Is there such ha thing as Modern Orthodox Psak Halacha (Halachic Decision making)?Rabbi Barry Gelman

As a Rabbi I am often called upon to render halachik decisions. What are the factors that play a role in those decisions? Should I consider the person asking the question or is the process one that is completely objective without regard for anything other than pure halachik considerations? These are questions I hope to address in the future.

 Another challenge I face is one of motivation. I will give you an example. Bicycle riding on Shabbat. In most orthodox circles riding a bicycle on shabbbat is frowned upon. What I want to examine today is, why.

Many Halachik authorities argue that the reason that one is forbidden to ride a bicycle is lest it break and one come to fix it. This approach is an extension of the Rabbinic decree forbidding the use of specific items on Shabbat lest they break and one come to fix them.

This argument is often based on the desire to motivate people to stop riding their bicycles on Shabbat. After all, “if we can pin the prohibition of bike riding on a well established rabbinic ruling, perhaps people will actually listen”.

Other attempts to explain why bicycle riding on Shabbat is not desirable, like “it is a weekday activity”, or “lest one ride outside of the eruv”, often fall on deaf ears.

In many ways, approaching bicycle riding this way is the flip side of the coin of those we in orthodox circles consider to liberal. One of the major criticisms by the Orthodox of the Conservative movement is that they do not respect the integrity of Chazal. Well, in many respects, extending Chazalic decrees to situations that simply did not exist then is doing the same thing.

Others, including Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef challenge this tactic by stating that contemporary Halachists do not have the right to engage in the creation of new Gezeirot Chazal (rabbinic decrees). He argues that if we engage use such a slant we will end up prohibiting many things simply because they resemble, in some way, the general decree originally promulgated by the Talmudic sages.

Even if one is moved to see halachik reasoning as a way to motivate people to follow halacha, there is another way to look at things. Rav Kuk once noted that if Rabbis permit what is really allowed then the populous will accept that what Rabbis forbid is really forbidden. On the other hand, if Rabbis forbid innovations that have never existed before, people will say that rabbis wish to be stringent without any regard for the welfare of their constituency.

For Rav Kuk, truth is the ultimate motivator.

I do not know if there is such a thing as Modern Orthodox Psak Halacha. I do know that I want Modern Orthodoxy to be known for integrity in the halachik process and rigor in applying it properly.

4 Responses to Is there such ha thing as Modern Orthodox Psak Halacha (Halachic Decision making)?Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. One could mention the whole concept of kitniyos in this argument. Every year it seems more and more foods get absorbed into the category even though there’s no way that the original decree could have intended them, for example peanuts (see Seridei Eish, Igros Moshe).

    There is another consideration and that is of Jewish behaviour, the community norm as it were. Yes, bicycles on Shabbos are not permitted for what may seem like trivial reasons but over time it has become accepted that we don’t ride bikes on Shabbos. And that, in itself, has some force preventing it from being changed.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      You are correct. The comment from Rav Kuk was made after he we severly criticized for allowed peanut oil on Pesach.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      While I do not agree with all of the points made, the blogpost left as a response ot my post raises some important questions.

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