Thursday, January 14, 2010

Authority and Responsibility

Rav Meir Twersky posts:

One final example, also drawn from contemporary ideological discussion and debate. Many “hot-button” issues are currently being debated in the public square. Some of these are women’s issues – role of women, aliyas, and so on. There are many other issues as well – for instance, the boundaries of legitimate tolerance and openness. Many people are very opinionated in such matters, passionately advocating a particular point of view. Some go beyond advocacy and introduce change and innovation. And, of course, ostensibly everything is said and done l’sheim shomayim. But is the advocacy truly l’sheim shomayim? Or, perhaps is it self-serving, remaking halachah in our image in concert with our predilections?

Consistency test: do we maintain the same professional standards for the resolution of halachic issues that we insist upon in other contexts? For instance, in complex medical affairs we seek – as we should – the best, most expert medical care and guidance. If need be, we travel the world to seek out an expert. For a laymen or even an undistinguished doctor to make decisions or even advocate in complex medical issues would be reckless. We would not allow it. How many of us – laymen and rabbonim alike – are entitled to even express an opinion, much less advocate, in complex halachic matters? If, lack of qualifications notwithstanding, we persist in advocating on halachic matters, are we truly doing so l’sheim shomayim? The consistency test, honestly administered and uncensored, can be very revealing.

Comment: I know I used to try to think this way as I became observant. Part of that process has been to reduce the weight I give my own opinions, learning, and feeling and to raise the weight I give to the halachic experts, which always means the Rav I have chosen to guide me as opposed to the abstract opinions of the gedolim. I am dithering regarding the question of whether I truly forfeit my responsibility for my decisions just because I choose to give the authority for making them to someone else, or if I remain responsible. I'd be interested in comments on this question.

As far as the consistency issue goes, just as I do not accept any doctor's opinion, however august he might be, as the final voice in decisions involving my health I don't accept that the 'gedolim' can make my moral choices for me. I give them great deference - in fact I let their opinion override my own more often than not, but the final opinion and final responsibility regarding my moral and medical choices is mine. Furthermore in this internet age the patient has a chance to become a lot more educated than in the past, and so can be more of a partner with his doctor in making medical decisions rather than the target of those decisions.

How does Rabbi Twersky deal with uncertainty among his experts? If two doctors have different opinions which does he choose? If he has the choice of having a hand amputated and using a prosthetic, or keeping the non-functional hand attached does he have his expert doctor make that choice for him?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Top that chumrah!

In class tonight we played an impromptu round of Top that Chumrah. For the last several weeks I've been bringing in objects to the Hilchot Shabbat class to illustrate questions and/or solutions we had come up with for several different questions about cooking food on Shabbat.

Tonight I brought in a black knitted scarf to return to one of the class members. Naturally everyone wanted to know what sort of bishul (cooking) b'shabbat question I had that I could illustrate with a knitted scarf.

I explained that in his comments on siman 318 of Orach Chayim the Magen Avraham says that as a penalty for intentionally illegally cooking on Shabbat (Bishul Shabbat b'issur b'mazid) the pot in which the food was cooked is considered treif until it is kashered by libun gamur (high intensity heat, most commonly a blowtorch or the self clean cycle of an oven.)

I pointed out that if this scarf were wet and was draped over a radiator on Shabbat, it would technically be a violation of the laws of cooking on Shabbat. I asked if this meant that if that happened, would it mean I could no longer drape the wet scarf over the radiator even on a weekday, since it would involve cooking something treif.

One classmate piped up and said that the scarf wasn't the pot, the scarf was the food(*). The radiator was the pot, and therefore the radiator would have to be kashered. Another person said even the radiator wasn't really the pot, the real pot was the main unit of the boiler, and thus the hot water tank would have to be kashered. I mentioned that in my house we don't have a separate hot water heater - we have a coil that runs through our oil furnace. It was immediately suggested that I would have to use a blowtorch to kasher the oil furnace. One person said he'd really like to see that, but after due consideration agreed that he would be better off having a camera in the basement and watching remotely.

(*) Under that interpretation the scarf cannot be used by any Jew ever again, although one may sell it or give it to a non-Jew.