Torat R. Ozer: An Ongoing Series. Part I: Halakha should be Comprehensible

R. Ozer Glickman, YU Rosh Yeshiva and noted personality, died earlier this week, and as someone who learned Yoreh Deah with him one on one, it hit me pretty hard. I want to honor his memory somewhat by writing essays/divrei torah inspired by things he taught me or exemplified. I can’t guarantee this will be my most polished essays, but I’m gonna try to put them out nonetheless over the next couple of weeks.

I’d like to start out with the following statement, which I believe should be a foundational principle of halakhic determination.

Halakha should be comprehensible to the average Jew.

What do I mean by this? I mean that if we assume, as we should, that Jews should follow halakha, then we have an obvious problem: Halakha is very complicated! As anyone who’s listened to a semikha level halakha shiur can tell you, each question of Jewish law comes with innumerable complications each of which have opinions that branch off into other opinions each with their own set of broader implications. As an educator, I do believe that people are capable of understanding this information when its taught well and time is dedicated to it, but understanding halakha on a rabbinic level is basically a full time job, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that your average Jew understand halakha on that level. But, Jews need to keep halakha! How can they keep halakha if they don’t know what to do?

There are three options to resolving this problem:
1. All Jews should devote the majority of their time towards understanding every intricacy of Jewish law.
2. All Jews should have a relationship with a rabbi where they are able to be advised on every single halakhic decision that comes up every day.

Option 1, as I said above, is simply unrealistic. Of course, ideally everyone would be at that level. But they won’t be, because that takes a lot of time and effort, and Judaism isn’t only for people who have semikha.
Option 2 is also a non-starter, because I do believe we want people to live Judaism as a natural part of their lives, not as a constant advisement from an outside source. Additionally, we do want people to be able to live halakhic lives with some degree of independence. Obviously, rabbis should be consulted in hard cases, but for most of the time, people should be living halacha as a natural part of their life that is part of a comprehensible decision making process by themselves, not by constant fiat from a rabbi.

That brings us to Option 3: View simplicity and comprehensibility in psak as a worthwhile value to consider when formulating halakhic opinions.

To be precise: An average person should be able to make independent halakhic decisions relying on a mental flow chart of heuristic yes or no questions. If this, then that. If not this, then that.

By way of example, one thing I’m learning for semikha right now is the laws of pikuach nefesh on shabbos, and when you’re allowed to violate shabbos to get someone medical care. What we’re asking is, “What level of danger is necessary to mean that we can violate shabbos to save their life?”¬†This is a very fraught question! Because, define “level”, define “danger”, define “Violate”, define “save”. And it’s a life and death situation! Messing up, by definition, means someone loses their life when its not necessary to do so. And the answers to all those questions are complicated sugyos! Obviously ask a rabbi, right? A Talmud Yerushalmi actually says that a rabbi who is asked such a question is a disgrace! Why? Because he didn’t give his congregation the tools to decide that question for themselves, and thus they are playing with someone’s life on his account. Its with this consideration in mind that the Arukh Hashulkhan sensibly rules that the criteria for violating shabbos on account of saving someone’s life is “would you go to the hospital if this happened during the week?” If yes, its something that obviously is medically concerning enough that one may credibly claim they’re concerned for their life. If no, they can’t.

What we see here is a complex sugya being boiled down to a simple yes or no question, because a) we want people to be able to make these halakhic decisions independently, b) we want regular people to be able to make that decision based on a simple, easy to remember yes or no question, instead of an extensive knowledge of the relevant sources.¬† While you can credibly claim that I can’t draw any conclusions from this case because it has to do with life and death, I do think the basic premise holds true for halakha in general: We want people to keep halacha. We want people to be independent. We want people to be able to make independent halachic decisions on a daily basis. Therefore it behooves us to make the heuristic behind those day-to-day halakhic decisions as simple and intuitive as possible, within reasonable limits of the law.

Learning Yoreh Deah with Rav Glickman, he of course wanted me to know the relevant sugyot and sources extremely well, but focus was put on forming a simple and intuitive halakhic methodology. R. Pesach Wolicki quoted R. Glickman as saying that “halakha is not a memorization of sources, its a way of thinking”. That is a nice summation of his derech halimmud. He didn’t want us to think through halakhic decisionmaking by consulting a library of sources in our heads, he wanted us to to go through a flowchart in our heads. Is this yavesh b’yavesh or lach b’lach? Is it min b’mino or min b’eino mino? Was there a transfer of taam, or wasn’t there? Is there substance of the issur still remaining? Is it davar chashuv? Is it davar she”yesh lo matirin? Was heat applied? Was it davar charif? Was it kavush?
Each of those questions branches off into its own decision tree. Going through those questions, and knowing the answers, you basically know issur v’heter, and know it intuitively, as a lived aspect of your life, and not as a bunch of information you have to look up.

And I think that also may speak to what made R. Glickman so great. First of all, he was a genius who was also an everyman. He wasn’t going to just sit there and throw out complicated chakiros or chiddushim, though he certainly could have. He wanted people to understand halakha, not just the elite. Second of all, R. Glickman saw Judaism as something lived, not just studied. Halakha wasn’t something you looked up in a book, or got from following directions, it was a way of thinking through every day decisions.

Stay tuned for further essays.