Avo Bitekha: Marriage and family law responsa

by Rabbis David and Avraham Star

(Maggid, 2017)

One of the most fascinating developments over the last twenty years has been the shift in the types of questions that some Rabbis have been prepared to address in their responsa.

Primarily prompted by increased access to rabbis through technology, along with the proliferation of numerous ask-the-rabbi websites where questioners have been able to present their queries anonymously, Rabbis have begun to comprehend and face up to the true challenges confronting the Jewish people – especially in the field of human relationships. As Rabbi Yuval Cherlow explains, ‘halakhah is now confronted with questions that were seldom presented to rabbis due to the intimate nature of the subject and the awkwardness involved in posing such questions’ [1] and ‘this reality has two implications. The first is in regard to the evaluation of the situation… [such that] the internet exposes the halakhic decisor to a reality with which he was unfamiliar which may lead him to consider other factors in determining his ruling. The second implication is the need to clarify and respond to basic questions which simply did not arise previously or were not presented to rabbis before this format became available’ [2].

To date, almost no Orthodox responsa writers have made a conscious and comprehensive effort to rise to the challenge of addressing, in a serious and halakhically rigorous manner, questions pertaining to relationships that truly reflect our present reality, and in most instances where halakhic decisors have attempted to address current problems, they have generally done so while basing themselves on societal norms that do not reflect the lifestyle of the majority of Orthodox Jews worldwide. Simply put, over the past twenty or so years a significant gap have developed between the needs of Orthodox Jews for halakhic guidance regarding marriage and family law, and the halakhic rulings that have been provided by contemporary halakhic decisors.

It is for this reason that there has been much excitement surrounding the recent publication of ‘Avo Beitekha: Marriage and Family Law Responsa’ by Rabbi David Stav, and his son Rabbi Avraham Stav.

Rabbi David Stav is the Chief Rabbi of Shoham. However, for most people he is better known as the director and the face of the Tzohar organization. This means that a regular part of his work involves conversations with less religious Jews, as well as those who have become alienated from those representing Chief Rabbinate, who seek his advice concerning matters of Jewish status and marriage.

Over the years Rabbi David Stav has been asked hundreds of halakhic questions regarding Jewish marriage law, the format of the marriage ceremony, and questions pertaining to married life, and like Tzohar itself which attempts to provide an open and welcoming service that responds to the needs of the time, Rabbi Stav has had to respond to these questions with understanding, depth and clarity. It is this background which is the foundation of Avo Beitekha which contains many of the questions that Rabbi David Stav has been most regularly asked.

However, to examine and publish responsa on some of the most complex and controversial topics of our time takes considerable effort, and it was for this reason – along with the sheer pleasure of shared time, contact and conversation – that Rabbi David Stav invited his son Rabbi Avraham – himself, a significant scholar – to collaborate in this endeavor of researching and writing these important and, on occasion, groundbreaking responsa.

In terms of content, Avo Beitekha begins with a fascinating essay titled ‘Family Law in the Modern reality’ where the authors explain the differences between certain aspects of halakha that are purely rooted in halakhic sources and are simply expressed in our social reality, and other aspects of halakha that are shaped by our social reality. And as they observe while reflecting on the core contribution of Avo Beitekha, ‘without a deep understanding of the social transformations that have occurred over the past generations, it is simply impossible to render halakhic rulings in family law in our generation’ [3].

This essay is then followed by 25 responsa divided into 5 sections: i) BE FRUITFUL & MULTIPLY – which includes responsa on topics such as the use of contraception by young marrieds who wish to complete their academic study, whether adoption or fertility treatment is preferred for a couple who are unable to have children, and whether a single woman may have a child through AID (Artificial Insemination by Donor); ii) MARRIAGE – including responsa on topics such as what are the parameters of arranging a marriage between someone who is religious and someone who is not? What should a couple do if they find that they are Tay Sachs carriers? What information must be revealed prior to marriage? iii) WEDDING – including responsa on pre-nuptial agreements, the nature of weddings that occur in the absence of a qualified rabbi, and whether someone may attend a single-sex marriage or an intermarriage? iv) THE MARRIAGE CEREMONY – including responsa on whether interruptions between each of the Sheva Brachot invalidate the blessings, the halakhic status of a wedding whether the bride already owns her ring, and whether a bride can give her groom a ring under the Chuppah, and v) MARRIED LIFE & SEXUALITY – including responsa on couples showing affection in public, the halakhic expectations of intimacy within a marriage, whether men can ejaculate before entry for the sake of their wife’s sexual pleasure, female masturbation, and whether a woman who has had an affair during a marital separation can return to her husband.

Clearly, while some of these questions may not be new, the context and considerations reflected both in the questions and answers are. At the same time, a number of these questions have not received any – or anything close to – such thorough treatment in other contemporary responsa volumes, which makes this volume all the more welcome.

In terms of the answers in Avo Beitekha, they are unique on three levels:

Firstly, each question is treated with a thoroughness that is rarely reflected in other responsa volumes. This is because Avo Beitekha is no less a book about halakhic process as it is about halakhic decision-making. Consequently, every responsum in Avo Beitekha attempts to refer, in a clear and exhaustive manner, all prior halakhic rulings and references concerning this question or those from which a precedent can be learnt.

Secondly, and unlike other responsa volumes, the halakhic authority driving Avo Beitekha is not the halakhic weight of Rabbis David and Avraham Stav. Instead, it is that of the halakhic sources, compelling argumentation, and understanding and sensitivity towards the social reality that they present.

Thirdly, while each responsum ends with a conclusion listing principles and outcomes from the prior discussion, oftentimes aspects of the conclusion are left open for the learner to consider how to apply the law to their own situation. In doing so, Rabbis Stav themselves reflect our current social reality by empowering questioners to play a part in reaching halakhic rulings.

To my mind, Avo Beitekha is not only a fascinating work, but an important one at that. It bridges the gap between the current questions that are often poorly addressed on ask-the-rabbi websites, and the answers that currently appear in responsa volumes that show little attention to our current social reality. There are times when the conclusions in Avo Beitekha seem to veer on the side of caution – such as when discussing whether a single woman may have a child through AID, and other instances when room, albeit very limited, is given for acts that many would regard as utterly forbidden on account of meta-halakhic considerations – such as participation in weddings that run contrary to halakha.

The beauty of Avo Beitekha is that it is not the final word, and nor does it seek to be. However, it is a new chapter of our ancient halakhic conversation, and one that fuses and bridges the principles of the past with the present reality, and I hope that this book stimulates many further conversations, and more significantly, changes attitudes and – where appropriate – behaviors in matters of marriage and family law.

In his introduction, Rabbi David Stav explains that Avo Beitekha is the first in a series which he hopes will be published in the near future, and I am very much looking forward!

To order a copy of Avo Beitekha: Marriage and Family Law Responsa click here.

[1] Yuval Sherlow, ‘Premarital Guidance Literature in the Internet Age’ in Gender Relationships In Marriage and Out (ed. R. Blau), Yeshiva University Press, 2004 p. 141
[2] Ibid pp. 141-142
[3] David & Avraham Stav, Avo Beitekha: Marriage and Family Law Responsa, Maggid Press, 2017 p. xxxviii