By Yitzchok Adlerstein
We routinely turn away contributors of “pure” halacha and hashkafa pieces. Not that our regular contributors undervalue them. To the contrary, I believe that every one of our authors consider pure Torah pieces more valuable than any of our blogging activity. However, we tell ourselves that readers will have no trouble finding a full assortment of quality Torah pieces elsewhere. What we try to do at Cross-Currents is slake the thirst of many – for better or worse – for treatments of applied Torah, or the intersection between Torah thought and the unfolding of events in the world around us.
A review of a new volume of teshuvos would then seem to be out of character for Cross-Currents treatment. It would be that, were it not for their extraordinary author, Rav Asher Weiss, shlit”a. As we shall see, both the scope of his work and the ease with which he addresses the complexities of cutting-edge issues are breaths of fresh air to people who have not given up on a Torah enthusiastically and confidently confronts the world at large.
The personality of the author entirely predicts this work. Rav Weiss is upbeat, optimistic, and accessible. His appeal does not admit to restrictions of loyalty to any subgroup within the Torah world. Although a Kloizenberger chassid from Union City, New Jersey who wears the levush, people with all kinds of headgear – shtreimlach to kipot serugot – flock to his beis medrash. He has traveled once a week for years to give a shiur at the hesder yeshiva in Sderot, to show solidarity with an embattled citizenry. (He also travels to the new location of one of the Gaza communities that was the victim of the disengagement/expulsion.) His memory is either eidetic or close to it; listening to his halacha shiurim with his phenomenal grasp of sources at his fingertips is breathtaking. His seforim on Chumash, offering both halacha and derush, have established a regular presence in shuls and batei Medrasharound the world.
He is contemporary and with-it. He is as fully aware of the depth of problems in our community as he is enthused with our strengths. Unlike some others, he is willing to talk about those problems, and quietly address them. He still manages to stay entirely within the mainstream in a pretty punishing neighborhood. (At least one of the teshuvos that I went through was a question referred to him at the request of Rav Elyashiv zt”l.)
It is not surprising that the first printing of this first volume of teshuvos of his reportedly sold out in short order.
I will present here just a sampling of the teshuvos, focusing on those that show his willingness to take positions in relatively virgin territory. In no way should a reader whose curiosity is aroused limit himself to these. There are lots of treats in his teshuvos on older issues as well. (I’m thinking of #14, for example, in which he revisits the old issue of using baby-wipes on Shabbos, and is matir with particular strength.)
He considers whether a member of an emergency services team who arrives first and determines that others need not respond may violate an issur derabanan to alert the others not to unnecessarily violate a d’orayso.) He answers affirmatively.
He takes issue with minimalists who believe that the role of a conversion beis din is entirely passive. Although he does not really offer much back-up for this assessment, he writes that it seems to him that its role is a larger one, at least to the extent that a beis din can decide that it is not in the interests of the community to accept a particular person or group of people as converts. Nonetheless, the reason to turn a potential ger away need to be a strong and compelling one. Where the beis din is concerned only about “external” factors that do not impact on his/her ability to observe the mitzvos, the candidacy should not be spurned.
In a poignant teshuvah with far-reaching social implications, Rav Weiss addresses a tragic case of a gravely ill child with impaired breathing. Physicians wish to do a tracheotomy and insert a breathing tube. The age of the child requires, however, that there be non-stop supervision of the child to ensure that he does not pull out the tube. If the procedure takes place, the parents will either have to stay at the side of the child 24/7, or hire someone else to do so, which they cannot afford. The parents are prepared to forego the procedure, and daven diligently for the best. Rav Weiss reasons that the parents are simply not obligated to provide that kind of round the clock, life transforming care. Nor can they be expected to pony up huge sums of money to hire help to monitor the patient.
Arab workers in the employ of a Jewish contractor (A) drop a beam, which strikes someone’s (B) air-conditioner a few stories below. The unit is damaged, and the warranty voided. B wants compensation; A essentially argues that his claim is against the Arab workers, and good luck! The reaction of many of us would be that the claim is for adam hamazik, and in this case, that would be the Arab workers. Rav Weiss says that it is simply impossible that no one be accountable on a practical level for the damage. Such, he says, would be a miscarriage of justice. Not to mention that the secular law recognizes a liability claim against an employee for damage caused by his workers. In the case at hand, Rav Weiss resorts to an anan sahadi/ legal presumption that neighbors in a condo would not agree to any work done on the property that could leave them no recourse in the case of damage. Therefore, any contractor can be assumed constructively to have agreed to make good for any damage done by his workers.
Heter agunos is hardly a new topic, but his teshuvah about the application of halachic principles to victims of the Japanese tsunami is the first in print that I have seen.
The use of electronic devices on Shabbos is a charged issue, especially in parts of Israel where the Chazon Ish’s influence looms as large as during his lifetime. It will be recalled that, in contradistinction to earlier poskim who saw different halachic issues in the use of electricity, the CI spoke of an issue of boneh. He believed that the very creation of a circuit breathed life and purpose into the wiring created for the very purpose of hosting the introduction of an electric charge. This framework worked well to limit the use of virtually all electric appliances on Shabbos for decades.
More recently, however, a large number of devices have become common that simply do not fit into the paradigm described by the CI. They are designed to turn on and off faster than the eye can see. In fact, the eye sees nothing of the changes that occur within microchips and leaving no perceptible tracks. Do these devices fit into the conceptual framework of the Chazon Ish’s conjecture? (A recent example that raised halachic eyebrows was the installation of digital water meters in Yerushalayim that report usage in real time, transmitting the information wirelessly to collection points. Will residents of Yerushalayim have to desist from using water taps on Shabbos?)
Rav Weiss deals with GenX,Y and Z devices in three consecutive responsa. In the first, he rejects any suggestion that LED displays be considered more leniently than first-generation incandescent devices. In the second, he rejects the suggestion that devices that don’t fit the CI paradigm may be permissible. In both, he speaks quite harshly about using the CI leniently. He points out that the use of electricity was fully accepted as impermissible well before the CI, for reasons advanced by the Beis Yitzchok and the Achiezer. He dismisses multiple teshuvos of Sephardic poskim of many decades ago regarding electricity on Yom Tov, finding that they all misunderstood the nature of electricity. Moreover, he promotes his own, new argument for the impermissibility of all electric devices, based on a Yerushalmi. (According to Rav Weiss, the Yerushalmi holds – followed by Rambam – that any important accomplishment of purpose has to be melachah, even if it does not seem to fall into one of the categories in Perek Klal Gadol. It will perforce be subsumed by the melachah of makeh bepatish.)
Having arrived at this point an apparent hard-liner against electicity on Shabbos, the third teshuvah charges in from left field. In it, Rav Weiss considers a laundry list of devices that involve digital change, but are not intended to do so by the user. Must a patient in an ICU be careful not to needlessly move around in bed, because his monitoring devices are so sensitive as to respond to his every motion, and transmit data. Must a person sentenced to house arrest and wearing a digital leg bracelet be careful not to move, because a GPS device sends information to the authorities? Can one use the new generation of hearing aids? How do we deal with motion sensors in hotel rooms?
In all of these cases, Rav Weiss opines permissively. The changes that come about cannot be part of an issur because they 1) are unobservable and imperceptible, while at the same time are 2) completely unintended by the person causing them. I wait with bated breath to learn how far-reaching this leniency will prove to be, and who, if any, will rise to challenge the line of reasoning.
One passage that caught my eye will resonate with people who have spent time with the sugya of davar she-eino miskaven and psik reisha, or unintended consequences of intended acts. A psik reisha is something that is predictably certain (or very close to certain according to some) to occur. A consequence of some action that might or might not occur is only a davar she-eino miskaven. The drift of the gemara is pretty clear: the latter is permitted, while the former is forbidden. But does this distinction about predictability accord with the way most of us understand the world?
Here is how R Asher Weiss looks at it:
According to scientific analysis, the concept of “davar she-eino miskaven” does not exist. Every davar she-eino miskaven is really a psik reisha. According to scientific truth, nothing occurs without a cause that makes it occur. Anyone who drags a chair or bed (which [when it does produce a furrow ] is still termed a psik reisha) could have come to know before the fact – through scientific examination of the weight of the furniture and the soil conditions – whether he would create the furrow or not. If in the end the furrow is created, it was only because the laws of Nature ordained this from the beginning. Nonetheless, it is clear from a halachic standpoint that we call the dragging of the furniture davar she-eino miskaven [and permit it]. This is because according to the reality that appears before our pedestrian eyes, we cannot know if a furrow will be created or not.
Many of us undoubtedly have come up with the same thinking. It is still a pleasant surprise to see it so clearly articulated by a major halachic figure.
Those who are already fans of R Asher Weiss will be interested in getting hold of this volume. Those who are unfamiliar might find this a good jumping off point to get acquainted with a figure who will become ever more important in the decades to come.