Making exceptions to the rules
When considering special requests that push halachic boundaries, rabbis must weigh whether they will set precedents that may not fit communal needs Rabbi Cutler: During the first half of the 20th century, synagogues from all three major denominations offered a late Friday night service. Recognizing that in the winter months, their congregants would still be working past the onset of Shabbat, these congregations instituted services – sometimes traditional, sometimes not – that generally began at 8 p.m., well past the prescribed sunset start time.
Some viewed the services positively, understanding that while they were not ideal, if they were not offered, many Jews would never attend synagogue. In contrast, Rabbi Isadore Goodman, a prominent voice within the Orthodox community, spoke for many when he called these services “appeasement, compromise and surrender.”
The old adage states, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” As rabbis, we often have to decide what is good enough. We may believe that ideally – whether because of tradition, law or other reasons – services or programs should be conducted in a certain way. We, often together with others in our community, may feel uncomfortable making a change, feeling perhaps that we are somehow giving in to an undesired reality or that we are being untrue to our past.
Rabbi Scheier: Whether congregants request music during the Omer, prayers outside established prayer times, foods that challenge kashrut standards or changes to Shabbat protocol (requests for photographers, valet parking, etc.), there are often difficult moments of explaining the nuances of Jewish law that might not be familiar or logical to our parishioners.
In confronting these frequent requests, I keep two principles in mind. The first is the Mishna in Avot (2:4), which says, “Make that [God’s] will should be your will.” That is, the initial instinct should be to ask, “What is the correct approach in accordance with the halachic standards that I and my community have committed to uphold?” The second principle relates to your point. I think of the model of Jacob, who was wounded after wresting with the angel
(Genesis 32). As he limps away from the violent encounter, the Torah describes him as shalem, whole. Things need not be perfect. In fact, they seldom are. Rather, even as we limp, we can achieve a peaceful existence.
Rabbi Cutler: I am especially sensitive to issues of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), kvod habriyot (human dignity), mamonam shel yisrael (monetary cost) and chillul Hashem (desecration of the Divine name). While there is no perfect formula into which one can plug the variables and receive a correct policy or halachic decision, these four areas, for me, are especially weighty in making any determination.
I try, however, not to be afraid of creating a precedent. We know that once we do something for one family or try a service at a non-standard time, the future will only bring similar requests. But we can only deal with the situation that is presented before us. Tomorrow is another day.
Rabbi Scheier: In rabbinical school, we learned the process of psak – analyzing complicated scenarios and determining the correct approach according to Jewish law. We were taught to “pasken the she’ayla and the shoel,” to consider both the question and the questioner. That is, the answer to a question can have a subjective component. Halachah is deeply nuanced.
There is a story told about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. When he was a community rabbi in London during World War I, he was often approached by community members with questions about the kashrut of slaughtered chickens. When he would determine that a chicken was not kosher, he would send the questioner away with charity funds sufficient to purchase a new chicken. He knew that if someone was making the effort to verify a chicken, that they were financially stressed and could only afford that one animal for their Shabbat meal. In other words, when entertaining a question about Halachah, he would hear the bigger picture of that person’s life.
The challenge in setting community policy based on an approach that sees the individual within the halachic question is that some answers are, indeed, catered for a specific individual. Of course, there are times when moral instincts empower me to be bold. However, knowing that any halachic decision has the capacity to establish precedent, I do often find myself pausing and considering the implications for my broader community.