What is a “Posek HaDor”?

The article below, is from the brilliant Rabbi Nathan Lopez-Cardozo. My take on his article is that he is expressing exasperation that some who were recently “crowned” with the mantle of Posek HaDor were lacking in their interaction with society and as such were compromised in some decision-making. In addition, those Poskim responded to questions from Askanim and others on matters that were perhaps not halachic. Although I understand where Rabbi Cardozo is coming from, I don’t agree with the need to somehow define the characteristics of a Posek HaDor as it can overly paint Rabonim today in a negative light.

It would be more important to define the Dor, the generation that this Posek is addressing. If one does that, it is clear to me that some more recent Poskei HaDor, who were Halachic geniuses, utterly righteous and as close as humanly possible to spiritual perfection, never saw themselves as paskening for the wider Dor. The wider Dor includes those in Chutz La’aretz, let alone communities in Israel who are not aligned with that Posek’s political Weltanschauung.

Two outstanding Poskim, who in my estimation were Poskei HaDor were R’ Moshe Feinstein ז’ל and R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ז’ל. The latter used to answer questions from well outside his Sha’arei Chesed and Kol Torah spheres of influence. R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, a son-in-law of the Rav, a PhD in English Literature and Rosh Yeshivah of a Hesder Yeshivah, considered R’ Shlomo Zalman as the Posek he consulted for his own Sheylos. R’ Aharon came to him. R’ Shlomo Zalman didn’t seek questioners, let alone Rabbonim like R’ Aharon, who are themselves conversant with Kol HaTorah and spend every spare moment learning Torah and teaching.

R’ Shlomo Zalman with R’ Aharon Lichtenstein

R’ Telsner told me that he knew R’ Aharon in the USA, and while R’ Aharon was studying his PhD in English Literature at Harvard, he never spent less than eight hours a day, every day, deep in learning Torah. R’ Telsner said that he was known as an incredible Masmid. Yet, R’ Aharon went to R’ Shlomo Zalman like a Talmid Lifnei Rabo. The same is true of R’ Avigdor Nevenzahl (immediate past Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem) and others.

Why did this happen? I believe it happened because they satisfied the criteria of R’ Lopez-Cardozo, but not necessarily using the experiential techniques that R’ Lopez-Cardozo advocates. Both R’ Shlomo Zalman and R’ Moshe knew about the pain of the widow and Aguna, as well as the abused child. Their Neshomos were special and sensitised to the plight of others. They also understood their audience. Many times, R’ Shlomo Zalman would refer the questioner to their own Rav or Rosh Yeshivah. Their greatness has been shown time and time again, without the need to resort to Artscroll-style hagiography. Yet, while both were considered Poskei HaDor, it was not uniform. Satmar, for example, attacked R’ Moshe unceasingly and the Eda Charedis never considered R’ Shlomo Zalman to be their Posek, as he was too much of a “Zionist”. Ironically, both R’ Moshe and R’ Shlomo Zalman often referred questioners from outside of their countries of residence to the “Great Rabonim of Israel” or the “Great Rabonim of the USA”. They had no tickets on themselves.

R’ Nebenzahl (c) Sha’ar Hashomayim

Rabbi Lopez-Cardozo’s article follows below.

Nothing is more difficult than being a “Posek HaDor,” the foremost leading halachic arbiter of the Jewish people, in our complicated and troublesome days. The Posek HaDor is the man whose halachic knowledge is greater than anyone else’s, and furthermore, is considered to have “da’as Torah,” divine inspiration. Consequently he has to decide on issues of life and death, literally and figuratively. He is seen as someone who can make judgments about political matters, both local and international, especially in and concerning the Land of Israel. Such a person must have a kind of wisdom surpassing anything that ordinary mortals could ever dream of. He is asked to singlehandedly decide matters which will affect hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jews, and by extension, millions of secular Jews. What are the conditions under which a person is able to fulfill such a task? And does Judaism truly want one person to have such a task?

Never has the Posek HaDor been confronted with so many challenges. It was the establishment of the State of Israel that threw all Jews around the globe into a new world-order and created a need for unprecedented religious leadership. Social and economic conditions have changed radically, creating major upheavals in Jewish life. Unprecedented opportunities have arisen that need to be translated in reality. Will the Posek HaDor grasp those opportunities and turn them into major victories, and inspire his people? Or will he close himself up and live in denial and continue as if nothing has changed? Will he be aware that he needs to lead religious Jewry in and through a new world-order? That his views will not only affect Jews but even gentiles, as his voice will be heard far beyond the Jewish community, transmitted via the Internet? Will he realize that he may have to give guidance to an often extremely secular and troubled world which is in great need of hearing the words of a Jewish sage? Will he realize that his decisions must reflect the fact that Jews are asked to be a light unto the nations—a light which must shine everywhere? Or will he only focus on the often narrow world of orthodoxy, and look down on or ignore the gentile or secular world?

Most Jews today are no longer observant and are not inspired by Judaism. To them, Judaism has become irrelevant and outdated. The reasons for this tragedy are many, but no doubt the failure to convey halacha as something exciting and ennobling like the music of Mozart or Beethoven is a large component. Only when a Jew is taught why it is that halacha offers him the musical notes with which he is able to play his soul’s sonata will he be able to hear its magnificent music. Just as great scientists are fascinated when they investigate the properties of DNA or the habits of a tiny insect under a microscope, so should even a secular Jew be moved to his depths when he encounters the colors and fine subtleties of the world of halacha. But does the posek realize this himself, and does he convey that message when he deals with halachic inquiries?

Are not many orthodox Jews nearsighted and in dire need of a wider vision? Is making sure that a chicken is kosher all that there is to kashrut? Or are the laws of kashrut just one element of a grand Weltanschauung which defines the mission of the people of Israel; a mission whose importance surpasses by far the single question of a chicken’s kashrut? Should such inquiries not be one small component of larger questions concerning the plague of consumerism and mankind’s obsessive pursuit of ever-increasing comfort? Should the posek who is asked about the kashrut of somebody’s tefillin not ask the questioner: And what about the kashrut of your much-too-expensive and ostentatious car? Is he not first of all an educator? Or does he still believe that only hard-line rulings will do the job and create the future for a deeply religious Judaism?

Is it not the first requirement of the posek to live in radical amazement, and to see God’s fingers in every dimension of human existence, whether it is the Torah, Talmud, science, technology and, above all, in the constant changing of history which may quite well mean that God demands different decisions than those of the past? Today’s halachic living is being deeply disrupted by observance becoming mere habit. Outward compliance with externalities has taken the place of the engagement of the whole person with God. The jewel has got lost in the setting. Over the years this problem has become exacerbated because everything in Judaism is now turned into a halachic issue. It is the task of the posek to make sure that Judaism does not get identified only with legalism. There is a whole religious world beyond halacha. One of aggadah, philosophy, deep emotional experiences, devotion and often un-finalized beliefs. Should these not enter in the very process of how halacha is to be applied? The task of halacha was to ensure that Judaism did not evaporate into an utopian reverie; some kind of superficial spiritualism. But what happened on the ground? Did not Judaism develop into something different because this delicate balance was lost; a kind of sacred behaviorism? Judaism was never supposed to become a religion that is paralyzed in its awe of rigid tradition. Halacha is supposed to be the practical upshot of un-finalized beliefs. Judaism is a fluid liquid that must be transformed into a solid substance. It needs to chill the heated steel of exalted ideas and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to be cooled off entirely.

Should halacha not be a midwife which gives birth not only to answers, but also to profound spiritual questions created by that very halacha? If so, shouldn’t we make sure not to turn the Posek HaDor into somebody who needs to give on the spot answers as if one presses a button?

Would it not be wise, for example, for a group of women, and above all, the wife of the posek, to be deeply involved in certain halachic decisions when they touch upon emotions and social conditions that they may understand better than the posek/husband? Why do we almost never hear about the spouse of the Posek HaDor, of her wisdom, and above all the sacrifice entailed in being married to such a great man, who is needed by so many and often has so little time for his own family?

Is it possible to be a Posek HaDor if one is absolutely sure of the truth of one’s religion but not informed or aware of the many challenges today’s world presents to religious faith and Judaism? How could such a person be able to understand the many issues of people who live in doubt? Will he understand the sincere troubles of the confused teenager; the Jewish Ethiopian; the bereaved parent; the struggling religious homosexual; the child of a mixed marriage with only a Jewish father; even the Christian or Buddhist who has an affinity for Judaism and asks for guidance? Is there anybody in this world who has all the qualities necessary to singlehandedly rule on these matters? Is it not highly unfair and extremely dangerous to ask one human being, however pious and wise, to adequately respond to all these issues? Would this not require teamwork with fellow poskim who may not be as learned in halacha but are much more familiar with many of the problems of which the Posek HaDor may not be aware? Should the Posek HaDor not be advised by a team of highly experienced professionals, such as psychologists, social workers and scientists, before giving a ruling, so as to prevent major pitfalls? Is halacha not to be decided by consensus, instead of by one person, even when he is the greatest?

Should poskim not encourage new Torah ideas and shun the denunciation of books which try to bring religion and science into harmony, instead of banning them, as the Vatican used to do in bygone times? Is it not a tragedy and a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, that such bans appear in secular newspapers, and are then ridiculed, since they so often prove the total lack of scientific knowledge on the part of those who sign the bans? Would it not be better that some of the greatest rabbis themselves offer scientific and philosophical solutions to possible conflicts between Torah and science, as has always been done throughout Jewish history, instead of simply calling something heresy? Inquisitions have no place in Judaism.

Should the Posek HaDor not have broad enough shoulders to be able to appreciate different worldviews, including Zionist, non-Zionist, ultra-orthodox and modern-orthodox and make sure that all these denominations feel that the posek is impartial, making space for their varied ideologies? Could he not even have an open ear for Reform and Conservative Judaism and realize that many of their adherents are serious about their Judaism, even though he will not agree with these movements? Could he explain to them adequately why he disagrees?

A real Posek should go down to women’s shelters, speak personally with abused children, perhaps deny himself food and drink so that he feels the real terror of poverty. Unless he is a very sensitive soul, should he not get himself “hospitalized” and spend time observing the lives of sick people? They are in the hands of doctors and nurses who do not always deal with their patients in an adequate way, whether through lack of time, insensitivity, or some other reason.

Before dealing with the question of agunot and the refusal of husbands to give a get, a writ of divorce, to their wives, would it not be a good idea to leave one’s wife (with her consent) for a long period and live in total loneliness, to understand what it means to live in utter silence and having no life partner?

Is the Posek HaDor not responsible for narrowing the serious gap between the ultra-orthodox and the rest of Israeli society, and coming up with creative halachic solutions which will boggle the minds of all sections of Jewry?

The new Posek HaDor must be somebody who will propose unprecedented solutions for dealing with the status of the tens of thousands of non-Jews of Jewish descent living in the State of Israel. He needs to make sure that courses on Judaism are so attractive that halacha becomes irresistible. He should instruct his students to welcome these people with open arms, knowing quite well that otherwise we will be confronted with a huge problem of intermarriage in the State of Israel. This is now a halachic problem which can no longer be solved on an individual level and threatens the very existence of the Jewish State. His prophetic and long term view must ensure that debacles such as the present one concerning the exemption of yeshiva students from army service, which is now exploding in front of our eyes, will never take place again.

For nearly two thousand years, Jewish Law has been developed into a “waiting mode” in which it became the great “preserver” of the precepts. It was protective and defensive, and mainly committed to conformity, so as to make sure that Judaism and Jews would survive while surrounded by a non-Jewish society which was hostile most of the time. It became a “galut halacha”— an exilic code — in which the Torah sometimes became too stultified. It may have worked in the Diaspora, but can no longer give sufficient guidance in today’s world.

Who, after all, will deny that Jews today live in utterly different circumstances despite all the anti-Semitism? The State of Israel is the great catalyst for this new situation, a situation which we had not experienced during the past two thousand years. Are we not therefore in dire need of a new kind of prophetic halacha, in which is presented not only the strict rules of halacha but also the perspectives of our prophets, speaking of burning social and ethical issues from the perspective of a deep religiosity? Has the time not come to leave the final codification of Jewish law behind us; to unfreeze halacha and start reading between the lines of the Talmud to recapture halacha’s authentic nature?

To be an arbitrator of Jewish law is to be the conductor of an orchestra. It is not coercion but persuasion which makes it possible for the other to hear the beauty of the music, and to accept a halachic decision as one would listen, willingly, to the final interpretation of a conductor—because one is deeply inspired.

To be a posek means to be a person of unprecedented courage. A person willing to initiate a spiritual storm which will shake up the whole of the Jewish community. A storm which will prove that conventional/codified halacha has freed itself from the sandbank in which it has been stuck. In a completely unprecedented shift, poskim should lead the ship of Torah with full sails right into the heart of the Jewish nation, creating such a shock that it will take days, weeks, or months before it is able to get back on its feet. With their knives between their teeth, just like the prophets of biblical days, these great halachic arbiters, with their impeccable and uncompromising conduct, should create a moral-religious uproar which will scare the moral wits out of both secular and religious Jews and weigh heavily on their souls.

Poskim should not be “honored,” “valued,” or “well respected,” as they are now, but—as men of truth—they should be both feared and deeply loved.

Jews of all backgrounds should be shivering in their shoes at the thought of meeting them, but simultaneously incapable of staying away from their towering, fascinating and warm personalities.

Halachic decision making is a great art. The posek should never forget that he is the soil on which the halacha is to grow, while God is the sun and the Torah is the seed.**

Above all, it is the task of the Jewish people to greatly revere this person, but never to extol him to the extent that this reverence touches on idol worship.

Let us pray that we will soon meet this personality and make sure that once more Judaism and the Torah will be the great love of all Jews and even of mankind.


* With thanks to my friend M.M. van Zuiden.
** See Samuel H. Dresner, Heschel, Hasidism, and Halakha, Fordham University Press 2002, p. 108

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

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