by R. Gil Student
Does a rabbi have the right to refuse to answer someone seeking his guidance? If someone asks him an halakhic question, may a rabbi choose not to answer? Or is he, like a doctor, duty-bound by his special skills to serve the public that needs his services?
I. The Rule
The Gemara (Sotah 22a) explains Proverbs (7:26) as follows: “For she has felled many victims” — this is a scholar who is not qualified to rule but does, “The number of her slain is huge” — this is a scholar who is qualified to rule but does not. This seems to obligate a qualified rabbi to rule on halakhah, and it is quoted in that context in Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 242:14; Choshen Mishpat 10:3). R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, intro to vol. 1; Orach Chaim, vol. 5 no. 20 sec. 16) takes this very seriously as not just a responsibility but an obligation.
There is a related rule, based on Deut. 1:17 (“You shall not tremble before any man”), that a rabbi may not refuse to be part of a religious court that judges a powerful man. He is not allowed to let fear deter him from ruling. However, this is only after he has heard the details of the case. He may refuse to serve on the court prior to hearing the details (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 12:1). In other words, once he knows the questions and can determine an answer, he is obligated to issue a ruling.
I think it is obvious that a rabbi is not obligated to be the victim of a persistent nudnik, someone who pesters him with unnecessary questions. A rabbi is allowed some peace and quiet. However, if someone legitimately asks a question, a rabbi is evidently required to respond. However, I have seen and heard of famous rabbis tell questioners to ask a different rabbi.
This has been in the context of someone asking a rabbi who follows an unusual stringency. If the rabbi were to answer the question, he would have to be strict and cause the questioner extreme hardship. The rabbi, instead, tells the questioner to ask someone else, with a more mainstream view, and avoid the hardship of this stringency. I’ve only once had it done to me but I’ve heard of it being done to others. How is this allowed?
II. Two Explanations for an Exception
It could be that the rule is only speaking in general terms. A rabbi cannot entirely serve in academic functions but must also involve himself in the practical rabbinate. However, perhaps, on any given case there is no obligation for a rabbi to rule. This does not seem to me to be the simple meaning of this law but I could be mistaken.
Rabbenu Chananel, in his commentary to Avodah Zarah (19b), explains that the obligation to issue a ruling only applies if there is no other, more qualified rabbi. Similarly, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Sanhedrin 20:8) writes that the rule only applies if the generation requires this rabbi to rule on halakhah.
While this seems to mean that a rabbi may entirely refrain from ruling on halakhic matters if there are capable experts already engaged in the activity, perhaps it also applies to specific cases. If on a given issue, this rabbi is unusually strict and will cause the questioner undue hardship, then there are others better than he for this case.
(Adapted from a May ’10 essay)