In a rather technical discussion about civil marriage and whether its dissolution requires a get, a formal religious divorce, a friend pointed out that historically, different communities had different readings of the weight of civil marriage and, thus, different decisions on this point. That insight made me see just how much the world of halachic authorities has changed. Not that long ago, local rabbis had the courage to make psak (a ruling) for their communities. Another rabbi down the road or in another town or another country would also have the self-confidence to give rulings for his community. This mechanism was predicated on each rabbi realizing that while they had authority, they weren’t the exclusive judge and that others were equally empowered.
Today you’ll find very few local rabbis, no matter how well qualified, willing to make a public decision. They’re frequently afraid someone else will criticize them for being too lenient. A distortion has come into the system when stricter rulings and observance are somehow thought to be better, holier, more serious and more religious. Beyond the fact that there is absolutely no established halachic basis for this (and quite a bit of text contradicting it), this fear of being delegitimized has shrunk the seventy faces of Torah within the orthodox world down to one.
The real problem, of course, is the implication that the Infinite Torah, and by extension the Infinite Creator, is no more complex than the limited imagination embodied in one opinion. This is balanced, don’t you know, by the opposite trend and equally disastrous conclusion that all opinions are equally valid, there is no halacha and no authority, that anything goes and, by implication, the no-longer-infinite, chas v’shalom, Creator is too limited and impotent to devise order out of chaos.
The combination of confidence and courage, balanced with humility and humanity, too rare today, is desperately needed.