Embracing the complex

Behind the scenes with ‘Ask the Rabbi’ columnist Shlomo Brody.

Rabbi Shlomo Brody  (photo credit: COURTESY MAGGID BOOKS)
Rabbi Shlomo Brody
It seems there is no question within Halacha that Magazine “Ask the Rabbi” columnist Rabbi Shlomo Brody shies away from discussing in his allotted 800 words.
Abortion, infertility, paternity, DNA testing, homosexuality, organ donation, superstition, kol isha (female singing), rabbinic ordination for women, fleeing Israel during wartime, stem cell research, conversion, redeeming captive soldiers: the Israel-ordained Orthodox rabbi and Harvard graduate devotes essays to all these provocative topics, and many more – in The Jerusalem Post as well as other publications in Israel and his native US.
Now he has gathered 134 of his previously published halachic discourses into his debut book, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halachic Debates.
Brody, who directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars and teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, also serves as a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a presidential graduate fellow at Bar-Ilan University Law School. He explains in the preface that he reedited every essay, often clarifying the original based on reader feedback, but kept each one short enough to be accessible to all.
He stresses that his columns are not meant as a rabbinic decision (p’sak) but only to provide people with authentic source material on the issues. “In general, a well-informed laity can create a healthy conversation with legal decisors, advancing legal consensus in many positive ways,” he writes. “My primary goal is to facilitate understanding and dialogue…” Brody says he gets responses “from a wide spectrum of readers, ranging from unaffiliated Jews to erudite rabbis.” The Post sat down with him to learn more.
What do you envision as the religious profile of your typical reader?
The columns and book are intended for people who care deeply about Jewish wisdom and how it applies to contemporary life. While this certainly includes Orthodox readers, it goes well beyond that community to include many different types of Jews, and even some non-Jews as well.
I’ve received feedback from many types of people around the world, and it has only strengthened my belief that classic Jewish texts have much to contribute to contemporary dialogue, irrespective of people’s personal beliefs or practices.
Once you decide on a question to answer, what sources do you consult first?
Generally speaking, my research always starts on my computer. I start with the major search tools – Google, Rambi, Bar-Ilan Responsa CD and Da’at – to get a sense of what has been written on the topic and the major texts that are cited.
Then I go to the earliest relevant source (almost always in the Bible or Talmud) and begin to look up the original sources, slowly working forward until I get to contemporary writings. I can’t cite every opinion in the space limits of my column, so it’s important to decide which are the key texts and positions that need to be discussed.
Do you have a “second pair of eyes” read your responses for content or clarity?
Only the trustworthy editors at the Post! Occasionally, I’ve consulted with my wife, Rocky, or different rabbinic friends for some feedback, but usually I submit my columns without anyone else reviewing them.
For the book, however, several students did source-checking, and Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow, a scholar and poet, reviewed almost the entire manuscript for clarity.
The editors at Maggid did a fantastic job of completing the editing process, and I hope that readers will find the prose to be both clear and precise.
Are there any questions you have declined to answer?
Initially, I refused to discuss topics that I thought would be too controversial or sensitive in this format, including questions related to homosexuality, birth control, infertility and saving lives of all humans on Shabbat. Over time, however, I decided that it was important for these questions to be publicly addressed, and they were all included in the column and the book.
There’s a lot of misinformation on the Web, and I feel it’s important for responsible writers to publish honest and comprehensive treatments of these sensitive topics.
Orthodoxy has sometimes been criticized for a lack of openness. As a teacher, do you feel this is changing?
Today’s students are generally more skeptical about rabbinic authority because they always wonder if someone is hiding something from them or not revealing different halachic positions. For that reason, I believe in giving people the full picture, including positions with which I do not agree, and only then revealing why I support a given position. I think readers and students appreciate the honesty, and ultimately tend to trust someone who they feel has given sufficient consideration to different possibilities.
Who is your personal posek?
Throughout the years, I’ve consulted with different rabbis in different areas of Halacha, but my chief mentor has always remained my revered teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
Who came up with the clever play on Maimonides’s A Guide for the Perplexed?
I offered a free copy of the book on my Facebook page to anyone who suggested a great title, and a former student, Yoni Weiss, suggested A Guide to the Complex.
I’m keeping my end of the deal and he’s getting a free copy!
Do you envision a sequel when you have enough columns to fill it?
Absolutely! I’ve recently written about Jewish perspectives on vegetarianism and halachic approaches to torture, and there are many more great topics that I’m excited to write about.
I’m also working on a dissertation at Bar-Ilan University Law School on the philosophical controversies regarding nullifying rabbinic laws and decrees. I hope that will eventually become a book which reflects on the nature of the Jewish legal system and how Jewish law has evolved.