The Posek: His role and responsibility


Parshat Behar begins with the following two pasukim: “And the L-rd spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the L-rd’.” (Sefer Vayikra 25:1-2. This and all Bible and Rashi translations from The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)

These verses generate the very famous question found in several sources in rabbinic literature: “What [special relevance] does the subject of shemittah [the “release” of fields in the seventh year] have with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments stated at Sinai?” Rashi, basing himself upon the midrash, provides the following celebrated answer: “However, [this teaches us that] just as with shemittah, its general principles and its finer details were all stated at Sinai, likewise, all of them were stated — their general principles [together with] their finer details — at Sinai. This is what is taught in Torat Kohanim (25:1).” This question and answer are fundamental for understanding the Torah worldview, since they teach us the holistic nature of the Revelation at Mount Sinai; namely, G-d communicated to us, in both overarching principles and in specific details, exactly what is necessary to lead a life stamped in His Divine image. 

Living a life according to the Torah’s “general principles and its finer details” is an endless challenge for the halachically-committed Jew. The rapid transformations produced by technological innovations have created a world wherein change in almost all matters is the rule, rather than the exception. In order to ascertain ratzon Hashem (G-d’s will), we must turn to our poskim to help us chart a course of authentic halachic living. In doing so, we must ask these basic questions:

• What is the role of a posek

• What does a posek actually do when presented with a sheilah (halachic inquiry)? 

• What is the relationship that obtains between earlier authorities and the contemporary posek

• What are the limits of the modern posek’s autonomy in his decision making process?

On Sunday, July 8, 1934, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zatzal, known by his students and followers as Rav Moshe, was 39 years old and the rabbi of Luban, Belorussia (Soviet Union), a position he had held since 1921. His intellectual acumen and prowess were recognized far and wide, and his brilliant Torah insights and decisions were already legendary. On this particular Sunday, he penned a responsum (teshuvah) to one of his colleagues that, in part, deals with my above-stated questions (Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah Section I: 101). Rav Moshe was asked: “How are we permitted to depend upon Torah novella (chidushim) like those that I [Rav Feinstein] have explained as having practical halachic application — when they are specifically in opposition to later day authorities (Acharonim)?”

His answer encapsulates his independent and unfailing spirit in pursuit of the truth: 

“Behold I say: ‘Has an end and limitation been made for the Torah? G-d forbid! — that we should make halachic decisions solely based upon that which is found already in other works. That would mean that if questions were to arise that were not found in pre-existent works that we should not make a determination and give a decision to them — even when we have the ability to render such a decision. In my humble opinion, it is prohibited to say such a thing.

“Beyond question, the Torah will continue to grow and develop now, and in our time. [Moreover,] anyone who has the ability to determine any law that comes before him, according to the limits of his ability, is obligated to do so based upon due diligence (chakirah v’drisha haitav) in the Talmud and prior poskim.” [He must employ] clear understanding and utilize accurate proofs –— even if [he develops] a new law that was never spoken about in prior works.” (Emphasis added.)

Rav Moshe’s answer is unequivocal: The posek is obligated to respond to any and all Torah inquiries in a manner that uses the full force of his intellectual powers — even when his intensive study and analysis of the issues at hand yield a brand new halacha l’ma’aseh (practical law). The Torah, while given once in human history, continues to grow and expand in its application to all times and places.

How should the posek address laws that are explicitly found within the canon of halachic literature? How heavily should the weight of authority rest upon his shoulders? Here, too, Rav Moshe bravely advocates, and even demands, autonomy over merely “looking something up” in one of the classic works of Jewish jurisprudence:

“Even in regards to a law that is already found in previous works — beyond question the decisor also must understand it and render a decision according to his own thought processes (b’da’ato) before he declares it to be the law —  by no account should he render judgment simply because he has found such and such a conclusion [in prior works]. This would be as if he rendered judgment simply based upon his studies. Concerning this approach, it has been stated that the Tannaim [sages from the Mishnaic era] bring destruction upon the world when they render judgment based solely upon that which they have learned [but failed to understand: Rashi, Talmud Bavli, Sotah 22a].

How much leeway, however, does the posek actually have? Can he legitimately reject prior and heretofore accepted opinions? Rav Feinstein’s answer is clear:

“Even if his [the posek’s] decision, on occasion, stands in stark opposition to some of the greatest of our recent Acharonim (gaonim merabbotainu haacharonim) — what of it? Beyond question, even we are permitted to disagree with the Acharonim — and even some of the Rishonim — when we have proper proofs and the essence [of our response] is [replete] with correct [and unassailable] reasons. Concerning this idea, our sages stated explicitly in Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 131a: “A judge can only depend upon what his own eyes see.”

Rav Moshe proceeds to clarify the posek’s degree of autonomy, and opines that he must balance his ruling according to the dictates and halachic structure that were created by the “famous decisors of the Shulchan Aruch that have been accepted in all of our countries. Regarding this it was said: ‘They established a place to create a fence of protection.’ [In doing so, one will be following in the path] of the majority of the responsa of later-day authorities who determine many new laws that are to be followed as a matter of actual halachic practice.”

In addition, Rav Feinstein suggests that the posek engaged in this singular creative process “must never be arrogant and must strive to determine the law in accordance with the prior authorities [when it is possible to do so.]” There are situations, however, where potential human tragedy and need are so manifest that the halachic decisor is mandated to do everything in his power to rescue someone from a life of misery, Torah violations, or devastating financial loss:

“When it is a matter of great need, and all the more so a situation wherein the woman would remain inextricably tied to her husband against her will [agunah] as in our case, then we are unquestionably obligated to render judgment [in opposition to prior authorities] if it appears to us that we are able to free [her]. It is prohibited for us to be from the overly humble and ‘tie up’ a daughter of Israel, or to cause one to violate various prohibitions, or even to cause the loss of Jewish money.”

Rav Moshe zatzal was one of the greatest poskim of the past century. His intellectual integrity, bravery, and honesty knew no bounds in his pursuit of truth and desire to help the entire Jewish people. He stands forevermore as a paragon of what a posek can and should be. May we all be zocheh (merit) to learn from his stellar example, and live lives infused with the love of Torah, devotion to our people, and dedication to Hashem.

V’chane yihi ratzon.