SH’UT YISHREI LEV by HaRav Yonatan (Yoni) Rosensweig
Responsa – or in hebrew, She’elot U’Teshuvot – are unique texts whose questions, no less than their answers, shine a light on halakhic trends and challenges in the Jewish world. As David Ellenson observes, they are ‘the crossroads where text and context meet in the ongoing tradition of Jewish legal hermeneutics’. This means that responsa are able to tell us about how their author acts as a mediator between text and context, God and the people, ‘the unalterable demands of the law and the varied reactions of the people’.
Sadly, we are living in a time of responsa drought where few of the recently published works in this unique genre are truly worthy of the name. Rather than providing teshuvot (answers to questions), they are merely asufot (collections of answers) in which the authors simply collects opinions of earlier poskim who address the same question in place of examining the question itself. Additionally, these same works often pay little attention to the context of the question (ie. the situation and population who are asking questions). As can be imagined, these deficiencies directly impact the conclusions reached by the posek (decisor), the satisfaction of the sho’el (questioner), and the general perception of the psak process.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. In such cases, the posek does not merely seek to reproduce prior rulings. Instead, they approach the rabbinic sources necessary to inform their decisions with open eyes, while also approaching those seeking their halakhic guidance with a full heart. Consequently, their teshuvot become not only a means to a halakhic end, but also an end in themselves; not only answers to specific halakhic questions, but guidelines to the sensitive reader about how to approach every halakhic question. Ideally, a teshuvah (responsum) has the potential of expressing the unique moment where one individual receives guidance about how to live in accordance with the will of God by another, whose rulings are inspired by their familiarity of the word of God and shaped by their awareness of the presence of God. This is why she’elot u’teshuvot are the most spiritual of texts, because they express the love shown by the sho’el to follow the way of God, and the love shown by the posek towards both God and the questioner.
Sh’ut Yishrei Lev
Given this introduction, it gives me considerable pleasure to share my thoughts about Rav Yonatan (Yoni) Rosensweig’s recently published Sh’ut Yishrei Lev. This three-volume set of responsa contains 155 rulings that span all four sections of Shulchan Aruch and, having taken some time to learn through these rulings, I can attest to the fact that sweet Torah flows throughout each of its pages and that each teshuvah is a masterclass in halakhic jurisprudence.
Sh’ut Yishrei Lev contains a wide range of classic and modern questions, and the rulings by R’ Rosensweig – some of which are brief, while others span many pages – demonstrate his qualities as a highly learned and deeply reflective posek. Yet even when a classic question is being examined, there is no sense of déjà vu. Instead, R’ Rosensweig approaches each she’elah with an unexpected level of freshness, and in so doing he expresses the fact that no matter how many times a question has been asked of previous poskim, the greatest respect that a posek can give towards a sincere questioner is by approaching their question as if it had never been asked before.
This approach – which itself has similarities to the derech pesika of R’ Nachum Rabinovitch (who has been R’ Rosensweig’s mentor for many years) – leads R’ Rosensweig to produce a number of innovative rulings. Yet in each responsum, R’ Rosensweig holds the reader by the hand and explains with absolute clarity how he reached his conclusions from both the Talmudic and post-Talmudic sources. Though it would be foolish to claim that there is a running theme throughout all its 155 rulings, there is no doubt that many of the rulings found in Sh’ut Yishrei Lev address questions relating to human sensitivity and human dignity, and all do so with incredible clarity. For R’ Rosensweig, like R’ Rabinovitch, there is no separation between the religious and ethical dimensions of Jewish law.
Sh’ut Yishrei Lev contains many fascinating questions, but those that particularly caught my attention were modern questions which to date have not been addressed (at least in a volume of responsa such as this), or those that R’ Rosensweig was prepared to answer with a boldness that is a scarce commodity in contemporary responsa literature.
Volume 1 discusses questions relating to Orach Chaim, and a particularly fascinating responsum addresses a group of women whose desire to attend synagogue services leads them to ask whether it is halakhically permissible for their husbands to remain at home and look after the kids so they can attend the synagogue service (Vol. 1 No. 11).
Other questions found in this volume include those such as whether the blessing upon seeing a head of State should be recited when in view of the British Royal Family (Vol. 1 No. 20), or whether the blessing of Osseh Ma’aseh Bereishit should be recited upon seeing the Niagra Falls (Vol. 1 No. 21), and R’ Rosensweig also addresses representatives of Bnei Akiva (Australia) who seek guidance from him about how to conduct a Kabbalat Shabbat service which musical accompaniment without transgressing Shabbat (Vol. 1 No. 30). His final responsum/essay in Volume 1 is a 140 page exploration of liturgical change.
Volume 2 discusses questions relating to Yoreh Deah, and it includes a fascinating array of questions including a long – and nuanced – responsum concerning Jews entering Churches and Mosques (Vol. 2 No. 76), as well as a shorter responsum about the permissibility of Jews entering Buddhist Temples (Vol. 2 No. 77). R’ Rosensweig also deals with the question of whether a husband can – in times of great emotional need – hug his wife when she is a Niddah (Vol. 2 No. 87) or whether he can hold her hand when giving birth (Vol. 2 No. 90).
Volume 3 discusses questions relating to Even HaEzer/Choshen Mishpat and also includes a number of further halakhic essays. Examples from this volume include an honest discussion about the permissibility of women wearing pants (Vol. 3 No. 119), and the circumstances when a woman may be able to recite Sheva Brachot (Vol. 3 No. 122). Additionally, R’ Rosensweig discusses the importasnce of business ethics, and the need to treat workers with dignity (Vol. 3 No. 133).
To get a flavour of the responses provided by R’ Rosensweig, I have decided to summarise three of R’ Rosensweig’s teshuvot. However, as should be obvious, a true appreciation of these teshuvot requires study of their full-text:
- Can a barmitzvah boy with dyslexia lein by heart? (Vol. I No. 14)
In Adar 5773 R’ Rosensweig was asked to address the question of a bar-mitzvah boy with dyslexia who struggles to read Torah. In fact, when the young man does try to read from the text, the confusing appearance of the letters distract him and hinder him from leining effectively. However, when he leins from memory, the leining is accurate. The question posed to R’ Rosensweig is whether this boy can lein his barmitzvah portion from memory?
R’ Rosensweig begins his analysis by quoting the well-known rule that leining cannot be done from memory, noting that this rule is derived from Gemara Gittin 60a. However, he then refers to Gittin 68b which recounts how the Kohen Gadol read the Torah from memory, with the reason given that this was done for reasons of Kavod HaTzibbur (lit. the dignity of the community). This leads R’ Rosensweig to explore the reasons why the Torah should be read from a scroll, and why the practice mentioned in Gittin 68a was permissible. R’ Rosensweig explores these sugyot through a thorough yet nuanced analysis of numerous rishonim and acharonim, in which he searches for a halakhically valid pathway to permit leining from memory in such a case. Based on these sources, as well as a fascinating insight by R’ Ovadia Yosef, R’ Rosensweig reaches the conclusion that leining from memory in such an instance is permissible, especially where the reader is able to glance at the text wherever possible and where there is no concern that the community will think that the Torah scroll is invalid. Finally, R’ Rosensweig reflects on the social implications of a young barmitzvah boy who does not lein from the Torah, arguing that this too should be considered when reaching a conclusion in this case.
As should be clear, I am deeply moved by this, and so many other teshuvot, in Sh’ut Yishrei Lev. In this teshuvah, R’ Rosensweig offers a sensitive reading of halakha, and in so doing, he demonstrates how his derech pesika is rooted in a deep awareness and sensitivity towards human dignity.
Must a Beit Din observe the immersion of a female convert? (Vol. II No. 103)
Though I have noted that Sh’ut Yishrei Lev contains 155 rulings, it actually contains a handful of essays (kuntressim) addressing questions of practical Jewish law that were asked of R’ Rosensweig in theory rather than in practice. One of the longest of these – dated Kislev 5775 and spanning 44 pages – addresses the complex question of whether a Beit Din must observe the immersion of a female convert.
As R’ Rosensweig explains in his introductory remarks, the disgraceful behaviour of a Washington based Rabbi led to calls that men not enter women’s mikvaot at any time, including when a female converts to Judaism. However, these calls directly challenged normative practice where a Beit Din is present when this occurs. Though numerous poskim suggest that the woman should wear loose fitting clothing and that the water should be covered to maintain the dignity of the prospective convert, R’ Rosensweig notes that many remain uncomfortable with such an arrangement. Given this background, R’ Rosensweig explores this topic, but as he points out, this is not merely an exercise in finding a lenient ruling to permit a change in practice. Instead, he explains that he is driven by the desire to produce a robust argument so that all those who adopted such a ruling would not worry that their conversions would be questioned or possibly invalidated.
In this fascinating essay, R’ Rosensweig explores the function of the immersion, and consequently, what needs to be seen, and known, by the Beit Din. Though the Beit Din generally accompanies the prospective convert to the mikvah, R’ Rosensweig explains that this in order to verify that the prospective convert was prepared to accept the mitzvot, which itself was expressed through their immersion in the mikvah. However, as R’ Rosensweig explains, these two functions – the testimony of the prospective convert to the Beit Din and the immersion of the prospective convert in the mikvah –are not the same act, and that while the Beit Din need to know that the prospective convert has immersed, many argue that they do not need to observe the immersion. Consequently, once the prospective convert has spoken with the Beit Din, she can enter the mikvah and immerse in front of women who need only confirm to the Beit Din that this has occurred.
As R’ Rosensweig explains, this suggestion differs from what until now has been the common practice. But, as he then adds, ‘on account of the modesty of the women of Israel it is correct to change the practice, and even where necessary make radical changes’ because ‘this issue has led to a sense of bewilderment among the public, and it is therefore the responsibility of the Rabbanim to make significant changes about this matter.’
This teshuvah is a wonderful example of halakhic creativity and it beautifully expresses how a posek must be an expert in the relevant halakhic texts as well as in the social and historical context in which they are ruling. Additionally, it demonstrates how a posek is also a leader, and how situations sometimes call for bold and radical changes.
Is someone a halakhically kosher witness if they have religious doubts? (Vol. III No. 130)
During Pesach 5772 R’ Rosensweig was asked about the necessary qualifications of a halakhically kosher witness for a Jewish wedding. As he explains, many young men and women today have questions of faith, and they no longer simply accept the principles of faith as a given. Consequently, is such an individual a valid witness?
In his response, R’ Rosensweig cites both the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch which lists those who are disqualified as witnesses, including those who disavow core principles of faith, or those who consciously don’t follow Torah U’Mitzvot. However, as R’ Rosensweig explains, this is not the population he is discussing. Instead, we are talking about people who yearn for spiritual connection but who have inner struggles with their faith. Thus, as long as someone continues to maintain an observant life, the act of questioning faith is in no way the same as rejecting faith, and it would be unwise, and short-sighted, to reject someone who simply questions their faith.
As above, R’ Rosensweig promotes an inclusive approach to Judaism and he demonstrates that while there are boundaries of acceptability in Judaism, an authentic reading of Jewish texts demonstrates that these boundaries are much wider than many appear to believe.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the ideal posek, is someone ‘with the authority of one who understands our situation and the authenticity of one through whom the whole of Torah speaks’. As I hope I have shown, R’ Yoni Rosensweig is a bold posek who combines both these qualities with much wisdom, sensitivity and creativity, and his teshuvot perfectly express how a posek who fully understands the context of the modern day Jew can grapple with the timeless Torah texts to produce timely rulings. Sh’ut Yishrei Lev is an incredibly important set of responsa, and I hope that this review will encourage many more to purchase a set. For further details, visit http://miro.ravpage.co.il/ravyoni.
 David Ellenson, Tradition in Transition, p. 10
 Jonathan Sacks, “Creativity and Innovation in Halakhah” in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy (ed. Moshe Z. Sokol) p. 20-21
 On this point see Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, Mesilot Bilvavam: Pirkei Hagut – Hayachid, Hachevra VeHamedinah B’Ra’ei HaTorah p. 512.
 See Rambam: Hilkhot Tefillat U’Nesiat Kapayim 12:8; Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim 139:3.
 Sh’ut Yishrei Lev Vol. II p. 223
 Rambam: Hikhot Eidut Ch. 11
 Shulchan Aruch: Choshen Mishpat 34:17, 22
 Jonathan Sacks, “Creativity and Innovation in Halakhah” p. 168