by Rori Picker Neiss
I remember vividly a Shabbat in 2005 when some friends and I decided to visit a Modern Orthodox shul we had never before attended. The four of us—three females and one male—entered our respective sections and were immediately impressed by the warm welcome we received. The davening was pleasant and full of singing. The structural layout clearly divided the room between men and women, but still allowed a clear sightline for women, making the space feel inclusive and participatory. One friend turned to me and remarked that if our male friend were offered an aliyah, we should immediately take out membership in this shul.
I was ready to do just that—until the rabbi gave his drasha (sermon). We were in the midst of the controversial Terri Schiavo case, involving a debate over prolonged life support and whether the husband, who was her legal guardian, could remove her feeding tube. The rabbi stood before the congregation and stated unequivocally: “There is one Torah. There is one halakhah. There is one answer. And I will tell you what that is.” I was shocked. Any plans for my becoming a member immediately disappeared. Anyone who publicly stated that there was one Torah, one halakhah, clearly had never studied it.
This is not to say that the scrolls carried from the ark in that shul held different words from the ones I kiss each Shabbat morning. They do not. Yet to say that those words allow for only one answer to any particular question is at best superficial and at worst misleading.
This rabbi had never met Terri Schiavo. He had never spoken with her husband or her parents. His knowledge of the complexities of the case was learned through newspaper articles and television reports. He was not informed about the details of her condition, her prognosis, or her treatment.
That is why I was so horrified to see him stand before his congregation and proclaim that he had the one answer to an argument that had divided the medical and legal communities. I had no reason to challenge his level of learning and his knowledge of halakhah. Indeed, he had far more experience and education than I. I could not even say that I would disagree with his halakhic conclusion, but I could not abide anyone who would stand before an audience and declare, without hesitation or doubt, that he had the answer to a question about which he did not have all the information.
It is true that there is one Torah. But that one Torah has seventy faces. That one Torah encompasses millennia of deep debate, rich interpretation, and a multitude of voices that carried it through an ever-changing world. To say that any one question has one unambiguous answer is to ignore the tradition that brought us to this point.
A Process both Formal and Personal
The process of rabbinic p’sak is not a simple one. It is at the same time both extremely formal and extremely personal for the individual(s) involved.
I never cease to be amazed—and horrified—when I receive a call preceded by a now all-too-familiar introduction, “I asked my rabbi about this and he told me x, but he said to call back if anything changes/it becomes too hard/I am not able to do it.” Often the questioner has no idea what is meant. If what changes? How hard is too hard? Hard in what way? How many times can I call back? Why can’t you just tell me the answer?
A halakhic authority does not have the power to change the law, but a change in circumstances can change how a law applies to a particular person or a particular situation. Unfortunately, rather than attempting to understand the person or the situation, and talking the person through the possible solutions to the variety of scenarios, some authorities prefer to give a partial answer. Instead of educating people about the law and introducing them to its beauty and profundity, they offer a simple answer and instructions to call back if necessary. In doing so, they keep the knowledge and the power in the hands of a few authorities. Individuals seeking guidance are disempowered, not knowing which details of their situation are halakhicly relevant and not knowing the full range of options that might be available to them. Instead of enriching the questioners’ experience of Jewish law and practice, this process turns people off, making them less inclined to ask further questions or to study a tradition that makes them feel misunderstood or dumb.
In one particularly poignant example, I received a message from a woman who was newly married. She was contacting me to learn more about what sexual positions and sexual activities were permitted and prohibited. Specifically, she wanted to know what options were available for her husband to pleasure her beyond vaginal intercourse. While taking classes before their marriage, both she and her husband were told that any other forms of stimulation, such as oral or manual stimulation, were prohibited—but “if you have any trouble, you can call the rabbi to ask.”
She was mortified at the thought of calling the rabbi on the phone and asking him such a personal question. She was painfully shy, and just writing the question to me was difficult for her.
I thanked her for reaching out. I congratulated her on her wedding, asked her about herself, about her husband, about married life. We started to talk. In the course of our conversation, I learned that she came from a very religious household, whereas her husband had first become connected to the Orthodox Jewish community in his twenties. They had met through a matchmaker, dated for only a few months, and had not touched at all before their wedding. They were committed to living a fervently halakhic lifestyle, and they were struggling with physical intimacy in their marriage.
Once I uncovered that last detail, our conversation changed. While we talked through some halakhot of permissible sexual activities (complete with sources, so that she could show her husband the texts as well), I was able to direct her to other resources that could be helpful to her. One year later, she excitedly sent me an announcement of the birth of their first child.
Not a Single Question with a Single Answer
The process of rabbinic p’sak is not a simple matter of a single question that yields a single answer. It is a series of questions, an exchange in which the answers are often new questions. It is an investigative exercise that seeks to uncover the questions that exist within the questions. It cannot be a monologue; it must be a dialogue.
Although I consider myself to be counted among the halakhic authorities, my job is not to make broad pronouncements of what is prohibited and what is permitted. My job is to guide people as they navigate through defining a halakhic lifestyle. In asking questions and opening up a dialogue, I not only ensure that I have the full picture to best address the questions posed to me, but that I am also able to educate each person and to empower them to be an active participant in their Jewish life.
To be a thriving Jewish community, we need active participants who are passionate and engaged in their Judaism. To stand up before a group of people and make sweeping generalizations about Jewish law, or to answer a question with a simple yes or a no, without giving context or discussing the halakhic issues at play, is to create a passive Jewish community. It is to tell people that they are irrelevant in the halakhic process.
A halakhic system devoid of people is just empty words on paper The job of the rabbi or maharat is never to close the door, but always to open it as far as possible and welcome everyone through. When people come seeking p’sak, they are cracking open the door and peeking through. We can give them the answer that they seek and close the door behind them, or we can swing the door wide open and use it as an opportunity for education and engagement.
There are those who fear educating people because they worry that explaining the halakhic process to those not trained in its intricacies will lead people to make their own decisions without consulting a halakhic authority. Admittedly, some people may do just that. Therefore, some halakhic authorities routinely say, “Yes, but call me back if you need to.” In fact, we should not fear that they never call back; rather we should fear that they will never call in the first place.
Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is the director of programming, education, and community engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis.