For 40 years Rabbi J. David Bleich has been subjecting the most controversial issues and technological advancements to halachic analysis, covering such topics as abortion, Ethiopian Jewry, preemptive war, female singing, agunos, rabbinic confidentiality, assisted procreation, vegetarianism, vaccination, and stem-cell burgers. That tradition continues this month as Maggid Books releases the seventh volume of Rabbi Bleich’s “Contemporary Halakhic Problems” series (publication date: February 15).
Rabbi Bleich is a rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel l’horaah at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, professor of law at YU’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and the author and editor of over 20 books, including “Time of Death in Jewish Law,” “Bioethical Dilemmas,” and “With Perfect Faith.”
The Jewish Press: This latest volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems contains a chapter on vaccination. Some people strenuously advocate vaccinating one’s children while others demur, citing risk factors. What’s your position?
Rabbi Bleich: There’s no question that there’s an element of danger involved in any medical procedure, including a vaccination. But there’s also a danger if you take a taxi to go to the doctor’s office. You have to balance one danger against the other. The risks with regard to vaccinations as they are currently manufactured and administered are minimal, and that has been demonstrated over and over again. The risks that have been bandied about in the press are based on fraudulent research.
Is it your contention, then, that parents are obligated to vaccinate their children?
Obligation is a strong word. There are many medical procedures that are life-saving in nature that are not obligatory if there’s even a small risk involved. Now, some risks are so low that they don’t count as a risk. I gave you the example before of a taxi ride to the doctor’s office. There are things called motor vehicle fatalities – and they’re not to be ignored – but the risk is so low that you cannot take cognizance of it in terms of making a halachic decision. There are other risks, though, that are higher. It may be the case, for example, that a person has the right to refuse a major surgery even though he’s suffering from a terminal disease. Each individual should consult his posek.
Another interesting topic you raise in the book is entering a church to vote, which you seem to permit.
I never said that. What I said is that entering the basement, anterooms, or gym of a church is different than entering the sanctuary proper. It’s very common in New York and other places for voting to be located in the auditoriums of churches. I don’t like quoting things not in writing, but there are enough anecdotes about people of halachic stature who voted in a church auditorium. They did not regard it as a beis avodah zarah.
You also write that one may tour a church that no longer functions as one. That’s an interesting ruling. Is it clear that one may do so?
It’s far from clear, but there are grounds to permit it. It’s based upon all sorts of halachic categories that have to do with bitul avodah zarah.
In an earlier work, you discussed the permissibility of torturing a terrorist to extract information. Is torture permitted?
That’s the ticking bomb question. My hypothetical was a situation in which there’s no dispute that there’s a bomb that can cause massive destruction; there’s no dispute that this person knows where it’s located; and there’s no dispute that he’s not willing to give you that information. This individual is technically a rodef, and you can do whatever is necessary to get information from him.
Whether torture works, though, I don’t know. I’m not going to even comment on that.
In most real-life situations, there’s always an element of uncertainty involved. If torture works, may a government agent use it even if he’s less than certain that the person before him really has crucial information?
A person is running down the street with a gun threatening to shoot: What’s the certainty that he’s going to shoot? It’s less than 100 percent. The question is what degree of certainty is necessary before I have license, and indeed the obligation, to eliminate the aggressor if there’s no other way of saving the victim. Do you need a certainty that approaches 100 percent? Will 98 percent do? Or is even 51 percent sufficient? It’s a matter of some controversy.
This is your seventh volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems. Has there been any change over the years in how you approach halachic questions?
How could there be? The halacha is the same and the methods of dealing with it are the same.
Have you perhaps become more machmir or more meikil over time?
Heaven forfend. I don’t know what those words mean. There is no such thing as a machmir and a meikil. Anyone who talks in that language is not a posek. There is a halacha and there is an assessment of pros and cons and different positions and then you apply it in a concrete situation. Sometimes the ruling is more stringent, sometimes it’s less stringent. But the categories of machmir and meikil are extra-halachic. These words shouldn’t even be bandied about.
You’ve written much on the intersection between halacha and American law. What would you say are some of the major general differences between these two systems of law?
There’s nothing general. There are principles of common law and there are principles of halacha. For example, the principles that govern lost property in halacha are quite different from those of common law. Common law – as reflected in American statutory law – requires me to take any object I find worth more than 20 dollars to the nearest police station. The police are supposed to wait for the rightful owner to press a claim and if nobody comes after six months, they can give it back to me. In halacha, if the circumstances are such that I presume yi’ush [i.e., the owner abandoned hope of recovering the object], I don’t have to do anything to find the rightful owner.
On the other hand, American law says that if I see a valuable diamond on the street, I don’t have to pick it up and return it even if it’s in a bag with the owner’s name on it. Halacha, though, says I have no choice but to take custody and return it to its rightful owner.
So comparisons with regard to particular points are sometimes very significant. But global comparisons are either nonsensical or trivial. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Sure, there are common things between apples and oranges. They’re both healthy. You need law for society to exist. But different types of law are reflected in different societies.
Most of your life’s work has revolved around halacha. Yet you wrote your Ph.D. dissertation on Jewish philosophy and have written two books in this area as well. How do you account for that?
There are aspects of philosophy that have a very significant relationship with halacha. For example, the 13 ikrim of the Rambam are philosophical in nature, but there is an obligation to accept the 13 ikrum. So it’s necessary to elucidate what those principles are – to know who’s in the pale and who’s a heretic and outside the pale.