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Should We Be Asking More Halachic Questions of Our Rabbis?

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I am an avid reader of many Orthodox Jewish periodicals, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Press, OU’s Jewish Action, and Mizrachi’s magazine. I also keep up with news in the general Jewish world online by reading The Forward, The Jewish Week, Times of Israel, and other sites that cover the Jewish community.

Occasionally I will pick up a copy of Yated Neeman and Hamodia, to learn more about what is happening in the Haredi community. Although I don’t pretend to be Haredi, I do find there is value in understanding more about what that community is like – specifically what their desires are and what issues they are concerned about.

Last week I read the latest issue of Hamodia.  There is a column each issue in which a halachic question is asked and answered – and I found the question and answer extremely interesting … from a halachic standpoint and also what it represented sociologically.

Here is the question the individual asked:

“I tutor a yeshiva student every Monday after classes are done.  At the beginning of the zman, I stipulated to the father that he had to pay me even if the boy did not come to the yeshiva that day.  The father just called me to inform me that his son couldn’t come to yeshiva today but understands that he has to pay me regardless.  It happens that I cannot be there today either, so I would not have been able to tutor him regardless.  Am I obligated to tell the father, or is it my mazel that allowed me to get paid for a day that I could not tutor?”

The answer that was provided involved a relatively lengthy discussion of the halachic principles of a poel (worker), oness (circumstances beyond the worker’s control), motzi (the one trying to retrieve the money), and muchzak (the one holding the money) – and how these principles might apply to the case in hand.  It was a fascinating examination of a situation that was discussed hundreds of years ago, and how we can apply the same answer to a modern-day halachic question.

I won’t tell you what the answer is since that’s not relevant to the point I am trying to make.  Instead, what struck me was the fact that a Haredi individual felt it was important enough to ask a shaila about this in the first place.

I know that if this same situation happened to me, I wouldn’t bother asking a rabbi a halachic question about whether I should take the money.  I would simply accept the money because that was what we agreed to.  And I’m betting that most others in the Modern Orthodox community would do the same.

It made me wonder about the volume of halachic questions our Modern Orthodox rabbis are receiving, and the kinds of questions they are getting.  So, I asked one of the rabbis in our community about it.  He told me he receives a small handful of questions each month – and most of the questions revolve around kashrut, with the bulk of the other questions about life-cycle events (a bris, a shiva), Jewish holidays (Pesach), or moving into a new home (mezuzah).  He receives very few questions about business dealings, lashon hara, or day to day interactions with our peers.

Why are Modern Orthodox rabbis receiving so few halachic questions about important parts of our life?  Do we feel that there are no halachic ramifications?  Are we embarrassed to bring up such issues with our rabbinical leaders?

Part of the reason can be attributed to the fact that as a community we are much more educated about the halacha than we were 50 or 100 years ago.  Many of the halachic questions that our grandparents asked their rabbis are issues in which we are now thankfully well versed.  And that’s a good thing.  If our rabbis don’t need to answer halachic questions because their congregants are educated enough to know the answer, there is no need to feel bad about that.

However, I think there is a reluctance to ask our rabbis halachic questions in the Modern Orthodox world.  And I think it relates to the fact that we often put our own desires ahead of halacha.

Halacha should be affecting all aspects of our life, not only whether the fleishig knife we used to cut cheese can be used again or whether the arched entryway in our new home requires a mezuzah.  And that’s an important lesson that I think we can take from our friends in the Haredi community, who are much more careful about whether their day-to-day actions are consistent with halacha and who will ask their rabbis questions about matters that we would usually ignore.

The individual who asked the question about taking money from a parent whose child he was tutoring understood that halacha intersects with our lives in many ways, and often requires us to stop and think exactly what the halacha demands of us.

It behooves us in the Modern Orthodox community to do the same.  And maybe we should be asking our rabbis more of these kinds of questions.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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