Rabbi Mayer Twersky

The Humility to Defer

Apropos of the Torah's narrative in this week's parsha of Nadav and Avihu's sudden death for rendering a halachic ruling in the presence of Moshe Rabbeinu, I share the following ruminations regarding psak halacha.

In general, psak halacha is exclusively reserved for talmidim she'higi'u l'hora'a, great torah sages. Chazal unequivocally condemn those who are not qualified to pasken, and yet do so. "He is a wicked, delusionary, and arrogant person." "(such people) increase divisiveness, destroy the world, extinguish the lamp of Torah, and violate the vineyard of Hashem" (Rambam Hilchos Talmud Torah, Perek 5). Psak halacha in this context denotes adjudicating a new or unresolved question, or applying halacha in new situations. A rav need not consider himself a great Torah sage, however, to guide his ba'alei batim or talmidim regarding explicit halachos in Shulchan Aruch or matters and situations about which he has a tradition in psak halacha.

Certain questions, due either to the gravity of the issurim involved or their implications for Klal Yisroel or both, are reserved for gedolei Yisroel. Outstanding though they are, even talmidim she'higi'u l'hora'a refer such questions to the gedolim. For instance, questions of aguna due to the gravity of issur eishes ish and yuchsin, have always been referred to gedolim, and even they traditionally seek the approval of their colleagues in issuing a heter. Traditionally, gedolei Yisroel have convened to confront questions affecting Klal Yisroel - for instance, how the yeshiva in Volozhin should respond to the decrees and demands of the Czarist government. This fateful question had implications for Klal Yisroel and as such it was unthinkable that it be decided without convening a meeting of gedolei Yisroel.

I believe - and I write without pretensions or delusions, as a talmid shelo higia l'hora'a - that we urgently need to engage in introspection regarding these matters of psak halacha. Too often we do not defer and refer to the appropriate halachic authorities. Case in point: the recent renewed interest and debate concerning interfaith relations and dialogue. What needs to be emphasized is the absolute indispensability of referring such questions to our gedolim. Such questions involve potentially grave issurim and also have profound implications for Klal Yisroel. We can debate the appropriateness of the highly publicized visit by a group of cardinals to Yeshiva, but only gedolim are entitled to decide the issue. The failure to refer the question to our geodlim reminds us of the vital need for introspection regarding psak halacha.

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