I'm regularly surprised at how little Orthodox Jews – even haredim – know about the halakhic process.
Increasingly, even "rabbis" learn only surface applications of parts of Yorah Dayah and Shabbos. They don't learn poskim or look deeply into commentaries. (An exception to this are those who take and pass the Rabbinute's smicha tests, which are extraordinarily deep and difficult.)
Hasidic groups, especially Skver and Chabad, are notorious for this – but they are not alone. Many "heimishe" yeshivot are the same.
And OJs who do not study for smicha are even worse off.
A former teacher of mine was very close to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Early in his studies with him, Rabbi Auerbach decided a particular case in a very lenient fashion, and it suprised my teacher. Rabbi Auerbach explained the ruling and said (and I paraphrase here), "It is easy to be strict. It is very difficult to be lenient. My job is to do what is necessary to relieve the burdens of Jews, not to increase them." (This does not mean every case goes to kula.)
Most Jews have no understanding of that. They see halakha as black and white, and as a result are shocked and often disgusted and confused when they see how halakha really works.
Increasingly, major rabbinic figures in the haredi world are not true poskim. They are roshei yeshivot who primarily teach Talmud. They do not deal with piskei halakha on a deep basis. They also are largely divorced from the day to lives of Jews who do not sit all day and learn. Their halakhic decisions are increasingly strict and increasingly divorced from the real world.
As Rabbi Herschal Schachter noted, they err in critical areas, especially in how to deal with rabbis and others who sexually abuse children. They invoke inapplicable halakha – lashon hara laws, laws about honoring sages, and the like – and reach decisions that are disasterous for the Jewish community and for victims of rabbinic sexual abuse.
In kollel (where I learned but was not a kollel member), I once voiced strong disagreement with a rabbinic commenter who was clearly misconstruing a halakha and then using that error to reach a stringent decision. I pointed out the historical and other errors, and showed how his logic could not hold up to the facts at hand.
This upset kollel members who thought I was being disrespectful to this particular rabbi. I asked them to attack my logic and the facts. They could not.
I told them this type of mental gymnastics is fine, as long as it is done to help Jews, to make their lives easier. But it is wrong to do what that rabbi did in order to go to humra, to make Judaism more restrictive and more difficult to follow.
This was a new thought for these kollel men. Their years in Lakewood and its affiliate schools were spent for the most part learning Talmud. They learned little halakaha, and what they did learn was learned in the new style – "x says y but we hold like z." In other words, "There are two or three opinions. We hold like the one of them because big rabbi Ploni held that way. Next case." This is not how halakha is meant to be learned.
I think a large part of the rot that infuses Orthodoxy can be traced to the decision, made somewhere in the not too distant past, to learn halakha like it is an affinity group. "We hold x. Therefore you hold x or you are not part of our "'We.'"
While outside truths – science, modernity, humanism – have done much to weaken Orthodoxy, I believe it is damage from within that has done the most hurt.
On an Erev Shabbat in the not too distant past, the story goes, two Jews brought the same chicken to the local rabbi with a question – is this chicken kosher?
To the rich woman, the rabbi ruled non-kosher. To the poor woman he ruled kosher. Why two different rulings on the same bird? Because the rabbi's job was to decide with kindness, to make life easier for his people. The rich woman could afford another chicken. The poor woman could not.
Today, I think most rabbis, if faced with a similar question, would rule the mythical chicken non-kosher for both women. The rabbi might find some tzedaka money for the poor woman or he might tell her to face this chickenless Shabbos with mesirat nefesh, and make do with potatoes and halla alone.
The rabbi's skills at applying the halakha have atrophied because he has become dependent on a far away rosh yeshiva to decide cases. He views himself as part of an affinity group. He does not wish to exclude himself from that group by deciding in a way that group does not, even though his decision would be well within halakhic norms.
He also has to fear other members of his group who, on hearing his decision may very well challenge him and harass him.
It is a system that is far more likely to give a wealthy person a lenient decision. It fosters inequality. And it breeds rot.
If you're still Orthodox, go learn Yorah Dayah with all its commentaries, with hundreds of years of poskim. Learn to see the flow of halakha, to see the humrot for what they are and the leniencies for what they are.
Open your eyes and learn how to see.
It is the only chance Orthodoxy has to survive.