Not What He Meant

Not What He Meant

Rabbi Avi Weiss' recent essay distorts the Rav's position on centralized rabbinic authority.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

In his essay opposing central religious authority (“In the Legacy of the Rav,” Opinion, March 14), Rabbi Avi Weiss misuses the fact that the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik would occasionally ask young rabbis who came to him, “What do you think?”

Rabbi Weiss distorts the anecdote by implying that the Rav would defer major halachic (Jewish law) decisions to these young rabbis. In fact, the Rav, the mentor to a generation of young rabbis, was engaging those who sought his view in a dialogue that he believed was an important element of the halachic process and that further developed their reasoning as early-career spiritual leaders.

Rabbi Weiss is correct that, “When done properly, psak [halachic ruling] is rendered by local community rabbis in consultation, when necessary, with great Torah scholars.” This is exactly what occurred when Rabbi Weiss was a young rabbi: Halachic conclusions — especially on major issues — were reached in consultation with the Rav, the central rabbinic authority of that time, and not by a young rabbi or his peers acting on their own intuitions.

The more than 230 graduates of RIETS who celebrated at the March 23 Chag Hasemichah (holiday of ordination) have been empowered to engage in the halachic process through the careful mentoring of their teachers and their many years of high-level Torah study. But they, like the Rav, are groomed to be humble enough to ask the question — from student to teacher — “What do you think?”

Far from a “corrosion” of the halachic process, as Rabbi Weiss calls it, consulting with senior Torah scholars demonstrates an appropriate display of reverence for halacha and the Jewish people whose lives it guides. It also reflects a commitment to sound, relevant decision making, which is critical in every profession in society.

For more than a century, RIETS has produced community rabbis that are open-minded, non-judgmental and loving of all Jews. Our graduates occupy the pulpits of major synagogues, work on college campuses with Jews of all denominations and simply do not meet the stereotypical image that Rabbi Weiss tries to paint. One can be loving and understanding, and open minded, and still be true to the halachic process of the past 3,000 years.

Rabbi Menachem Penner is the Acting Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.

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