OU Torah Insights Project
American Judaism has seen a proliferation of "how-to" books designed to provide a wide array of practical halachic guidance. Common to these popular guides on Jewish observance is the somewhat frustrating piece of advice to "consult a competent halachic authority." Isnt that precisely what the reader thought he was doing when he opened the book in the first place?
This conundrum has its roots in this weeks parshah, when Yisro suggests that Moshe Rabbeinu delegate responsibility for "judging and making known the decrees of God and his teachings" to qualified leaders, who would be authorized to clarify all "minor matters" that would come up. These leaders would thus be empowered to formulate their own conclusions. They would not automatically apply a standardized view.
But Moshe does not express enthusiasm for Yisros plan. According to Rashi, in Parshas Devarim, Moshe was disappointed that the people so readily accepted the efficacy of multiple sources of religious instruction. Moshe believed that a truly devout individual should insist on turning only to the highest authority for guidance. Multiple sources yield multiple opinions, and some of those opinions will invariably prove to be wrong. Surely it would be safer to promote the most authoritative view as the standard for all similar cases.
But despite Moshes initial reservations, our tradition ultimately empowered its custodians to arrive at their own conclusions. The words of the Talmudic sage Rava, "a judge must be guided only by what his eyes see," is a guiding principle of rabbinic decision making.
Far-reaching examples abound: Rabbeinu Abraham, son of Maimonides, condemns a judge as "weak and indecisive," because his determinations followed only what is explicitly written. Similarly, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, in a letter to a colleague, suggested that the principle that "a judge must be guided only by what his own eyes see" even obligates him to contradict the view of their great and honored master. Although Rabbi Hayyim must have feared his master as he feared Heaven, perception of truth, and not personal regard, must prevail in rendering a ruling.
Closer to our own time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, devoted the forward of his great collection of responsum, Igros Moshe, to the proposition that a rav must issue his best considered opinioneven if it proves to be wrong. A learned and sincere verdict has the sanction of having been "guided only by what [the judges] eyes see."
Diversity is bound to be unsettling. We naturally crave the security of having acted upon an opinion that we feel has widespread recognition and acceptance. But authentic Judaism cannot be pre-fabricated. Uniformity is a lesser value than integrity. Unless the information contained is meant to convey examples or elucidate principles, there is no better advice for a popular guide to offer than to "consult a competent halachic authority". Lacking the eyes with which to see the actual circumstances, the real puzzle is how these books can presume to offer anything else.
Rabbi Mitchell Levine
Rabbi Levine is rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, Rhode Island