when necessary. That's why the Shulchan Aruch brings more than one opinion on many issues and why the Mishnah Berurah doesn't simply give point form comments in his book.
Another danger of losing contact with the real world is that the subject of study becomes more and more theoretical. Academic medical clinicians might know all the latest papers and guideline releases but, having not actually seen a patient in years, wouldn't realize how to adjust the approach to real circumstances.
And the danger of that happening in a moral system like Judaism is quite common, at least that's what it seems from the news recently. What could possibly have happened, for example, to cause a prominent Rav who is undoubtedly a talmid Chacham to conduct himself as he did? It's not like he was just another black hat in the 'burbs, after all. His self-appointed job was, in fact, to ensure Jewish purity by making converts go through the strictest process before being able to join "the tribe". Yet he stumbled in precisely this matter, willingly as it seems.
But this exposes two weakness of the human being that Judaism relies on. One is the idea that a person will, upon studying the specifics of halacha, come to realize that the point of performance isn't simply to go through rote actions without feeling a sense of meaning but to raise one's neshamah closer to God who created it. It's not the action itself that has the real value but rather the effect on the soul which is why the chachamim could say that we have no idea about the reward for each mitzvah.
The other weakness is the conscience. Quite simply, a proper observance of Judaism assumes a person has one. A few months ago the topic du jour in the blogosphere was how classic halacha could never be used to run a modern society. To a large extent, this is true what with the lack of rules around new forms of evidence not available in the times of the Gemara (please don't tell me Chazal knew about electronic surveillance!) as well as the increased complexities in the worlds of finance and property, just to cite a couple of examples. But the real main reason why halacha would not work nowadays to run a country, to be blunt, is because it relies on the person's conscience to keep the system going. The idea that punishment at the hands of Heaven is just as damaging as punishment from a human court is essential for the system to work optimally but even 1900 years ago, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said on his deathbed: "People look around before they sin to see if anyone is watching but they never realize God sees all". How much more so in our day when the foundational principle of the Western legal system is "It's only illegal if you get caught"!
Did this prominent Rav not have a conscience? Had he studied Torah so much that it became a system of procedures instead of moral rules? Each of us must constantly make a cheshbon hanefesh to ensure that we ourselves remember that God sees all our acts, writes all of our deeds in His book and that we are here not just to go through motions but to return the precious soul within us as purely as possible to our Maker.