To become a posek, at least a recognised posek, it is not enough to pass exams on Yoreh Deah and Choshen Mishpat. In addition, it is important to add practice to theory. What does practice consist of? Traditionally, doing Shimush meant that the young Rabbi sat for some time (perhaps a year) in close proximity to a Posek or Dayan or Av Beis Din and observed the range of questions that were being asked and learned how to answer, when to answer, when not to answer, when to ask for more information and more.
A Rabbi who wanted to be qualified to pasken Nidah questions, would see the artefacts that the supervising Posek would see. A Rabbi who wanted to pasken about kashrus, would see the chicken or the innards of an animal and learn in a practical fashion. These days, one can find augmentation via multi-media. I have seen video lectures in full colour given by experts in Nikkur, for example. The posek who wishes to learn the complex aspects of Gittin or Chalitza, would be well served sitting in on, or observing the work of an established Beis Din.
The notion of shimush is sound. Without shimush, one is locked somewhat into a theoretical world. A Rosh Yeshivah or Rosh Kollel often doesn’t have shimush. That’s a generalisation, of course, and is intended to be. They will have a profound knowledge of texts but may not have experienced the so-called “real world” around them, and “real world” questions.
Poskim, and indeed qualified communal Rabbis, will be exposed to aspects of the real world that they learn from and adapt to. The Debreciner z”l, whose brother the בצל החכמה was a Rabbi in Adass many years ago, was rumoured to have a resident (religious) psychiatrist or psychologist close at hand to assist him with issues of mentoring and advice. The Posek or qualified communal Rabbi will often be called upon to provide sage advice and counsel.
At RIETS, after ordinary Smicha graduands complete their text-based examinations, they are subjected to a series of scenarios that are simulated out by qualified actors. In those scenarios, a husband and wife may play out marital problems, or a congregant may come to complain about another congregant’s behaviour etc. Each graduand interacts with the actors’ scenarios and is then provided with feedback by both their fellow graduands and their experience Smicha Rebbeim.
The value of practical exposure is well-known in general educational circles. At my own university, RMIT, it is now compulsory for each student to be exposed to a semester of “Work integrated learning”. Simulation has a place, but the “real thing” is even better. Even at the more informal level, I recall when we were learning Chullin in Daf HaYomi, that Reverend Velvel Krinsky z”l, who was a shochet and bodek, would bring various innards to enhance the learning experience. Given my limited spatial imagination, this certainly helped to lift the words off the page.
What of today? In an article recently published by the Jerusalem Post, it was reported that:
On October 31, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger informed Israel Radio, Reshet Bet, that he had visited a shelter for battered Orthodox women in Beit Shemesh and was horrified to hear of their suffering.
Apparently the chief rabbi had not been aware that Orthodox women were victims of domestic violence and expressed sincere compassion for their plight.
He described how he spoke with the women and listened to their stories. This eloquent spiritual leader pointed out that Jewish law (Halacha) does not condone violence in the home and that good Jewish husbands honor their wives and treat them with dignity and respect. He was so impressed by the experience that he is now going to recommend that all dayanim (religious judges) visit this shelter.
I have no doubt that a visit to the victims of spousal abuse would at least allow a Dayan or Posek to approach the concept of אל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו. Statistically, I do not know whether abuse is more rampant that it was, but there can be no doubt that with the advent of instant modern communication, we are more acutely aware of their prevalence, often in disturbingly graphic portrayals.
But this type of shimush, or worldly experience, should not be limited to emotional or spousal abuse. I am of the strong view that society in general, especially cloistered societies, and Rabbis in particular, are not sufficiently sensitised and exposed to the trauma of victims of abuse. The stigma attached to these issues is grave.
My words are but a miniscule digital imprint in a sea of platters and NAND based memory in the blogosphere. Contrary to the views of some, my words serve no self-aggrandising cause, but are a (semi) conscious stream of thought emanating from my cerebral cortex, often in a seemingly sporadic form.
If there was one thing I’d like to add to the shimush of Rabonim, it would be that they each attend ten to twenty secular court cases where they will be exposed to the harrowing impact statements and testimony of victims across a range of abuse, including sexual abuse and inappropriate contact. I feel that through this experience, they will better understand the comments of a person who comes to them, sometimes after an extended period of time, and says “I was violated”. Until they do, despite the various well-meaning courses that some undertake, I don’t think they will have had “real shimush”.
Looking around the world, and seeing reported incidents on a daily basis, it’s high time this became part of a mandated curriculum. Is it less important than the sircha on a lung?