Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim Vayeilech| 5764
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Sometimes your published responses end off without clear guidelines as to how one should act but offer a few possibilities. Why is that?
Answer: While we usually give clear guidelines, we acknowledge the truth of your observation and will take this opportunity to explain our thinking on how to present halacha to the public.
As in most areas of scholarship, the answers to pertinent halachic issues classically fall into different categories. Some cases are clearly forbidden. Some cases are clearly permitted. There is almost always a gray area where it is difficult to give an unequivocal answer. This can occur for two main reasons. The various opinions and/or indications for one ruling or another may be very similar in strength, making the options almost equivalent in the eyes of the respondent. In other cases, a myriad of subjective factors can affect the advisability of various approaches in subtle, complex and sometimes unanticipated ways.
Almost all of our responses include elements that fall into each of these categories, and we try to briefly explain the rationale behind each. By doing so, we hope to present a clearer picture of the issue as a whole than one would get if we rendered guidelines in the form of ABC.
But what is one to do in regard to those cases where no conclusion is given? Firstly, it is important for all to have a personal halachic authority with whom to discuss such questions. Such a rav will be aware of some of the subjective factors that relate to the person and his circumstances, and he can inquire about additional factors he needs in order to pasken. There are times that we ourselves gave the questioner a more specific answer, based on information specific to him, but published the question in a more general form with a more general answer.
Furthermore, there are times that the person who receives the halachic information has to choose for himself. We try to describe the gray areas carefully, as they contain different shades and patches of gray. We often use carefully chosen language to indicate we lean in a certain direction even when we don’t close the door on another approach. Whether one wants to take the more lenient or stricter approach can legitimately be the reader’s decision. The wise decision may depend on certain factors that change according to his setting or circumstances. (How many times does the Rama end off that something is permitted only in a case of significant loss, and who can give an absolute dollar sum for such a loss?) If we would always give a clear decision, we would deprive the serious reader of the legitimacy of sometimes deciding for himself.
We also are well aware that those who read our publications make up a broad spectrum of society from many perspectives, including community, personal background and philosophy. This makes it prudent to at times report the various legitimate approaches taken. Why should someone who is legitimately lenient feel deficient because the respondent favors the more stringent opinion? Why should we tempt one from a family or community where the approach is stricter or just different to use us as an excuse to change his minhag because, when pushed to the wall to decide, we prefer a different minhag?
One of the main purposes we intend to achieve by bringing contradictory opinions and approaches as (equally) viable options is to promote harmony within and between communities. Human nature causes some to look down on those who are more lenient than they are. Others are hostile to those who are stricter than they. Most of us have a tendency to do both, depending on the issue. We hope to educate as many people as possible that often “these and those are the words of the living G-d.” We unrepentantly apologize for any frustration this may at times cause.
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