Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happenings at the Yeshiva

We began this week with a simcha, as Avi (year 4) and Rachel Rosenfeld celebrated the birth of their baby daughter with a baby naming after kriyat haTorah during a special Shacharit.  The baby was named Meital Chana Bahira.  We all enjoyed a breakfast afterwards with Avi and Rachel's family and friends, and then the students got down to some serious learning.

We also share our mazel tovs with Rabbi Chai (YCT '10) and Rachel Posner who had the bris for their new baby boy this Wednesday.   The bris took place at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore, where Chai serves as an assistant rabbi.  The boy was named Eliram Yosef, and we wish him, Rachel, and their families much simcha and nachas.

This week is chazara week, and students have been intensely chazering for their bechinot.  During this chazara week there are no afternoon classes, so students can use the entire day for chazara.  Those who are learning Yoreh Deah are taking a two-part test.  The first part began last Wednesday, when each chavruta was given 3-4 practical questions, 1 large one and 2-3 smaller ones, to analyze, research, and render a ruling on.  This week, on Tuesday, the chavrutas presented their psakim to the entire class, and they were discussed and debated.   Through this process, we covered dozens of practical cases, and everyone learned from everyone else's work.  The larger questions included: whether one needs to use separate sinks, or a tub, or whether a rack suffices; the issues around copepods and whether NY water needs to be filtered; the halakhic status of gelatin; and whether a mashgiach can give a hekhsher to a factory that will not kasher its machinery but will wait until it is more than 24 hours since the last use.

Rabbi Avi Gisser, the director of the Council on Mamalakhti-Dati Education in Israel, and head of a new institute for training dayanim who are critical and broad-minded scholars, an which seeks to bring Torah civil law into the academic and judicial spheres in Israel, visited the Yeshiva on Wednesday.  He gave a brief shiur to the students, speaking on the centrality of mishpat to society.  Specifically, he looked at the concept of kofim al midat Sdom - forcing someone to not act like they did in Sdom, where they said "what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours."  In other words, can a court force someone to do a favor that costs him nothing?   Can they force someone to forgo his legal claim when he is not hurt by this?  The prinicple of kofim says that there are times when this can be compelled, and he showed how a case decided in Israel based on this principle, and then publicized through a monograph of his institute, had influence Israeli law in this regard.  I was left wondering whether this is necessarily a good thing, as it removes the predictability of law, since my rights can always be overridden by a judge that decides that I need to forgo them.   Such a rule makes sense in a religious system of law, but does it make sense in a secular one, even a Jewish secular one?  These are questions that we really need to grapple with.

Also this week, in my Modern Orthodoxy class, students presented their semester-end project - a critical reading of a text informed by the issues we have been covering in class.  Most students chose to focus on the interplay of values, policy, and halakha.  Two of these presentations make an interesting pair.  One student, Ariel Berkowitz, presented a teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein on smoking marijuana, and showed how the content, language and rhetoric signaled that his strong declaration that it was forbidden was more a statement of Torah values than of halakha per se.  Another student, Dan Milner, presented two teshuvot of Rav Moshe regarding smoking cigarettes, and showed that while Rav Moshe's halakhic approach should have led to a blanket prohibition, Rav Moshe realized that the behavior was too deeply entrenched in the yeshivish community, and thus - using the principle of dashu beh rabbim, the masses have become habituated to this dangerous practice - did not forbid smoking to those who were already smokers.  He did, however, forbid those who were not smokers to take up the habit, and similarly exhorted parents not to allow their children to become smokers.  This was a pragmatic approach by  a posek who realizes the challenges of issuing a psak that will be rejected out of hand, and shapes his psak in a way that can hopefully have the proper long-term impact.    Taking these teshuvot together we see that In one of the teshuvot he is stricter than the sources warrant, and in another he is more lenient.  The common denominator is that in both cases he is not only acting as a posek, but also as a community religious leader, and thinking in terms of the larger societal impact that his teshuvot will have.  Whether, and to what degree, one should use halakhic language for such cases, or clearly eschew the use of halakhic language for religious leadership which is not halakhic per se, is an issue that has been a major topic of conversation.

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