Monday, April 27, 2020

Are Rabbis Inerrant?

Dear Rabbi Green, I recently came across a long recording of a very intelligent prominent rav in our community. He was very strongly opposed to outdoor minyanim and cited various halachic reasons, but mainly he insisted that everyone must comply simply because of the fact that he, the rav, said so. I would love to daven with my block on my porch (obviously while following the strict social distancing laws), but shouldn't I be following the psak of a rav even when I may not agree with it? Strangely, there are some senior rabbonim in my community who have allegedly been permitting individuals to participate in porch minyanim when asked privately, but they haven't publicized this ruling. The only public rabbinic opinion is from the rav whose recording I described above. Please provide some food for thought on this most confusing topic. Thank you.


Generally speaking, we should follow the rulings of the rav moreh hora'ah bpoel [qualified decisor on Jewish law] with whom we consult. If we are part of a certain community, we should generally follow the rulings of the rav of that community if there is one. This is the case even if one disagrees with the rav's ruling.

If there are multiple rabbanim in one community, you can pick one to serve as your go-to rav or posek [decisor]. Just because one rav issues a ruling, you are not beholden to adhere to the ruling if you have not accepted his authority and your own rav rules otherwise.

If the community rav whose authority one generally accepts has ruled a certain way, one should do accordingly. Certainly if a number of community rabbis issue a joint statement endorsing a certain policy, one ought to oblige.

However, there are rare exceptions.

If the rav ruled precipitously and/or recklessly on a matter which is out of his skill-set or expertise, then that particular psak [ruling] carries no weight. If he is merely parroting medical advice from a doctor (or group of doctors), or worse, if he is enforcing a politically-motivated policy, without fully understanding the science of this advice or policy, then his ruling has no halachic authority. Much worse, if the doctor(s) whose directives he is enforcing is compromised and/or inept (due to empirical evidence or to his own admission), then the psak is most certainly null and void.

It is a sin to comply with such a psak. Instead, the person should consult his own competent doctor or medical expert, even better if it's a doctor who is also a friend. In our case, it would be preferable to simply follow state guidelines, or, if there is a question as to whether the guidelines contradict Torah law, should consult a competent and objective posek in this matter.

With regards to your specific question, it is deeply painful for me to divulge that numerous contemporary rabbis have seriously erred this past year in precisely the above fashion. 

For example, one particular rabbi -- although an erudite scholar and erstwhile colleague of mine whom I otherwise hold in highest esteem -- has lost jurisdiction to rule on matters that pertain to public health policies of this degree, since he relinquished his rabbinic authority to a certain doctor in that community who has sadly deemed himself unfit to serve as an objective rofeh mumcheh (competent medical advisor) in areas that regard public health.

This particular doctor claims to be the "chief medical practitioner" of his community, but there is so such designation in halacha. Moreover, he has disqualified himself due to unspeakable conduct that amounts to mesirah (informing non-Jewish authorities) against local Jewish children who weren't compliant with halachically-unjust state policies. Much worse, he petitioned the state to enact a fanatically-anti-halachic policy that banned Jewish children from school for no just reason. He instructed local schools to exclude children for no other reason than missing a single vaccine for a sexually-transmitted disease that poses no risk to school-age children. Even more shockingly, this rabbi had the temerity to abuse his rabbinic authority and enforce that doctor's bizarre policy by instructing school administrators to comply.

I wrote numerous letters to this rabbi but he made no effort to correct this egregious error or even voice a single complaint to his state or kehila for such an unjust policy.

Over the ensuing months, I repeatedly asked him to speak up or at least provide halachic rationale for his silence and tacit approval of this unprecedented violation of Jewish law in his community, being perpetrated in his name.

Clearly, this rabbi has sadly relinquished halachic authority to this unscrupulous and unfit physician, whose highest priority is enforcing a political agenda that conforms with so-called "public health policy" with no halachic basis. In fact, this doctor insisted on being much more fanatically stringent than state policy at the time.

Fast-forward to the current dilemma. Here we are again discussing a matter that relates to public health policy. Lamentably, this is not a rabbi one ought to consult on this crucial topic regarding which he has exhibited incompetence and/or neglect in the past. In fact, his position in the current situation reflects the same compromised bias he demonstrated last year, i.e. zealousness to enforce a certain doctor's agenda over and beyond state requirements

This is not an indictment of any one rabbi in particular, but describes a general dearth of rabbinic competence that plagues our communities.

In many cases, these rabbis aren't malicious but innocently believe they are doing the right thing.

In no way do I intend to discredit these rabbis' aptitude or scholarship in other realms of halacha. To the contrary. They should certainly be respected in areas of their expertise.

An extreme example of this was a Torah giant of this past century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who ruled to permit traveling on Zim Cruise Line over Shabbos. When the Lubavitcher Rebbe learned of this ruling, he stated gravely: "This is not a proper psak din according to the laws of the Torah." ("אין זה פסק דין אמיתי על פי תורה"). The Rebbe maintained that Rav Moshe's psak had been in error since he was simply misinformed, unfamiliar with the mechanics of ship engines and was undoubtedly listening to insufficient information from compromised Israeli-government sources. Of course, this in no way detracted from the Rebbe's esteem for Rav Moshe's competency in all other areas of halacha.

If you live in a community in which your rav has enforced public health policy in violation of halacha this past year, I would strongly encourage you to seek out another rav who isn't compromised in this regard. It sounds like you have several there whom you might consult.

You wondered whether their opinion is as authoritative if they haven't publicized it. This is a sad reality of our present times that many rabbis who know the truth are afraid to speak out and risk suffering negative consequences, i.e. government backlash, media scorn, criticism from community members, etc. I'd still encourage you to consult with them. It sounds like they are the senior and more-experienced rabbanim in your community anyway. Maybe you can ask them to explain the reason for their silence.

One limud zechus comes to mind:

The obvious question must be asked: does any rov have authority to ban you from doing something which halacha psuka and the state policy clearly allows you to do, in your own home? Can any rov say that it's forbidden to answer omein to a kaddish that someone else is reciting from his own porch? That rabbi's entire psak is absurd to begin with. In truth, there is no reason for the other two rabbis to counter it with a public ruling of their own since the very notion of prohibiting it is entirely without basis.[1]

Entitlement to form minyanim for communal prayer is a הלכה רווחת. In truth, it requires no rabbinic approbation. In this case, since questions have been raised concerning porch minyanim, it is certainly more than sufficient to receive private permission from one of the two rabbanim you mentioned.

It is worthwhile to consider the extent of authority that rabbis wield on their adherents and the limitations thereof:

In 5738 (1977), the Rebbe suffered a heart attack. In the aftermath of his recovery, the doctor instructed him to take a daily medicine. Due to halachic constraints, the Rebbe chose not to take the medicine on Shabbos, much to the doctors' disapproval. They consulted with Rabbi Zalman S. Dworkin, the rav of Crown Heights at that time. He responded that halacha permits it, so they asked him to prevail upon the Rebbe to take the medicine.

As he entered the room, the Rebbe immediately stopped him from speaking, saying: "Please don't tell me what you came here to tell me. It would cause me great anguish to not heed an instruction of a rav."

From here we clearly see that just because a rav offers a heter, one is not necessarily obliged to accept it, although one ought to feel anguish in rejecting it. That is with regard to shev v'al taaseh. Here you might argue that kum va'asei is worse. I'd argue that a rav has no authority to prohibit you from something of that nature in the first place. He is not a king or a despotic ruler who is מושל בכיפה. He is there to answer שאלות and rule on areas which halacha grants him authority[2]. Ruling on medical matters is outside of his purview. This is why the Rebbe once explained to a doctor why rabbonim cannot prohibit smoking, but just advise their adherents to listen to the directives of a rofeh yedid.

It follows that any rav who declares a rabbinic ban on smoking is abusing his authority[3]. Rabbinic statements banning laxity in social distancing is no different, and, in fact, is worse.

There are plenty of rof'im yedidim who will approve of porch minyanim. The rabbi you mentioned has clearly stepped out of the boundaries of his rabbinic authority. Sounds to me like you ought to consult those other rabbanim, or perhaps search for a new rabbi who has humility and respect for his position.

Good luck with your research

[1] In one particular community, the Beis Din issued repeated written letters banning public prayer of any kind, but they were not signed. Instead, the letter claimed that due to the urgency of the corona virus situation, the rabbis had rushed to issue the letters with no time to collect signatures. That sounds mighty suspicious to me in today's day and age of intimidation, rabbinic silence and fear of opposing public health policy. Moreover, over six weeks elapsed since the issuance of those letters and still not a single signature was procured. Surely an extraordinary ruling of this nature requires signatures of rabbis who are willing to take responsibility. This makes one wonder whether the letter had any validity at all to begin with.

[2] On 2 Adar 5748, the Rebbe discussed the paramount importance of heeding rabbonim. However, this had an crucial caveat. The Rebbe called upon his adherents to conduct themselves in accordance with the instructions of a beis din tzedek of each place, and especially a beis din tzedek of rabbonei lubavitch whose halachic rulings are based and firmly founded on the revealed oral Torah (i.e. halacha) and pnimius haTorah, in a manner in which there is no separation between the revealed law and esoteric doctrine, so much so that it can be fully understood in a way of wisdom, knowledge and understanding (chochma, bina, daas). Clearly, the Rebbe never instructed his chassidim to blindly follow anything any beis din says, but only one whose ruling is clearly based on authentic halachic sources and which are in sync with chassidus in a perceivable and self-evident way. Recent letters banning any tefila b'tzibur from a prominent lubavitch beis din not only did not bear any signatures, but failed to cite even one authentic source or rationale, in nigleh or nistar. 

[3] In ancient times, our sages banned certain activities due to safety risks, and instituted precautions like hand-washing after eating. Such authority to issue rabbinic enactments aren't relevant to rabbis of modern times, when there is no sanhedrin who can impose decrees over all Israel. Instead, rabbis may offer recommendations and exhort people to listen to their doctors. They no longer have authority to dictate medical policy to anyone.

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