Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Role of God in psak

When I first started thinking about halacha, I assumed that there was a "right" answer for halachic questions. That, if one knew enough, thought hard enough, and had the right intangibles, one could find the answer that God wanted. Or, even if one couldn't find the right answer, that right answer did exist, and finding it was the goal. In other words, God has the answer for all of our halachic questions, but sometimes we cant find it.

The Gemara records the famous story of the dispute over the oven, and despite R. Yehoshua calling in miracles, and even a bat kol(voice from heaven), the issue is decided by a majority of rabbis, not the voice from heaven. In fact, Moshe is the only prophet from whom we take explicit normative data. "Lo ba'shamayim he"- it is not in Heaven, the law is for us to decide.

So, it turns out that there may not be an exact right way that God wants, and, even if that way exists, it only has validity if the majority agree with it. But who are the majority? Who gets to be counted? How do they decide? Obviously, there are tools and parameters to establish psak: Torah, Nach, the ways to establish concepts(rabbi Yishmael's 13 for example), Mishna, Gemara, and then Rishonim, Acharonim, and more books and opinions. But, not everything published gets accepted.

We seem to rely on those who we think have an idea of what God would want. In other words, some form of da'at Torah. Now, da'at Torah can have a minimalist meaning: only that the person possessing it(by studying the Torah) has an idea of what the Torah intended, with no supernatural implications. It can also mean that the person, either by dint of study, or being chosen in some way, has Supernatural help and vision to see what the Torah intended. The difference, although small, is that in one case it is totally dependent on the person their talents, and study, and in the other case, there is some sort of Divine intervention in addition to the talent and study. God, in this scenario, influences halacha by whispering in the ear of the posek.

Are we supposed to look for those with divine guidance? In the same paragraph as "lo ba'shamayim he" we find "mi ya'ale lanu ha'shamayma v'yikacheha lanu" who is going to ascend to the heavens and take it(the Torah) for us. We are not supposed to use this paradigm, because the Torah is "b'ficha oo'b'levavcha la'asoto" it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to do.

Conclusion: We have guidelines from God on how to decide halachic questions, but aside from creating parameters, God has left it up to us to discern His will. In the absence of a Sanhedrin(not the one being constituted in Tiveria), the ideal situation is for each of us to achieve the learning neccessary to be decisors. Techically, those who claim to have Divine assistance actually should not have an advantage over those without Divine assistance.

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