Appreciating the P’sak of Rav Elyashiv, sh”lita, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

October 6, 2009

There has been a lot of misguided criticism of the “anti-Croc” p’sak of Rav Elyashiv two weeks ago before Yom HaKipurim, when the great Ashkenazic sage and halachik authority suggested that people not wear comfortable Croc shoes on Yom Kippur, even though they are not leather a do not violate the letter of the law – the prohibition of wearing leather shoes. Some on the left and even in the right might view this negatively as part of the “chumra of the month” club. But if they do, they are missing out on two important aspects of Rav Elyashiv’s p’sak, which give important direction to all Jews, and certainly for passionately committed Morethodox Jews.
First, Rav Elyashiv was careful to distinguish between the halacha itself, which allowed any non-leather shoes, even comfortable ones like Crocs, and his personal opinion, his “gut” feeling, as it were, that it was in keeping with the atmosphere of Yom Kippur which is about being a little less comfortable – and fancy and trendy, I may add – than usual. Frankly, the subtlety of Rav Elyashiv’s p’sak is rarely seen in Centrist Orthodox or even in Modern Orthodox p’sak, where everything that is prohibited has to be a Torah violation, or a rabbinic decree going back 2000 years. Rav Elyashiv evinces confidence – reminiscent of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l – that he can suggest something without needing to back it up from Sinai.
Second, Rav Elyashiv is willing to break from the status quo. He is willing to be creative – though it is to be machmir, to restrict, in this case – and to think outside the box. Just because we have always focused on whether a shoe is leather or not, doesn’t mean that that is the only criterion to think about on Yom Kippur. This is refreshing creativity that I believe appears frequently in chareidi p’sak. Again, it is usually used to restrict, and sometimes in an almost cruel manner as in the case of retroactively nullifying a get – a divorce – that the court granted, however, at least a great Torah sage is willing to say something new, something unheard of in a previous generation. That should be a hallmark of the halachik process, and it means all the more coming from a frum posek, and a revered chareidi leader such as Rav Elyashiv, sh’lita.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rav Elyashiv realizes that Yom Hakippurim, as any holiday or halachik practice, needs to be meaningful. The restriction on wearing leather needs to mean something: and in Rav Elyashiv’s opinon, wearing comfortable, cool shoes which many people prefer to leather shoes anyway, takes away from the meaning of Yom Hakippurim – to afflict your selves (nafshoteichem). Morethodoxy needs to learn from Rav Elyashiv and be on the forefront of reading Torah and halacha in a way that gives meaning to Jewish practice, rather than turning it into an ossified, bizarre tradition. For Rav Elyashiv, afflicting yourselves, and not wearing leather shoes, is a living tradition – part of the Living Covenant that Rabbi David Hartman writes about so eloquently.
Not that Rav Elyashiv, sh’lita, needs my approval, but I hope someone tells him that somewhere in galus, in the city that didn’t get the Olympics, is a Morethodox rabbi who is inspired by his p’sak, a rabbi who wore uncomfortable canvas shoes all of Yom Hakippurim.
May we continue to be inspired by our great leaders to continue to see the meaning, creativity and relevance of the Torah and Mitzvot that God gave us.

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