I recently read a quote from Rav Yehuda Amital which I think speaks volumes about how Halacha is learnt, explained, taught and even – in some cases – decided:
‘Whereas Halacha may be simple, the evaluation of reality is complex. Just as Judaism rejects the Karaite negation of the Oral Law, maintaining instead that there is no Written Law without the interpretation of the Oral Law, so we must also reject a ‘Karaite’ approach to Halacha. Halacha that is devoid of the exegesis of reality is a sort of Karaite law. This ‘Karaite’ approach has led to Halacha as a whole becoming, for the youth, something disconnected from reality.’ (Commitment and Complexity p. 49).
True, it takes considerable time, effort, skill and the opportunity of learning from knowledgeable teachers to know halacha in depth. But in my experience, one can have all this and still have a fundamentally flawed understanding of halacha because authentic halacha requires that we know more than halacha. As Rabbi Amital explains, what it requires that we understand the complexity of the lives of those who are committed to halacha, and that we appreciate the tensions found in the reality within which halacha is lived and wrestled with.
Oftentimes, we want to know whether a religious guide ‘knows’ halacha. Of course, knowledge is crucial, and unfortunately there are those today who purport to be knowledgeable who are not. At the same time, we need to be clear about what type of knowledge we want and expect from a halachic decisor, and if we do choose to turn to a halachic guide, it is important to ensure that not only they are knowledgeable, but also that their knowledge is not devoid of the exegesis of reality.