May 16, 2024
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Many religious Jews today ask rabbis life questions—whom to marry, where to live, what career path to follow—and take their answers as authoritative rulings. In one sense, the modern world is based on autonomy, independent choice. Submission to a rabbi’s authority on these major decisions is a wholesale rejection of the modern enterprise. If this is the proper way to determine what God requires of us, then so be it. However, I submit that according to the Vilna Gaon’s tradition, the Torah approach for life choices does not involve unquestioningly following a rabbi’s dictates. Rabbinic authority does not extend beyond issues of religious practice and fundamental belief.

Every person has a different path in life but finding one’s direction is often difficult. The Vilna Gaon (Commentary to Mishlei 16:4) explains that in ancient times, Jews would ask prophets for guidance. With his access to divine insight, the prophet would show each person where the nature of his soul and body direct him. But prophecy is long gone.

In theory, we should each be able to use our own access to ruach ha-kodesh, the divine spirit, to discover our own paths, but we face too many obstacles to successfully achieve that. Instead, the Vilna Gaon says, we must observe the commandments. God wants our Torah study and observance. In return, He will show us our paths in life.

Note the lack of a Torah scholar in this discussion. Apparently, the Vilna Gaon thought that Torah scholars play no unique role in each individual’s search. His student, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, saw this subject slightly differently.

Hillel says (Avos 2:7): “The more counsel, the more understanding.” In his Ruach Chaim commentary on this, Rav Chaim Volozhiner quotes a common saying he endorses that you should seek advice but then do what you think is best (she’al eitzah va-aseh kirtzoncha). Why, he asks, bother asking for advice? He answers that no single person grasps all the fine details of the issue. If you ask many people, each will see some of the details. After listening to all the different perspectives, you will have the best understanding of how to deal with the situation.

The Vilna Gaon recommends waiting for divine inspiration based on Torah study and observance. In contrast, Rav Chaim Volozhiner advises consultation with multiple people. Neither suggests going to a single Torah scholar and unquestioningly following his advice.

The Netziv, a grandson-in-law of and successor to Rav Chaim Volozhiner, takes a third approach. In his Torah commentary (Ha’amek Davar, Dev. 29:8), the Netziv states that one finds the right counsel in the merit of Torah study. In this, he follows the Vilna Gaon. In his commentary to Koheles (8:1), the Netziv points out that a Torah scholar’s mood will affect his advice. Additionally, not everyone can consistently predict the future. Therefore, a questioner has to use his own judgment to decide whether to follow any advice he receives. According to the Netziv, you can ask a Torah scholar but then decide whether to follow his advice.

These three approaches are hardly contradictory. They all reflect the inherent human difficulty of seeing the future and even the innermost present. Absent prophecy, no person has the power to see into our souls or to predict the future. At best, they can make educated guesses. Some people will try to independently decide their own paths. Others will ask many for advice. And still others will seek guidance from a Torah scholar.

No one will argue that a wise rabbi is somehow excluded as a source of wisdom for seekers simply because he is a rabbi. In this generation of confusion, we need all the wisdom and guidance we can find; the wiser the rabbi, the more valuable his advice. Additionally, Jewish law and thought often provide some guidance on the propriety of certain life choices. Can a kohen buy a house bordering a cemetery? That is a question for a rabbi. Should that same kohen become an accountant or a lawyer? Because no one today can access the divine knowledge of inner truths, each individual has to use his own best judgment in deciding his life path. Advice is just that, an input from a (hopefully) wise person to be applied by the individual to his circumstances.

I never had the merit of speaking with Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik because he was ill when I entered Yeshiva. However, in my many conversations with some of his students, I note that they seldom tell me what to do. They consistently discuss the issues from various angles, providing insight and not even advice. Even when the conclusion is obvious, they always leave it to me to reach the conclusion, to make the appropriate decision. I believe that this is the tradition of the Vilna Gaon, which is uniquely appropriate to the modern world where autonomy is so important.

Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com. Raised in Teaneck, he is a graduate of Solomon Schechter, Frisch, and Yeshiva University.

By Gil Student

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