The Democratization of Halakhah

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House of Hock very graciously mentioned this blog in a post, and I return the favor. I appreciate both the praise and the publicity, but must comment on something I found troubling in their post. In a democracy, every citizen has a vote. Judaism is not a democracy. Not everyone has a vote over what is the halakhah and what is not. There is certainly a hierarchy, in which the more knowledgeable have more of a say while the less learned have less of a voice.

It is, in my opinion, quite unfortunate that semi-literate people do not always recognize their lack of learning. I considered myself privileged to recognize how little I know in comparison to some of the rabbis living today. What scares me, though, is that compared to a whole lot of people I know, I am very learned. I find it laughable that they feel free to disagree about an halakhic matter when they are not even familiar with the basic sugyah and how it progresses from Mishnah to Gemara and on through the ages until today! How can anyone with at most a superficial understanding of the matter profess an opinion, whether to the strict side or the lenient?

Generally speaking, if, when you approach an issue, you are not already familiar with all of the basic texts involved, you have no right to an opinion on the matter. Ask a rabbi. There are many issues that I approach when I have to look up the texts because I either have never learned them or do not remember them at all. When that is the case, I ask my rabbi about the matter even if it is quite simple. A cursory review of texts is not sufficient to fully grasp all of the intertwining issues that come into play. Even if you get a list of relevant sources from someone knowledgeable, you have to have an intuitive feel for many things before truly understanding the matter. For example, you have to feel the flow of the Gemara; understand how the rishonim interact with the texts and with each other; grasp how the aharonim relate to the rishonim and the Gemara. Extremely important is to gain a feel for which texts are considered more important than others. None of this comes easy and, even after you have studied for years and gained a general feel for these matters, you still need to spend time on a sugyah before mastering it. I always understand a matter better the second time than the first time. The third time is usually when I entirely reverse my understanding and reach a very different conclusion. And that is after years of experience.

The more I learn, the more I appreciate those who are able to maintain an intimate knowledge of many sugyos at the same time. They must have struggled with those texts as fiercely as I have, and all of the many, many texts that I have not yet approached with this intensity. Plus, they have amazing memories that I can only envy. That is why when a gadol ba-Torah rules one way, I take it very seriously even if my understanding is to the contrary. How do I know that, after learning through the sugyah a few more times, I will not reverse my opinion as I have done so many times in the past? Of course, such a reversal is only possible if I study honestly and struggle with my own inner demons that prevent me from recognizing my mistakes. But, given what I know about myself and my own limitations, how can I dismiss the conclusions of someone who has spent his lifetime conquering that which I have only started to approach?

Historically, though, there was a view within Judaism that everyone has the right to determine matter of halakhah and faith. However, this was the view of Korah – “ki khol ha-edah kulam kedoshim” (Bamidbar 16:3)* – and I would hesitate before subscribing to theory that God Himself rejected.

* I have long chuckled over the choice of the name Edah for the organization with that name.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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