My wife’s grandfather, a Hasid who was trapped behind the Iron Curtain for decades before moving to Brooklyn, used to enjoy being asked who his rebbe was. After all, every good Hasid needs a rebbe. He would say that God is his rebbe, not any man. He answered to God and only God. That was a nice personal statement but, in reality, he took all his halachic questions to his synagogue rabbi and followed that rabbi’s decisions to the letter. He found his own way to deal with a dilemma that all modern Jews face: How much religious independence do we retain and how much do we cede to rabbis?
Modern Orthodoxy greatly values autonomy. It expects people to be independent thinkers who evaluate ideas and make their own decisions. God does not want robots. He gave people minds with which to think, to judge right from wrong, to distinguish truth from falsehood. If we simply place our fates in the hands of rabbis, how are we different from members of a cult who suffer abuse because they leave the thinking to their leader? If we give up some of our freedom to rabbis, are we sure they will use that power responsibly?
Rabbis are human, sometimes painfully so. They have strengths and flaws, just like the rest of us. We would be neglecting our duties as beings created in God’s image if we surrendered our freedom to rabbis. But that does not mean that we can disregard what rabbis have to say.
All right-thinking people value true expertise. Doctors know more about medicine than laymen; lawyers can guide you through the legal system better than others, and so on. This does not mean that all opinions of all doctors are equal. Some are greater experts than others and most are specialists with unique insight only in their area of specialization. Even experts disagree and sometimes, maybe not often, all of the experts turn out to be wrong. But someone with no medical or legal training has limited insight into those fields. Even if he turns out to be right, it means he guessed correctly and got lucky. When a complex issue arises, the layman’s opinion is generally too uninformed to be worthy of consideration.
Torah has experts, as well. God gave the Torah to the Jewish people as an inheritance for all, but that does not mean that everyone is equally knowledgeable. Some rabbis specialize in specific topics and others are well-rounded generalists. When complex Torah issues arise, the voices of the greatest experts are most important. I am not discussing deference to rabbis on matters of personal preference or politics but on Torah issues, where they are clearly more qualified than most. If we are truly interested in God’s revealed word of Torah in the broadest sense, we must turn to Torah experts on religious questions. Failing to do so would be neglecting our duty to seriously search for the truth of the Torah.
Keep in mind that even rabbis defer to their teachers and others greater than they. This is not an issue of rabbis demanding obedience but inhabiting the same awkward place between freedom and submission. Even teachers need a teacher.
Some people say that they will only accept a rabbi’s opinion on pure Torah issues, not on matters of judgment, worldviews or social policy. But this minimalist view of Torah ignores all that our texts and traditions have to tell us about life in this world and the next. Torah is much more than halacha, Jewish law. And even halacha is more than just “do this and don’t do that.” It has nuance and depth, sensitivities and broad implications. It is a guide for life.
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik argued very strongly about the need for rabbinic expertise with words that resonate to this day. As summarized by R. Abraham Besdin in Reflections of the Rav (p. 147):
“When people talk about a meaningful Halachah, of unfreezing the Halachah or an empirical Halachah, they are basically proposing Korah’s approach. Lacking a knowledge of halachic methodology, which can only be achieved through extensive study, they instead apply common-sense reasoning which is replete with platitudes and cliches... This da’at [common-sense] approach is not tolerated in science, and it should not receive serious credence in Halachah. Such judgments are pseudo-statements, lacking sophistication about depth relationships and meanings.”
Do-it-yourself Judaism, Rav Soloveitchik seems to be telling us, is doing it wrong. This analogy about experts holds true when thinking about rabbis who abuse their roles in any of a variety of ways. Like a doctor, a rabbi who oversteps his bounds should be dismissed. But in doing so, we do not reject the entire medical field nor the entire rabbinate. We discard the individual, not the system. If an expert fails, we pick up the pieces of our lives and look, with the great care of hard-learned experience, for another expert.
However, the analogy strikes me as incomplete for two reasons. First, it diminishes the role of a rabbi to that of a knowledge expert. But a rabbi is also a role model, an example of someone enriched by the holiness of Torah. A rabbi who succeeds is much more than a doctor and one who fails is much worse.
Additionally, we are talking about the most intimate religious aspects of life. A rabbi is your guide to the sacred. He teaches you not just how to act but how to bring the divine into your life. He is directly involved with your personal relationship with God. That requires much more than book smarts.
There is much more to discuss about this subject but given space considerations, I want to go straight to how we can—indeed, we must—place limitations on our rabbis. As responsible adults, we need to maintain a balance between the autonomy we cede to rabbis and that which we retain for ourselves. We have two key powers that remain in our hands. The first is the power of our legs, the ability to choose. If we don’t like our community and its leadership, we can move to another yeshiva, another synagogue, another city and even another country. Life always has complications but certainly in theory, if not always in practice, we can free ourselves from any rabbi or other leader we do not like. Even a leading, globally recognized rabbi does not control every synagogue in the world.
The other power is that of review. A rabbi is subject to scrutiny, to outside evaluation. If we ever suspect him of acting improperly, if his answers ever seem out of line with the Torah or his behavior seems to deviate from our expectations, we must obtain a second opinion from another rabbi, another expert we believe is qualified to render judgment. No individual has free reign over our lives; only God can tell us what to do. If a rabbi is not legitimately transmitting God’s message, as determined by other experts, he can and should be dismissed.
Perhaps most importantly, a successful balance of freedom and submission requires a shift in perception. We have to focus on the process, not the individual. Asking a rabbi is a method of determining what God expects of us. Since a rabbi is not a prophet and can only deduce answers from texts and traditions, he is a conduit, a decipherer, a connector. This process of inquiry is indirect and often imprecise, but the best we have in this world lacking direct revelation. We have to keep our eye on the target, which is God’s word as traditionally understood within Judaism. The rabbi is there to use his best abilities, which are better trained than ours, to tell us God’s expectations. The rabbi is only a human being, with his own personality, strengths and weaknesses. But so are we, so we should be able to look past the individual’s quirks at the Torah he teaches and the guidance he provides.
When I was first married, I attended the synagogue of a world-famous halachic authority. Often when I asked him a question and he gave me an answer, I would challenge him from various texts. He did not appreciate that. He was the rabbi, the expert, and I, the 20-something seeking his guidance; his decision was final.
At the next synagogue I attended, after moving, the rabbi was equally skilled albeit less famous. He enjoyed the arguments and rebutted my proof texts with explanations and counterproofs. Personally, I “clicked” more with the second rabbi. Even when I thought he was wrong, when he had failed to convince me that my arguments were insufficient, I followed his rulings. I may have learned a few texts in my life but you cannot compare someone who learned a text 101 times to someone who learned it 100 times (Chagigah 9b), and certainly not fewer. Because I respected him so I much, I could defer to his judgment on religious matters.
We all need a rabbi, someone whose judgment and expertise we trust. For some of us who are more argumentative, that means a rabbi we can challenge. For others, it is a figure who speaks from authority. As the Mishnah (Avos 1:4,16) says, “Make for yourself a rabbi.” We make the rabbi by choosing wisely and maintaining a healthy relationship. We accept authority willingly but insist it be wielded responsibly.
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