Halacha for the people

Recently, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig posted an Internet article in which he explains how and why he permitted himself to turn on a room heater on a snowy winter Shabbat. There are poskim who permit his approach. Why, then, did his article anger many Rabbis?

Several days ago, Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig posted an article (in Hebrew) to a major Hebrew-language news website about operating a space heater on Shabbat under certain conditions. The article drew fiercely critical responses from many religious readers, among them well-known Rabbis. The harsh responses point to a wider issue than this or that particular Halachic question: the degree of transparency with which Rabbis write Halachic decisions.

Indeed, the primary opposition to the article did not stem from Rabbi Rosensweig’s position. In fact, many of those Rabbis who criticized him, including the one who condemned him most harshly, agreed with his final decision. But they did find fault with the open and broad nature of the platform on which he published his piece.

So what, exactly, did Rabbi Rosensweig write that was inappropriate for a platform so open to the public?

Every Rabbi has a tool box at his disposal in dealing with Halachic issues that arise from complex circumstances. Rabbi Rosensweig relied primarily on a well-known Halachic consideration: one may perform work for the needs of a sick person if carried out in an unusual way.

But to this Halachic consideration, Rabbi Rosensweig added an additional consideration not known to the general public: flipping an electrical switch on Shabbat is considered by some poskim to be a gramma, that is, an act carried out indirectly (in this case indirect since the electricity is created far from the place where the switch is flipped). Work performed through an indirect act is prohibited by Rabbinic injunction, not by the Torah itself. As such, according to many poskim, work performed via a gramma is permitted for the needs of a sick person.

This point, that flipping an electrical switch may be prohibited by a Rabbinic, rather than Biblical, injunction, is that which drew fire from the Rabbis. Indeed, such a position is rejected by a majority of poskim, though among those taking the lenient position can be counted some of the greatest Rabbinic authorities. As such, the use of this leniency as one tool in the Rabbis’ repertoire along with other Halachic considerations to permit a prohibition under certain circumstances is quite legitimate. The opposition stemmed not from Rabbi Rosensweig’s use of this Halachic tool, but from his revealing it to the broad public.

The phenomenon of lack of transparency in Halachic writing is widespread. That is, in many cases, and especially in the public sphere, a posek will not reveal all of the considerations that led him to a lenient decision, lest the masses misapply the tool.

And here one may ask: Is Halacha, in its broad meaning, the domain of the entire Jewish people, or, perhaps, only of learned Rabbis? Or in the words of a Rabbinic scholar with whom I consulted:  encouraging Halachic ignorance among the Jewish masses lest they mistakenly permit for themselves  prohibitions is, perhaps, not a healthy approach.  Rather, intensive education for the masses, deep and broad knowledge, and the study of a wide range of conflicting Halachic opinions is the best way to ensure commitment to the Halachic system.

About the Author
Rabbi Chuck Davidson is an Orthodox rabbi working to promote freedom of religion in Israel. Among his activities toward that end, Rabbi Davidson has led efforts to create alternatives to Israel's Chief Rabbinate in the fields of marriage and conversion to Judaism.
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