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The Human Approach to Halakha
In the previous post, "Robot Rabbis," I cited Rabbi J. David Bleich's strange claims that it is impossible for a posek to change his approach over the years, or to be a machmir or a meikil. In response to my post, a leading scholar of rabbinic intellectual history referred me to a fascinating article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz"l, entitled "The Human and Social Factor in Halakha." This scholar informed me that he was told that Rav Aharon specifically wrote this article as a critique of Rabbi Bleich's approach. While this must refer to earlier examples of Rabbi Bleich's approach rather than the statements that he made in the interview, here is an extract from the article that precisely refutes his comments in the interview:
...the cogency and legitimacy of a “human” approach to pesak, appears, to many, problematic. They would have us believe that the ideal posek is a faceless and heartless supercomputer into whom all of the relevant data is fed and who then produces the right answer. Should this standard not be met, the shortfall is to be regarded as a failing, the lamentable result of human frailty—in Bacon’s terms, a manifestation of the besetting “idols” which hamper and hinder the capacity for reasoned judgment. On this reading, the process of pesika, properly conceived and executed, bears no semblance to an existential encounter between seeker and respondent. It entails, rather, the application of text to problem, the coupling of code and situation. This conception does not necessarily preclude reckoning with the specific circumstances of the question and questioner, as these may very well be part of the relevant objective data. The prevailing tendency, however, would be to dwarf this factor; and as to the human aspect of the meshiv, that would be obviated entirely. He, for his part, is to be animated by the precept that “we do not have mercy in judgment,” and hence, to pass on the merits of the issue with imperviously stony objectivity.
Purist proponents of this approach often cry it up as the “frum” view of pesika. In reality, however, this portrait of a posek is mere caricature, limned by those who, at most, kar’u ve-shanu, but certainly lo shimshu. As anyone who has been privileged to observe gedolim at close hand can readily attest, they approach pesak doubly animated by responsibility to halakha and sensitivity to human concerns. The balance between norm and need may be variously struck. There certainly are ideological differences among posekim over how much weight to assign the human factor—although, as Rav Avraham Schapira once noted, the classical meshivim are likely to be among the more lenient, inasmuch as inquirers are disinclined to turn to mahmirim. In principle, however, recognition of this factor is the rule rather than the exception; and responsa include frank acknowledgments of this theme. Writing to a colleague who had dissented from a lenient pesak he had rendered with regard to an aguna, Rav Hayyim Volozhiner asserts:
"And I saw that in most matters, we were of like mind, except for [the fact that] his honor leans towards stringency, since the matter does not depend upon him. Likewise, before the yoke of practical decision was thrust upon me, I too did not incline toward the leniencies arising from [legal] analysis. In our great sins, however, the generation has been orphaned of sages, and now the yoke of practical halakhic decision-making has been thrust upon me, for in our entire region they do not free [agunot] in any manner without the concurrence of my meager opinion. Therefore I have taken counsel with my Maker, and feel obliged to gird all my strength and devote myself to remedying [the situation of] agunot. And may the blessed Lord save me from error."
Note that in contrast to Rabbi Bleich's assertion that "there is no such thing as a machmir and a meikil" and "anyone who talks in that language is not a posek," Rav Aharon both uses that language and quotes others who do likewise. Likewise, note that in contrast to Rabbi Bleich's claim that it is impossible (and even sacrilegious) for a true posek to change his approach over the years, Rav Chaim Volozhiner states explicitly that he changed his own approach.
(The article is online in PDF format at this link, and there is also a text version at this link, but that version lacks formatting to distinguish Rav Lichtenstein's own words from the sources that he cites.)