Summer ‘99 Learning Summary
  • 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.
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