Book Review: The Making of a Halachic Decision (3* out of 5)


Author: Rabbi Moshe Walter. Title: The Making of a Halachic Decision The Making of a Halachic Decision. Pages: 231.

Price: $24.00 Publisher: Menucha Publishers.ISBN: 1614650896. Rating: 3* out of 5.

Any student of Jewish law has often wondered about the origin of the Halachic decision making process. True, the Talmud is full of arguments. If you ask a Jew his opinion, he will give you at least two different answers.

Rabbi Moshe Walter’s new book, The Making of a Halachic Decision The Making of a Halachic Decision, examines such questions as, “What constitutes a halachic decision? How we arrive at a conclusion when there are a myriad of perspectives to choose? Why are some decisions considered more valid than others? What about minority opinions?

For many years, I have grappled with many of these same questions. So, with great interest, I read Rabbi Walter’s book to see how an Orthodox scholar arrives at his conclusion.

The first part of the book attempts to define the Halacha. The root of the term “Halacha” derives from the verb, halach “to go.” Halacha is thus, “a process; just as one walks from point A to point B, so too, halachah is a process that begins at point A and finishes at point B” (p. 19).

Sounds pretty simple, but wait!

The author goes on to stress that the study of the halachah is more important than the actual study of the Talmud. This is a refreshing perspective. Too many yeshivas tend to worry about Talmudic pilpul, a process that involves intricate hair-splitting arguments over the thought processes of the Talmud.

Walter stresses that halachah is vital because it has a practical application; of course, the halachah can be quite theoretical as well. Among the other points Walter stresses is the importance of studying the section of Jewish law dealing with everyday issues, known as “Orach Hayyim,” the “path of life.”

Thus far, I agree with his observations. The practical matters of prayer are activities we do every day. Yet, it is amazing how ignorant even young rabbis are when it comes to applying these basic principles at a Torah reading, or when the minyan is less than ten.

Walter divides his book into three sections: Klalei Hapsak (Principles of Decision Making), The Halachos of Hora’ah (Laws of Rendering Decisions), and Klalei Haposkim (Principles utilized by the Halachic scholars in rendering their legal decisions.

The section on Klalei Hapsak provides the reader with a short synopsis of the medieval authorities that created the Codes that would later inspire the creation and formation of the Shulchan Aruch. These sources include:  Rif, Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, the glosses of the Rosh, and Tur, and why each of these sages decided to write their books and codify halacha the way they did and the reactions they received.

One of the questions Walter raises is whether Maimonides ever intended to create a substitute  for the Talmud, or did he intend for his Mishnah Torah to be used concurrently with it?

In the second section, “Halachos of Hor’ah” Walter raises some interesting questions about the dynamic relationship between the person making a halachic query to the rabbi he is asking. He touches upon questions such as:  What information must the questioner share with the rabbi? When may a questioner ask a different rabbi? What is the role of the rabbi? Which rabbis are bona fide halachic authorities? How is a rabbi expected to respond to a halachic question? What is semicha today?

In the section pertaining to not creating factionalism in matters of Halacha, (lo tisgedenu based on the verse “Do not make a bald spot between your eyes in Deut. 14:1), the author attempts to explain the rational for not challenging a decision once rendered in a court. Walter correctly notes that other courts within the city are free to make their own decisions (p. 135).

My objection to Walter’s work is that he fails to take into consideration the reality of realpolitik  when it comes to making halachic decisions. Aristotle said it best, “Man is a political animal destined naturally for political life.” Rabbis of the Haredi community would do themselves a favor and utilize Aristotle in their deliberations of Jewish law.

Walter also fails to discuss why the Israeli and Haredi environment routinely disrespect this principle and insist that every Jewish community in the Diaspora or in Israel, follow the rulings of a Haredi scholar, whom has a large following. Questions like whether a Jew can accept the definition of brain death is important since it pertains to the importance of organ transplants. Yet, many Haredi rabbis claim that a Jew can receive a heart from someone who is brain dead, but can never return the favor in reverse. Such intellectual chicanery disgraces and discredits the halacha as we have witnessed countless times in Israel.

In practical terms, these rabbinical scholars routinely negate other rabbinical conversions if a woman should fail to cover her hair (if she is married), or if she wears pants. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s wife did not cover her hair. Would today’s extreme Haredi rabbanim dare to negate the Rav’s halachic rulings?

There is an outstanding work entitled HaMachloket b Halacha edited byHanina Ben-Menahem, Neil Hecht, Shai Wosner.  This massive two volume work spans over a 1400 pages. I am astounded that Walter did not think to quote from this study. The authors systematize the material far better and Walter should familiarize himself with this study in the next revision of his book.

Here is another criticism I have of the book.  Walter quotes Maimonides:

  • Know firstly that I did not say, Heaven forbid, not to engage in either the study of the Gemara or the halachas of the rav, Rabbi Yitzchak [the Rif] or another besides him . . .For I did command or think that I would burn all the sefarim that were authored prior to me as a result of my work? Did I ever state explicitly in the beginning of my work that I only wrote it  . . . for one  who is unable to delve into the depths of the Talmud and will be unable to understand from it the way of the forbidden and the way of the permissible [p. 44].

Walter’s view of Maimonides does not convince me at all. Maimonides makes his position super-clear in his Introduction to the Mishnah Torah:

  • A person should study the written Torah first, and then read this [book], and thereby know the entire oral Torah, so that he will not need to read any other book in between them.” The criticism also reflected divergent local traditions and custom (minhag).

Maimonides’ greatest Ashkenazi critic, R. Abraham b. David of Posquières (Ravad),wrote these scathing words in his Introduction to Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah:

  •  Maimonides “has abandoned the method of all the authors who preceded him, because they brought proofs for their words, and cited their sources … But this way, I do not know why I should disregard my tradition and my proof for the sake of this author’s book.”

Ravad saw through Maimonides subterfuge.

Frankly speaking, Maimonides had no illusion of what he was attempting to accomplish. Bear in mind the Talmud in his time hardly resemble the Vilna Shass used by Artscroll today. The Talmud was a scattered document; haphazardly produced. Maimonides penchant for order viewed the Talmud with disdain—especially because of its theological penchant toward anthropomorphism.  His inclusion of theological ideas represented a vast improvement over the original Talmud.

In short, Walter’s book is a fine for a beginner interested in explaining how halacha is arrived, but the Hebrew encyclopedia work HaMachloket b’Halacha mentioned earlier does a vastly better job for anyone familiar with Modern Hebrew and the halachic sources the authors quote.


What Kind of Family Man was Moses?

Question from Jewish Values Online: In the Torah parsha (selection for reading) Yitro, the Torah tells us that Jethro took Moses’ wife, Tziporah and their two sons, and sent them home. I once heard a teacher explain in a homiletical way that this was an example of Moses being a bad father. Is there other evidence to support this? Is there evidence to support the opposite?

Answer: It is not enough to read the lines of a biblical text; you must learn to read in between the lines as well. Some aspects of a story are only hinted for a reading audience. With a healthy curiosity, one can often sleuth the untold story of a biblical story.

It pays to have the curiosity of a Sherlock Holmes, and here is an interpretation that I believe the great detective would probably have approved.

After God first spoke to Moses about becoming His leader for the oppressed Israelites, he went to his father-in-law  Jethro and told him all about the news.  In Exodus 4:24-26, we read a short story about Moses’ near-death experience and how Tziporah, Moses’ wife, saved the day by performing circumcision on one of Moses’ sons.

On the journey, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord came upon Moses and sought to put him to death. But Zipporah took a piece of flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and, touching his feet, she said, “Surely you are a spouse of blood to me.” So God let Moses alone. At that time she said, “A spouse of blood,” in regard to the circumcision.

Tziporah’s words might have been  a criticism to her husband. Although she was a Midianite, a member of the Abrahamic clan, none of the ancient peoples of the ANE ever practiced infant circumcision—only the children of Israel.  Circumcision rites were basic to all the marriage rituals; circumcision of males typically occurred at puberty—the age when a young man would take a wife. Tsiporah had no problem with that tradition. However, she and her father rejected infant circumcision; the Israelite rite seemed excessive and, not to mention, dangerous! Ironically, Tsiporah performs the ceremony—howbeit very reluctantly.

Moses argued that circumcision had to be performed when the child was eight days old (Gen. 17:12). Failure to receive circumcision meant that the boy would be “cut off from his people.”  God expected that Moses, of all people, must be a leader and practice this tradition openly and proudly.

There is much more to this little interpolation than what meets the eye.

Contextually speaking, Moses’ behavior in Exodus 4:24-26 seems very strange for other reasons. How could Moses entertain the idea of taking his family to Egypt? Egypt wasn’t exactly like Disneyland! This idea does have support in the Midrash. According to the Sages,  Jethro tried to convince Moses “We are distressed over the plight of those who are there, why should you bring your family there?” [1]

As a leader of an oppressed people, Moses would have certainly endangered his family had he brought them there with him (Ramban). All of this might explain the reason why Moses or his son took ill. The family illness may have been  God’s way of keeping Moses’s family from having to endure the hardship of slavery in Egypt.

In the end, Moses sends his family home to his father-in-law. Tsiporah most likely felt resentment toward Moses for choosing God over his family.  The Sages indicate that when the text later says that Jethro brought Moses’ family out to greet him shortly after the Exodus.

  • Now Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel: how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. So his father-in-law Jethro took along Zipporah, Moses’ wife—now this was after Moses had sent her back . . . Together with Moses’ wife and sons, then, his father-in-law Jethro came to him in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God, and he sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, along with your wife and her two sons.” (Exod. 18:1-6). Continue reading “What Kind of Family Man was Moses?”

Book Review: A New Psalm: Psalms as Literature 5*


Name: A New Psalm: A Guide to Psalms as Literature.  Author: Rabbi Benjamin Segal.  Publisher: Gefen Publishing House (2013).

ISBN-10: 965229618X; Price: $31.29 (on Amazon).

Rabbi Benjamin Segal’s  new commentary, A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is an excellent medley of numerous thoughts that Judaic commentaries have expressed on the Psalms for many centuries. Rabbi Segal has written a translation on Song of Songs: A Woman in Love as well other books pertaining to the Land of Israel  and Zionism.

The author asserts:

  • In this commentary, one discovers not poets who were pietists, but rather people, born of a society whose worldview and actions were often in conflict with the dictates of the single God who is both moral and just. It is the form and literary finesse of this poetry that allows one to discover not only the praise, but also the doubts, anger and angst. I invite the modern reader to discover in A New Psalm these gifted individuals who lived with the same questions and doubts that we have today.”

The author is absolutely on target. Unlike the great philosophical and theological works of history, the Book of Psalms has a unique distinction in that they are not so much theological reflections written about God, they are, rather, records of people’s spiritual encounter with God. As God’s Word, believers of the Bible—Christian and Jewish—have long believed that the Spirit of the Divine communicates through these ancient prayers composed thousands of years ago by Israel’s poets.

The Psalmists were not indifferent to the problems of theodicy or the problems articulated by the modern age concerning God’s apparent absence from the human arena. Many of the Psalms reflect the cries of lament expressed by people who faced unspeakable evils in their days. The authors did not shy away from speaking to God about their crisis in faith. Yet, they did also bear witness to God’s healing power and embrace the possibility and hope of personal and national renewal. The Psalms frequently remind us that divine healing facilitates a renewal of body and soul.

The multi-dimensionality of divine and human communications is evident in each of the Psalms. The psalmists speak about longings of God and humankind for one another. They present visions of hope and the beauty of Creation spirituality that suffuses the natural order. They contain admonitions about concerning the problem of human evil.

For our ancestors, the Psalms constituted the very first Siddur (Prayer book) of ancient Israel. There was scarcely a religious service in the days of the Temple that did not incorporate its verses. Over the millennium, the Psalms have formed an integral part of modern Jewish worship. Individuals have continuously evoked their words in moments of quiet meditation and soulful reflection. The words of the Psalms create a bridge that has united worshipers across the cascading movement of time. Psalms inspire piety and spiritual mindfulness. The foci of the Psalms are God and human beings. They remind us about our collective and individual capacity for greatness; they remind us about the misery of human existence apart from the life of faith. In Israel’s darkest moments, the Psalms reminded her to hold fast to the reality that God is always close to the innermost human heart and is accessible at all times to prayer. In a God centered reality, the Psalms teach us that there is no place void of the Divine Presence.

In the introduction, the author points out how the five books of the Psalms correspond to the Pentateuch—a tradition that dates back to the time of the Septuagint. Of the five books, only the first book contains the psalms that are associated with King David.  The second and third book reflect Levitical families (who were the singers at the Temple) while the last two reflect the period of early monarchy. Evidence of a Documentary Hypothesis is also evident in certain Psalms. There is a group of  “Elohist” Psalms (Psalms 42-83), where God appears more than “LORD” (YHWH). However, the vast majority of Psalms  whereas YHWH is generally  mentioned more frequently throughout the rest of the Psalms.

One of the chapters that deeply impressed me as I was reading his book, was his observations regarding how alliteration appears in the Psalms. Since I am presently finishing up my new book on Psalm 23, I was especially interested to see what Segal had to say.

Several interesting Hebrew alliterations in Psalm 23 serve to create conceptual nexus with each word’s counterpart. For example, רֹעֶה   (rö`è) corresponds to רָע = rǎʿ (v. 23:4); v. 2 מֵי מְנֻחוֹת   (mǎy menû∙ḥôt) corresponds to יַנְחֵנִי  “He leads me” (v. 3) and הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי “they comfort me” (v. 4); בִּנְאוֹת דֶּשֶׁא “lush green pastures” corresponds to דִּשַּׁנְתָּ בַשֶּׁמֶן רֹאשִׁי – “you anoint my head with oil” (v. 5); נַפְשִׁי יְשׁוֹבֵב  “he restores my soul” corresponds to וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית־יְהוָה לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים — and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (v. 6).[1]

In short, A New Psalm should appeal to anyone who is interested in a traditional but very modern exposition of the Psalms. The study of the Psalms will certainly help anyone who is interested in understanding the prayers that have inspired generations of worshipers. Incidentally, the book has some outstanding artwork interspersed by lovely pictures painted by David Sharir. His artwork is outstanding and it adds a lovely aesthetic dimension to the book. The cover to A New Psalm is one of the nicest covers to the Psalms I have seen in years.

Reviewer: Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel; Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista; Author of: Psalm 23: A Spiritual Journey (Kodesh Press, 2014),  Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation (Genesis 1:3) (Createspace 2010); The LORD Is My Shepherd: The Theology of the Caring God (Jason Aronson Inc. 1996).

[1] R. Benjamin J. Segal, A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishers, 2013), 107.

Book Review: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Brilliant Torah Commentary on Genesis


Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Sefer Bereishis by Dr. Arnold Lustiger: OU Press and Ohr Publishing; First edition (2013) ISBN-10: 0989124606. Price: $38.24 Rating: 5*

As one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of his time, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (a.k.a. the “Rav”) frequently combined classical Talmudic concepts with insights drawn from the great secular thinkers of Western Tradition.  The ensuing synthesis of his thought makes his theological worldview existential and challenging to Jews of all denominations.

Unfortunately, in his lifetime, the Rav never wrote a systematical commentary on the Torah. However, Dr. Arnold Lustiger, surveyed the vast corpus of the Rav’s writings and put together one of the most remarkable Pentateuch commentaries I have ever read. The name of his magnum opus is entitled, Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Sefer Bereishis.

This volume speaks in a single voice—a rarity when one considers how committees of scholars typically write most of  today’s contemporary expositions on the Torah.

Here are a few examples of how the Rav creates a timeless ethical lesson from the familiar stories of the Torah. A reader of a the Torah might wonder: Why does Noah later curse Ham so severely? R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains:

  • Ham wanted to find deficiencies and defects in his father, to reveal his nakedness to the entire world. According to Ham, it was incumbent to show the world that Noah was in fact not as righteous as his reputation might have suggested. Despite the fact that the Torah itself testifies that Noah walked with God (6:9), Ham was nevertheless interested in demonstrating that this was not the case, that Noah was hypocritical. . . [as if to say] ‘Look at Noah, the vaunted savior of the world as he wallows in a drunken stupor . . .’ One must remember that Noah had experienced an extraordinarily difficult time, responsible for the tempest-tossed ark and all its inhabitants while the outside world was being destroyed. After his travail, he drank a little too much wine. It was in Noah’s interest that this incident be forgotten, that his shame not be publicized. The Torah attests that Shem and Japhet did not see their father’s nakedness. Why didn’t they see what Ham saw? Because they, in contrast to Ham, did not want to reveal Noah’s impetuous mistake.”[1]

In another well-known passage in the story of the Fall, God informs Eve that her husband shall exert authority over her (Gen. 3:16).

  • The wondrous personal confrontation of Adam and Eve is turned into an ugly attempt at depersonalization. Adam of today wants to appear as master-hero and to subject Eve to his rule and dominion, be it ideological, religious, economic, or political. The Divine curse addressed to Eve after she sinned, and he shall rule over you, has found fulfillment in our modern society. The warm personal relationship between two individuals has been supplanted by a formal subject-object relationship, which manifests itself in a quest for power and supremacy. [2]

I would add that the subjection of women described by the Rav is not necessarily a new phenomenon as the Rav thought it was. Men have been using the biblical text to justify the institution of patriarchy for thousands of years. The exploitation of women in much of the Islamic and Ultra-Orthodox world today reflects a social reality that derives its inspiration from Genesis.

While most married Orthodox women cover their hair, the Rav’s wife did not. The Rav respected his wife’s choice to embrace a post-Genesis social reality where women would never have to show their inferior social status ever again.

After Abram’s debacle in Egypt, the Rav explains why Abram returned to the place where he had dedicated his original altar (Gen. 13:4).  The Rav explains:

Within the Stillness of Being, God Speaks

The Hebrew word for “wilderness” (מִדְבַּר = midbar) coincidentally shares the same consonants word for the term מְדַבֵּר (mĕdĕbēr =  “speaker”). Philo of Alexandria and some of the Hassidic mystics suggest that the wilderness is precisely where God reveals Himself to His people—and not in the cacophonous uproar of the city, where human beings ignore the Voice of God speaking.[1]

Mother Theresa once said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” The silence of nature speaks volumes, but without words—simply by being present to the power of the Divine that infuses its being with life and purpose. [2]

It is no accident that spiritual people throughout history discovered how the דְּמָמָה דַקָּה “still small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12–13) is the vehicle through which God makes His Presence known, even though this “small voice” more often than not is drowned out by the cacophonous world we live in. According to Michael Fishbane, “The phrase may be a deliberate paradox—an attempt to articulate the voiced silence of God’s presence, through reference to a sound (kol) that is both silently still דְּמָמָה (demāmāh) and audibly thin דַקָּה (dāqǎ).” Fishbane’s Zen-like observation succinctly captures the subtlety of how God communicates, within the stillness of our being—that is where He is heard. This mystery flows from the depths of eternity; pointing to great immensity of the Divine; yet, God’s immensity is never so far removed from the human heart that seeks truth and comfort.

Israel discovers her faith in the wilderness and later constructs a Tabernacle (Mishkan) to symbolize God’s abiding Presence among them. In its precincts, God does not speak “to Moses” rather, Moses hears the Divine Word resonate from within his innermost being and conscience. Throughout Jewish tradition, the Mishkan represents God’s triumph over the forces of chaos. Creating a sacred place within the hostile precincts of the wilderness is a spiritually suggestive metaphor for moderns—for even as we enter our own personal wilderness, God beckons us to make a holy space for God to dwell with us as we traverse the מִדְבַּר.