By Debbie Weissman
This document was circulated to the members of the Halacha and Minhag Committee, who approved it. Two submitted comments, found below.
Yedidya aspires to develop a new model within the Halachic decision-making process. When the outlines of the model were described several years ago to Rabbi Saul Berman, the founder of “Edah,” he responded that this model could serve as a modern Orthodox alternative to the ideology of “Da’as Torah,’ prevalent among Agudat Yisrael and other Haredi circles. (According to that ideology, rabbis are the ultimate authority in all fields, including politics and society. For example, Haredi political parties all have some form of Council of Sages who make binding decisions on extra-Halachic questions.)
Our model is based on an integration of the following three principles:
1) The authoritative framework for a meaningful Jewish life of Kedusha and Avodat HaShem, today as in the past, is the Halacha, as interpreted within Orthodox communities, in consultation with their rabbinic leaders and Torah scholars. We are committed to staying within the boundaries of Halacha, although we are open to changing communal customs, of a less binding nature.
2) We live in a world that accepts as the foundation of democracy and human rights the idea that no human beings are inherently worth more or less than other human beings. Rabbis are professionals in the realm of Jewish law. We look to them for guidance and value their opinions, informed by years of Torah study. Yet, many Halachic questions are essentially questions of policy, involving meta-Halachic judgments. They deal with issues of politics, sociology, psychology, business administration and other disciplines. In these areas, the rabbi’s opinion is not necessarily superior to that of any informed adult member of the congregation, male or female.
3) It is well known that Jews do not have a binding hierarchical authority system, as do some other religious cultures. For much of Jewish history, the kehilla or local congregation held a great deal of decision-making power. It was they, for example, who chose the rabbis who led them. But that was in a period when there wasn’t universal literacy and women were excluded from Torah education and communal leadership. Today, when Jewish communities often have universal higher education, when women have the opportunity to study Torah on an advanced level, when computers have made the vast libraries of Torah scholarship accessible to everyone—how much more so should the community assume responsibility in the Halachic process.
The model we would like to use at Yedidya involves having a small committee of men and women, rabbis, educators and lay people, who would take it upon themselves to research certain Halachic issues that arise in the life of the community. They would help the community engage in a serious process of learning and discussion, guided by Halachic experts, both from within the community and guests. The committee might recommend a course of action, but, ultimately, the responsibility for the decision would rest with the community.
Response by David Rosen:
I like your statement Debbie, though I would question whether this is a "new model" (other than the egalitarian aspect) and would suggest (as do Moshe Sokol and Lawrence Kaplan in their respective articles in "Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy", The Orthodox Forum Series, publ. Jason Aronson, 1992) that it is the "Da’as Torah" concept that is the "innovation" - out of (historical and moral) character with Judaism's mainstream rabbinic tradition. Therefore I find it somewhat denigrating to Yedidya to refer to such an authentic Jewish approach to Halacha (which you present) as a kind of response to (the alien concept of) "Da'as Torah” or even give the latter the dignity of using the term "alternative”!
One other comment - a bit of wordsmithing. I think that clause 3 needs a little extra clarity. I would suggest that before the seventh word from the end on the first page, the word "whole" be introduced, i.e. “whole community”; or perhaps even better state it categorically “women as well as men”.
Response by Moshe Kranc
Overall, I agree with the spirit of what you write, and agree with Rabbi Berman that it is an interesting and viable alternative to Da'as Torah.
I did have a problem with the following paragraph:
"Rabbis are professionals in the realm of Jewish law. We look to them for guidance and value their opinions, informed by years of Torah study. Yet, many Halachic questions are essentially questions of policy, involving meta-Halachic judgments. They deal with issues of politics, sociology, psychology, business administration and other disciplines. In these areas, the rabbi's opinion is not necessarily superior to that of any informed adult member of the congregation, male or female."
To me, this overstates the argument. The best person to decide a policy decision is a person who understands both the Halachic perspective and the sociological/political issues, not just "any informed adult member". I do believe that you need to be able to see the other issues through the prism of Halacha in order to make the best decision. (Halacha is one of those things that influences the way you look at everything else.) To do this, you have 2 choices: find a Rabbi who has exactly the Kehilla's sociological/political perspective (difficult and error-prone), or get a representative sampling of the Kehilla up to speed on the Halachic perspective (easier to accomplish and more accurate).