Summer ‘99 Learning Summary
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In the morning shiur we discussed the procedures
built into halakhah for responding to abuses of the legal system (shelo
y’hei chotei niscar). We were particularly interested in discovering
whether those procedures were still available for creative use by rabbinic
decisors or whether they could only be used in cases identical to those
in which earlier authorities had applied them.
A second topic the morning shiur covered was
the rule that a twice-widowed woman (katlanit) is either discouraged or
forbidden from remarrying owing to the presumption that marriage to her
will shorten the prospective groom’s life. We noted that the halakhah
follows the position that this concern is astrologically based, and also
that this rule’s impact is greatly affected by changes in lifespan.
We studied the striking position of Rambam, who openly declares (in a responsum,
but not in his Code) this a rule better honored in the breach than in the
observance, then surveyed a range of practical decisions from medieval
through contemporary authorities. Throughout, we asked ourselves
how we should deal with a halakhah seemingly based on premises we disagreed
with empirically, especially when that halakhah has direct negative impact
on fellow human beings.
At the conclusion of the program several participants
wrote a full responsum to a detailed hypothetical case involving these
issues. The goal of the exercise was to both concretize and
humanize the issues involved, and simultaneously to cause reflection on
all the factors involved in writing and deciding halakhah generally.
Other learning projects included studying various
responsa on morally difficult contemporary issues, such as abortion of
fetuses diagnosed with serious or terminal illnesses, R. Z. H. Chajes’
book Darkei Horaah on the relationship of codified halakhah, caselaw, and
popular practice, Nechamah Liebowitz zt”l’s worksheets on the weekly
Torah portion, and guest lectures on halakhic solutions to difficult divorce
cases and on the fine line separating cleverness from abuse in the utilization
of halakhic loopholes.