Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Posek On A Stick

The recent controversy in the left wing Modern Orthodox community over women starting to wear tefillin during davening has generated a lot of responses from across the Torah-observant spectrum.  There are the expected weak justifications along with rebuttals to Rav Hershel Schacther's strong position against such practice. 
However what I've found most fascinating are the two blogs that have tried to respond to Rav Schachter from a most interesting position.  The position can be summarized as follows: I have a Bar Ilan USB stick and I know how to use it.
Years and years ago McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario created and championed a new method of approaching medical problems called Evidence Based Medicine (EBM).  The idea was to challenge medical dogma, things we had been doing because, well because we'd always been doing them.  Was there any evidence in the literature that certain physical maneouvres or treatments were of any value?  What did the literature really say about disease processes and prognoses?  Certainly a laudable initiative and it revolutionized the practice of medicine much for the better.
In fact the only problem I ever had was the slogan that one of its founders came up with: With a proper approach to searching and understanding medical literature a first year intern is as effective a clinician as a 50 year veteran!
Now if you thinking that the two men who came up with the idea of evidence-based medicine are soft-core communists who see merit, experience and achievement as evil dividers within society you'd be pretty much on the mark.  As an experienced pediatrician told me back during my internship, "I don't care how fast you are with Medline, there's still an art to medicine that only years of practice can give you."
With the rapid spread of the Bar Ilan CD/USB this "democratization" of knwoledge has come to the Torah world, or so it seems.  Yes, the USB stick is an amazing device.  It, or the Otzar HaSefarim drive, put yeshivos worth of books at your fingertips.  Searching the entire corpus of Jewish legal literature is as easy as a few keystrokes.  Thus someone who wants to find out about women and tefillin and whether there are or there are not permissive positions doesn't have to find the nearest Jewish library or yeshivah and spend days digging through the books there.  A few clicks and bang!  You've got your answer.
But to paraphrase that pediatrician, I don't care how fast DovBear or Rabbi Yuter are with Medline, there's still an art to paskening that only years of learning can give you.
See, this is what people don't understand, or perhaps just don't want to understand about the Jewish legal process.  There are big psaks and little psaks.  The little psaks are the kind every community Rav gets approached about, the ones about kashrus or whether something is muktzeh or not.  The big psaks are the kind reserved for those with more comprehensive experience with the halachic literature.  They are the novel situations for which there isn't an agreed upon answer or a quick b'di'eved to rely on.  The community Rav isn't going to touch those; he is going to ask a posek.
Now perhaps some of the blame for this current situation can be blamed on the "Gedolim".  Nowadays no one wants to rely on his community Rav, or so it seems.  If you have a phone number for a "Gadol" and a question, however basic, you're more likely to call the "Gadol" then your Rav.  After all, why not go to the top?  However I wonder if an unintended consequence of this has been to create the opposite phenomenon as well?  If we take every little psak to a "Gadol" why can't the big questions now go to rabbonim further down the food chain?
What Rav Schechter tried to get across in his essay was not a novel teshuvah, nor was it a missive as one description had it.  It was a reminder that a rabbi who was not near the top of his class cannot suddenly create a new "maharat" just because he thinks there's a need, or that a couple of high school principles can suddenly decide on their own to overturn centuries of tradition and let their female students wear tefillin just because the girls are sincere and really, really want to.
Just owning a Bar Ilan USB or knowing how to use it might give one unprecendented access to halacha but it doesn't make one a posek.  One might use it to ask better questions but unless one is at a level where one is qualified, the big psaks should be left to the big experts.


Micha Berger said...

I don't know who Dov Bear is, but I presume he doesn't have a shul.

I am more concerned, therefore, with R' Yuter's response. Someone who thinks pesaq is applying ideas robotically from the Bar Ilan CD, without any sense of halakhah having a feel to it, is actually out there answering people's halachic questions.

Temujin said...

One is intrigued by this Bar Ilan Magic Stick. A superb tool in the hands of the Young Master just back from his year's enrichment in an Israeli Yeshiva as he goes about inspecting his mother's kitchen pots, instructing his father in the proper ways of shuckling, educating his congenitally eye-rolling sisters on all matters of tzniut and gratuitously dispensing halachic rulings on all subjects under the Sun at the captives around the Shabbat table. A gift that would keep on giving right until the young beggar is seen off with his one-way ticket to a four-year program at the University of Tasmania....or at the rocket launch pad for the upcoming Mars mission.

Mr. Cohen said...

Please correct Rav Hershel Schecther to Rav Hershel Schacther.

RAM said...

The batters with a batting average of .050 in the minors and the pitchers there with an earned run average of 10.75 now think they're Major League All-Stars and want us to respect them as such. Conceit knows no bounds.

Atheodox Jew said...

Interesting - and I think reasonable - comparison between medicine and halacha in terms of access to information vs. actual experience. What I tend to do personally is use online resources and educate myself to the extent possible, and then discuss the issue with an experienced physician/rav. Sometimes my gleanings offer points/facts that they didn't know and prove useful. And sometimes the person brings other points/experience to bear and offers a surprising answer. So I'm a fan of both - doing your own research and also reaching out to others.

SJ said...

if Judaism is the one true religion, how come a friend of mine is a גר who is thinking about dropping out cause it's too damn expensive?

seriously having such an expensive religion to follow is equivalent to the medieval catholic practice of selling indulgences and to scientology's practice of selling "courses" for hundreds of gs.

DF said...

Well said