A professor at a prominent school of law relates that he was asked a rather incongruous question. On the last day of classes in a course on Roman law, a student soliciting information regarding the approaching final examination asked, "Are we responsible only for material in the textbook or are we responsible for recent cases as well?" It is, of course, ludicrous to speak of "recent cases" in conjunction with a system of law that, despite its continued and profound influence over other systems of law, has for many centuries not been sovereign in any jurisdiction.
A similar question, if asked in a class devoted to the study of Jewish law, would not have elicited a derisive response. Despite the fact that Jewish law was not the law of any sovereign jurisdiction from the time of the exile of the people of Israel from their ancestral homeland until its limited reinstatement in rabbinic courts in the State of Israel, Jewish law remains alive and healthy throughout the Diaspora. Barely a day goes by that does not bring with it publication of new opinions and responsa that serve to expand and deepen our understanding of the immutable principles embodied in Halakhah while simultaneously bearing witness to the vitality and dynamism of Jewish law in confronting novel situations.
There is a well-known hasidic tale that recounts that, one Passover eve, the Berditchever Rebbe announced that he would not begin the seder until a quantity of Turkish wool, Austrian tobacco and Oriental silk was brought to him. Within a short time everything that he requested was procured. Thereupon, he announced that one additional item was required: a crust of bread. His disciples were taken aback by this strange request but they unquestioningly set out to fulfill their master's command. They scoured the town, but to no avail. They were forced to return empty-handed and crestfallen. The Berditchever listened in silence as they reported their lack of success. Then, with a smile enveloping his face, he raised his hands and exclaimed, "Master of the Universe! The Russian Czar deploys thousands of guards to patrol his borders, employs countless numbers of police officers in order to enforce his edicts and administers a vast penal system to punish those who violate his laws. But look at the contraband that can be found within his borders! You, Master of the Universe, have no guards, no police and no prisons. Your only weapon is a brief phrase in the Torah, forbidding Jews to retain ḥamez in their possession on Passover, but not a bit of ḥamez can be found in all of Berditchev!" Indeed, the fact that Jewish law remains vibrant is assuredly eloquent testimony to the loyalty and devotion of the Jewish people. No other such comprehensive system of law has survived without the police power of the state to enforce adherence to its dictates.
To be sure, there was a time when, in this country, Judaism was regarded by many as primarily a religion of ritual. There was a time when the elementary truism that Jewish law is equally concerned with jurisprudence as well as with economic and social issues was all but forgotten even by the vast majority of the religiously observant. An apocryphal story is told of a young rabbi who spent a number of years in a far-flung community. An elderly colleague, schooled in the European tradition, passed through town and asked him, "How often are you asked to respond to she'elot, to questions of Jewish law, in this community?" "That is the first question that has come my way in all the years that I have been in this town," was the pained retort.
Akhshar dara—How the generation has progressed! This is no longer the case. Our community has rediscovered its roots. A recording device attached to the telephone of any one of a rapidly growing cadre of American born and bred rabbinic decisors would bear testimony to the frequency and range of questions posed. A perceptive auditor would also note an even more significant point. In times gone by, a rabbi would be asked a question; his answer, more frequently than not, would be yes or no, permissible or forbidden, kosher or non-kosher. Today, the answer is met with follow-up questions which, in turn, elicit a mini-discourse explaining reasons and ramifications, exceptions and additional applications. Interlocutors of our generation are intelligent, sophisticated and, above all, have a genuine thirst for Torah knowledge and a passionate desire to broaden their vistas of understanding.
The questions and issues discussed in this volume, as well as in the volumes which have preceded, are not abstract, theoretical excurses into the literature of a dormant legal system. Each one focuses upon material collected in response to a question or to an issue of topical concern; each one has been addressed in contemporary rabbinic writings at the specific behest of individuals whose questions reflect a deeply-perceived need to penetrate the intricacies of Jewish law and teaching with regard to these matters.
Many of the problems discussed—and their resolution—testify to the vibrant and dynamic nature of Torah. Technological advances and changing social institutions have given rise to issues that could not possibly have been confronted by rabbinic decisors of preceding generations. Yet, although the Torah is eternal and unchanging, one may plumb its depths for solutions to questions which would have been imponderable in earlier ages. Indeed, various scholars may advance differing answers to such questions and each position may be well founded in authentic Jewish teaching.
This, too, reflects a fundamental principle of Jewish law and was recognized as such by the Sages. Midrash Shoḥer Tov 12.4 reports:
Rabbi Yan'ai declared, "The words of the Torah were not given in final form (ḥatukhin). Rather, with regard to every single matter that the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses, He enunciated forty-nine considerations [to render it] pure and forty-nine considerations [to render it] impure. Moses exclaimed before Him, 'Sovereign of the Universe, when shall we arrive at a clarification of Halakhah?' God said to him, 'According to the majority shall you decide (Exodus 23:2). If those who declare it impure are more numerous, it is impure; if those who declare it pure are more numerous, it is pure.' "
Clearly, the "matters" to which the Midrash refers are not those presented to Moses in an unequivocal manner in the context of the corpus of either the Written or the Oral Law. They are, then, matters with regard to which human intelligence must seek answers by grappling with principles and precedents firmly established within the system of Halakhah. Such endeavors constitute a dynamic and ongoing process.
Since a normative and universally binding resolution of any such issue can be reached only by consensus of Torah scholars or by a formal poll of their views it follows that the views presented in the discussions included in this volume are not intended to constitute a final and definitive statement of Halakhah. Rather, the material should be regarded as designed to familiarize the reader with the current state of rabbinic thought regarding these topical matters. If this endeavor will also prompt the student to further study and the scholar to independent investigation of these subjects and thereby foster yet additional expansion of the broad horizons of Torah scholarship, the author will regard his labors as having been amply rewarded.