I saw an interesting question and answer from Rabbi Aviner’s web page. I’d describe Rabbi Aviner as Charedi Leumi, but unlike regular Charedim, he is acquainted somewhat more with the real world. Here is the question and answer
Q: Sometimes when a Rabbi is asked a question, he responds: “I don’t know” or “I am not familiar with that”. Is this and answer, or a was of avoiding taking a position?
A: It is a type of answer and of taking a position (The Chazon Ish said: ‘I don’t know” is also part of the Torah, meaning that when a person reviews his learning, he need to points out I know this and I don’t know that. Sha’arei Aharon vol. 1, p. 44 in Kuntres Sha’arei Ish. And the Steipler complained to a great Rabbi: When I say that I don’t know, the world explains it as if it is a doubt. Orchot Rabbenu vol. 1, p. 38 in the additions at the end. And Ha-Rav Chaim Kanievski was asked: When Ha-Rav answers a question with “I haven’t heard”. Does this mean that he does not agree with that position? He answered: It is the simple meaning of the words. She’eilat Rav Vol. 1, p. 22 #8. Segulot Raboteinu, p. 257 note #319).
I recall being taken aback when Mori V’Rabbi, Rav Hershel Schachter occasionally said to me over the phone “I don’t know”. This to me is Gadlus, otherwise known as intellectual integrity as opposed to papal infallibility (lehavdil). It could have lots of meanings
- I don’t know you well enough to make a determined ruling
- I need more facts, and based on what you’ve told me, “I don’t know”
- I never had a Mesora on how to decide this issue, and I don’t pasken without a Mesora (this is a Hungarian trait), others (like Dayan Usher Weiss isn’t afraid to say Libi Omer Li)
- I can’t answer you on the spot, I need to look into it very carefully (the Rav told all his Talmidim to never answer immediately, and to always say you have to check, and to look in Shulchan Aruch and call back, even if you know)
- Rav Hershel always encourages his Musmachim to discuss every Shayla with a Chaver (Rav) before answering
- He’s not convinced I’ll listen to him, so and not say something, he says I don’t know.
As opposed to Poskim, I would posit, that most Rebbes, and Rebbalach, never seem short of an answer. Similarly, the same can be said of Mekubalim (the real ones, and the shyster money grabbers).
I’ve never seen it as a negative! Moshe Rabenu needed to consult what to do with Zelafchad, the Mekoshesh Etzim. Consultation is a good thing, and human frailty to me is Gadlus. Mori, V’Rabi Rav Abaranok, always said his “tentative opinion” then invited you to his office or house, where he went through the Mekoros and explained his Psak (or withdrew it!). They say ( I think in the name of R’ Moshe Tendler) that R’ Moshe when asked a question would answer at the bottom of the stairs, and by the time he got to the top of the stairs, reviewing everything out loud, he either kept his Psak or changed it.