Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Rising to the Occasion- How Technology has Changed the World of Psak
Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is one of the most essential mitzvos in the Torah. Although we might think of the act of studying as one that has essentially not changed in thousands of years, this is not the case. For most people who lived before the invention of the printing press, as well as for a while after its invention, talmud Torah was usually done by listening. Other than in the libraries of those who were wealthy, few, if any, texts could be found in the Jewish home. In talmudic times, this even included the siddur. This meant that for the most part, expertise in any area of Torah was not possible for the laymen.
Even, when books became more available, few men and almost no women, were well versed in the Talmud, which, along with its commentaries, were the primary tools for deciding matters of Jewish law. When legal codes were published beginning with Rambam's “Mishneh Torah”, and especially with the Shulchan Aruch several centuries later, there were many rabbis who were bothered by these texts. They were concerned with the idea that people would use these texts to decide halachic matters on their own, without knowing the requisite information. Despite these protests, and the fact that these rabbis were not incorrect in their assumption, legal codes were here to stay.
In the past 15 years, another major change has occurred. Computer technology has made nearly all major works of Jewish law available to anyone who wants it. The Bar-Ilan Responsa Project, has made it possible for anyone to research even the most complex of topics. Once again, there are protests that laymen should not be deciding matters of Jewish law, without consulting with an expert. Are those who protest correct? Possibly, but it doesn't matter. Just as the Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch thrived despite the protests against their use, the use of programs like the Bar-Ilan database will not disappear.
It is not possible to avoid change. Throughout our history, many of our biggest talmidei chachamim have been willing to deal with the challenges brought on by new circumstances. While to be sure, there were those who insisted on fighting the change, for the most part, they were unsuccessful. To pick one example, for all but the most dogmatic, no one believes that the world is less than 6,000 years old. However one reconciles the idea of it being the year 5774 according to the Jewish calendar, the idea of a much more ancient past is accepted.
To my mind, the advances in technology present a wonderful challenge to our rabbinic leaders. For many, even within the more insular communities, the days where the local rabbi decided halchic issues, and was, more or less accepted as the final word, are gone. It is no longer enough for a rabbi to posken. He must make a case for why his understanding is correct. Of course, part of this case involves explaining the sources and the thought process that led to the particular decision. It also involves something else. In order for a psak to be accepted, the posek needs to make his case in a way that resonates with those within his community, be it local or global. Part of this case is living, acting and speaking in a manner that combines scholarship, piety and compassion. Additionally, it must be clear that the psak shows an understanding of the realia of the case, as well as the community who is being addressed. To be sure, there will be those who will insist that nothing but scholarship should matter. Even if that once was the case, and I suspect that it was not, things have changed. Once again, great talmidei chachamim are rising to the challenge and will continue to do so.