Should a Rabbi Make Lenient Decisions?

Rabbi Professor Dr. Daniel Sperber is a leading scholar of Jewish law and customs and the author of many books on these subjects. Citing many fascinating examples and the rulings of highly respected rabbis that often read like short stories, he shows that the view of ultra-Orthodox Jews that an ideal rabbi is a man who tells his congregation to behave according to the strictest view of Jewish law is not only doing them a disservice but is acting contrary to Jewish tradition and harming the future of Orthodoxy.  

Dr. Sperber’s lenient view

His book “The Importance of the Community Rabbi: Leading with Compassionate Halachah” shows that what is important for rabbis is not encouraging a strict life according to the finer points of Jewish law, but empathy and kind-heartedness. He demonstrates that rabbis need to rethink their method of issuing halachic rulings, and return to the compassionate traditional method of making legal decisions.

He shows that contrary to the hard line of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, halachic practices are in a constant state of change, adaptability, and flux, while remaining within the framework of classical Jewish legal thinking. Traditional decision-making stressed leniency, sensitivity to personal feelings, human dignity, tolerance for others, moderation, the wisdom when to exercise restraint and self-control, adapting to changing circumstances, independent thinking, the willingness to innovate, and the avoidance of causing shame and distress when making halachic decisions. In talmudic times, for instance, when a man was called up in the synagogue for the Torah reading, he would read his own portion. This practice was changed. One man today reads the entire portion so as not to embarrass someone who could not read well. Dr. Sperber stresses that rabbis who are mired in the stringent thinking of the past hundred years are not truly within the spirit, values, and rules of Orthodoxy.

Dr. Sperber gives well over a hundred other examples to prove his point. To cite some of them: (1) Judaism has taught that women are exempt from the command of procreation and obliged only men because women suffer severe birth pains and may not want to repeat the experience. God’s ways “are ways of pleasantness and peace.” God did not want to burden women with that which the body cannot support. (2) There is the rule that during the holiday of Sukkot, a person should dwell in a sukkah, but the law exempts a Jew who feels uncomfortable because of the cold to do so. (3) Talmudic law forbids a man to walk behind a woman, but it is allowed today. (4) In talmudic times if a married couple had no child during ten years of marriage, the husband was required to divorce her, even if he did not want to do so. This law was discontinued. (5) The rule is that the room where a person piously prays must have a window to teach that prayers are only significant if the person praying connects to the world outside – not to an ancient book. (6) Although a blind man is not obligated to attend services in a synagogue, he may do so, even with his dog. (7) When it comes to the needs of people and most ancient rabbis decided against their needs, the famed rabbinic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that a rabbi is permitted to ignore the majority and rule according to the minority position.

Dr. Sperber cites six interesting stories from the Talmud demonstrating that the ultra-Orthodox views must be avoided such as the tale of the man who approached the sage Hillel and Shammai on two separate occasions, and Shammai acted harshly. Jewish tradition states that it is possible that Shammai was more learned than Hillel, but Jewish law, the halachah, generally accepts the views of Hillel because he was more lenient.

In essence, Dr. Sperber’s ideal rabbi is he who can take his eyes out of a book and see the needs and feelings of people

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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