Democratization of Halakhic Authority: Opportunities and Challenges

By Shmuel Klitsner

We Jews—and, in particular, we Orthodox Jews— tend to think that it’s all about us. We labor under the illusion that we are an autonomous society, immune from external cultural trends and changes. However, when examining the changing nature of rabbinic authority in the twenty-first century, we must take into account a few significant worldwide trends that contribute to a democratization of halakhah. This shift, I argue, is a welcome, though challenging, development.

Halakhic Information at One’s Fingertips

First, the Internet, humanity’s number one source of information, has had a profound impact on the way we access halakhic information. Vast amounts of halakhic knowledge are now stored electronically and are easily retrievable by powerful, user-friendly software. Perhaps the most consulted posek today is “Rabbeinu Google.”

Now that information is so readily attainable from intelligent software, many well-educated Modern Orthodox types—those who tend to ask halakhic questions—look differently at their poskim. Rather than seeking authorities who have committed vast libraries of halakhic precedents to memory, this public looks for thinkers who bring profundity and creativity to their analysis of halakhic material.

Group P’sak

The halakhic world has been affected by general democratizing trends in another significant way: Increasingly, wisdom is sought from a cooperative, Wikipedia-type model. In Israel, this new model of halakhic discourse is best represented by the three-year-old Beit Hillel forum, in which religious Zionist scholars (both men and women) conduct ongoing discussions of the most pressing issues in Israeli life, along with their halakhic ramifications. In addition to the vibrant discussions in the closed-membership web forum, there are periodic beit midrash sessions for joint learning. These sessions have an ultimate goal of producing position papers and piskei halakhah. This is a fascinating new phenomenon—with its own considerable procedural and substantive challenges—of group p’sak.

I would distinguish here between two uses of the term p’sak: The more colloquial use of the term refers to a simple matter whereby a rabbi refers a constituent to a previously decided halakhah; this process involves very little need to compare the nuances of one situation to another (le-damot milta l’milta). There is another kind of p’sak, however, that requires that rare rabbi of rabbis who has the knowledge, the learned followers, and the broad vision to issue new rulings. It is to this latter type of p’sak, and this higher level of authority, that the learned and inclusive scholars of Beit Hillel turn their collective attention. Because of their high regard for their female colleagues’ views, they actively include these women’s voices in the process.

Inclusion of Women’s Voices

The ramifications of the inclusion of women’s voices in the great, ongoing two-thousand-year-old halakhic conversation are astonishing and promising. Two factors have contributed to making this welcome development possible.

First, usually in the past, a lone posek—always male and almost always above the age of sixty—sat in his study and penned responsa. His writings were given credence and authority because of his proven prowess and perseverance in mastering the vast literature. It might have taken another twenty-five to a hundred years under the old model for one or two exceptional women to reach the status of halakhic master. Consider that from tens of thousands of men who dedicate their days and nights to Talmud study for many decades, only a handful of poskim emerge. Given that statistical model, is it likely that the fairly new phenomenon of women dedicating multiple years to Talmud study will soon produce a poseket of stature? However, this model now exists in tandem with another model, in which a group of talented, albeit lesser scholars—both male and female—express an opinion in a collective effort.

Second, we have recently begun to see a number of programs offering advanced halakhic training for women. These programs, on both sides of the Atlantic, accept women with previous years of learning in Talmud and train them in the intricacies and unique language of halakhic discourse. I am proud to be the director of one of the most intense of such programs: the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. Women enter the program after having completed multi-year, full-time Talmudic study; they then embark upon and complete a five-year learning program. Their curriculum is almost exclusively focused on in-depth learning of the codes, commentaries, responsa literature, and court decisions, and ultimately leads to semikhah. This semikhah, like male semikhah, certifies the basic knowledge required to answer halakhic queries of the first type mentioned, as well as indicating that the bearer has entered the portal toward having the capability to compare a new case to its precedents and suggesting new halakhic ground. Indeed, two of our outstanding musmakhot (graduates) have recently published a small volume of their own halakhic responsa. They and several other learned women are those who participate in the Beit Hillel halakhic forums.

Most recently, another of our students, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, has been appointed a spiritual leader in Efrat by the city’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. She is already providing guidance to individuals who apparently have been waiting for such an address; her guidance involves both halakhic and pastoral sensitivity.

The Global versus the Individual

Although many other factors have a democratizing effect on halakhic authority, I’d like to point to one other trend that also has its roots in the universal and affects our inner world: We live in an age in which the corporate—that is, the communal or denominational— sense of belonging is no longer the dominant feature of our identity. Identities now tend to be global or individual, as communal loyalties give way to a demand for personal meaning and relevance. This universalizing trend provides a great challenge for Jewish educational strategists in general; it is even more challenging to organizations like JOFA that are committed to Jewish continuity while at the same time welcoming outside influences that are seen as positive into our lives.

With all its complexities, the trend toward the global and the personal nonetheless contributes significantly to an incremental democratization of rabbinic authority. The new generation of Modern Orthodox Jews often judges halakhic possibilities presented by scholars in a new way: not on the basis of the author’s credentials or denominational standing, but on the basis of the coherence and relevance of the analysis of halakhic precedents and how these precedents interact with an ever-changing reality.

A few communities are willing to accept innovations based on this type of grassroots scholarship. Many Modern Orthodox communities resist this at present, but they too insist on having mainstream rabbinic authorities at least respond to suggestions and engage in conversation with them.

One of the key challenges is what Alexis de Tocqueville would have us consider with regard to all processes of democratization: How are we to maintain an excellence, and a complex thinking worthy of meeting the complexity of life in all its fullness, without risking the pitfalls of mediocrity and reductionism to the lowest common denominator that often attend the shift from elite hierarchies to inclusive democratization?

From what I have witnessed so far with regard to both Wikipedia and Beit Hillel, I am optimistic. As long as the standards of scholarship remain high and our communal institutions foster integrity and humility, we need not fear the opening of the doors—or virtual windows—of the beit midrash. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria understood the need for democratization in the time of Rabban Gamliel and saw it as an opportunity for more Torah and more rank-and-file attachment to learning and observance. Today this trend is happening on its own. We can embrace it and navigate its flow, or we can engage in a futile effort to stem the tide of historical processes.

Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, author of Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, has taught Bible and Talmud for the past twenty-seven years at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum and has been involved in innovative educational projects including the award-winning Hanukkah animation Lights. He is presently the director of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership.


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