A rabbi goes to heaven and is invited to sit at a banquet attended by Moses himself. He makes a discreet enquiry and discovers that the food is under Divine supervision. The rabbi whispers in a waiter’s ear, “I’ll take the fish!”
Many people are puzzled by the suggestion that a rabbi might endorse some area of religious life but be reluctant to partake in it himself. For example, it troubles people that some rabbis won’t eat from certain kosher butchers; others still won’t carry on Shabbat inside an eruv. One hears the obvious concerns about inconsistency expressed in blunt terms: “Is it kosher or not? If it’s kosher why won’t you eat it, and if it’s not kosher, why should I?”
It is not possible to make sense of this phenomenon without examining some of the underlying principles of halachah. Jewish law is fascinating and complex. Even the word “halachah” (literally, a way to go) indicates a process rather than a ruling. It is a complete system that regulates every area of life, from the mundane to the most profound.
Halachah cares not only how we act, but also how we think and feel about ourselves, other human beings, the world itself, and, of course, God. As such, it is all-encompassing in its scope and the opportunity that it gives us to maximise every instant, imbuing it with meaning and purpose. From cradle to grave, boardroom to bedroom, halachah is ever-present, allowing every moment to be experienced through the lens of the Divine.
Yet the comprehensive nature of halachah should not be confused with the desire to create a monolithic society in which everyone behaves identically. Indeed, disagreeing is the halachists’ favourite pursuit: unresolved arguments appear on each page of the Talmud and halachic code; in fact, there is only one chapter (in over 500) in the entire Mishnah that doesn’t contain a disagreement.
While there are, naturally, established processes by which practical decisions are made, halachah might best be described as “organised disorder”, a vast array of disagreements built on earlier disagreements. Some view this as an insanely unworkable system; others, me included, consider it to be one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. Disorder and multiplicity indicate range and diversity and are actually powerful tools that allow halachah to be applied in a responsive and case-driven manner, rather than as a blunt, insensitive instrument.
For example, there is an ancient dispute between major kashrut authorities concerning the pulmonary condition of cattle. While some overlook certain lesions of the lung, others (notably Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch) are of the opinion that animals with such lesions are forbidden. This unresolved disagreement broadly manifests itself in a disparity of practice between Ashkenazim (lenient) and Sephardim (stringent). Yet, understandably, many Ashkenazim choose to be stringent.
Another example of this phenomenon is the medieval dispute about the distinction between a private domain, where one may construct an eruv, and a public domain, where one may not. This disagreement resurfaces throughout halachic literature and influences the approaches of modern experts as to where and how one may create an eruv.
Although there are well-established community norms in almost every area of law, halachah does not offer a single answer to any legal issue, but an array of possibilities within a carefully defined framework. Because of this, halachah is able to deal not just with regular circumstances, but is flexible enough to accommodate emergency shortages, unexpected financial hardship and the needs of the spiritually sensitive. Despite the intricacies involved, Jewish life is greatly enriched by this multiplicity.
Talmudic sources conflict about whether the halachist should incline to leniency or stringency: “the power of leniency is preferable” (Berachot 60a) appears to be contradicted by any number of talmudic statements. Yet there really is no argument, as it is a given that the rabbi is to be lenient when ruling for others, yet stringent for himself and those striving for spiritual perfection.
After all, his job is to make Jewish life as manageable, enjoyable and uplifting as possible. This demands leniency, where possible, especially when nurturing the spiritual needs of a disparate community. While there are many complex factors, inclusivism seems to me to be critical: given the constituents of a community, a ruling (certainly always based on proper sources and expert advice) must enable as many people as possible to observe their Judaism and feel comfortable within it.
This doesn’t always mean being lenient: a stricter ruling will sometimes be more inclusive, but responsible rabbinical leadership must always incline to leniency when regulating public religious services such as butchers’ shops. Ill-conceived stringency could result in price increases, restricted availability and fewer people observing kashrut.
The same applies to building an eruv: the advantages of a community eruv are so clear that they outweigh the need to accommodate every halachic view, which might result in not building it at all.
Well-founded leniencies are squarely within the boundaries of halachah; yet this does not mean that everyone will want to rely on them. Halachah accommodates (and even celebrates) a range of practices for different circumstances and there have always been individuals who have elected to follow stringent practices. Yet while it is entirely reasonable for rabbis to adopt personal stringencies, they certainly ought to explain what they are doing and why.