Sunday, February 16, 2014

Are rabbis scientists or statesmen?

The Orthodox world has seen a number of disputes lately about a variety of issues - most but not all of them related to the role of women. One of the issues not directly related, but highly relevant to the outcome of these question is who gets to make decisions on halachic topics, and to some extent who even gets to have their voices listened to.

Rabbi Marc Angel, in his book The Search Committee: A Novel has a dialog between a traditional charedi rabbi and his supporters and a more Modern rabbi and his, when both are being interviewed for the role of Rosh Yeshiva of a fictional version of BMG. After the winner is chosen, the two candidates get to make final statements to the board. The charedi rabbi informs the board it was invalid from the start, the questions such as the selection of a Rosh Yeshiva are properly decided by traditional torah scholars. The role of lay people is to act as fundraisers only. They are not even entitled to offer advice. The charedi rabbi's final words were "You have no voice." The modern rabbi takes the opposite tack, saying that the lay members of the community are important stakeholders in the community and have an actual responsibility to speak up and offer guidance. His final words are "You have a voice."

Recently Rabbi Hershel Schachter published a missive that could have been written by that charedi rabbi. A Rabbi who was the principal of a school made a halachic decision for the members of that school. The decision was publicized and caused much controversy. Rabbi Schachter stated that the rabbi simply did not have the necessary stature to make halachic decisions for his own school community. Properly the rabbi should have contacted a greater authority (such as Rabbi Schachter himself) and abided by whatever that greater rabbi decided.

When I discuss this issue with my charedi friends, I often get told that questioning a great rabbi's decision is like questioning the decision of a great doctor or a great physicist. Why should any deference be paid to the opinions of someone with a college level knowledge of quantum mechanics in the face of the opinion of some Nobel prize winning physicist? Sometimes this gets into an interesting discussion of the role of the patient versus his doctor with respect to health care. Many people today will argue with their doctors regarding choice of treatment. The decision of whether to undergo chemotherapy for advanced cancer, where the treatments may only purchase an additional couple of months of pain filled life is surely not the sole purview of the doctor. (In addition to the patient's rabbi, I also think the patient has a voice.)

What I've come to realize is that some people see rabbis primarily as scientists or lawyers, who study the universe around them or the legal codes and come up with definitive definitions of the way things are or should be. But other people view them as statesmen(*), who are major players in drafting the way our society functions, but whose specialized knowledge is not so great as to make the opinion of the average person affected by their decisions irrelevant. A third view is that rabbis are members of the community who have influence based on their individual prestige, but that the community as the whole is the ultimate decisor. That may be true for practical purposes - no matter how influential the rabbi, views of his that are not adopted don't have force - at least not until they are adopted, sometime generations later. But that isn't how the system is supposed to work in most cases according to O understandings.

Do other people find this distinction more useful than the Daas Torah vs. local rabbinic authority dichotomy? Am I completely off base? Is there a third perspective?

(*) Originally I wrote politicians here, as I did in the title. But politician is a term that currently carries negative connotations. I think statesmen carries the connotations I want of expertise without inarguable authority. Political scientists might also do.