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.

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