For the past ten years I've been sending out daily "Torah Thought" emails, which I began archiving here one year ago. Occasionally readers reply with questions or comments, and last week I had an interesting exchange with a friend/commenter regarding the role of a rabbi.
The original "Torah Thought" (from Menachot 99b):
"Ben Dama, the nephew of R’ Yishmael, asked R’ Yishmael: I have learned the entire Torah. May someone like me study Greek wisdom?
"R’ Yishmael responded by citing this verse (Joshua 1): ‘This Torah scroll will not leave your mouth, and you will speak of it day and night.’ Go find a time which is neither day nor night, and during that time you may study Greek wisdom."
To which my commenter asked:
Does one truly understand this Gemara to mean that one should not study things other than Torah?, or that it's okay as long as it is not "Greek wisdom" or presumably other philosophy? What is the halacha l'meisah re: this exhortation?
To which I replied:
That, my friend, is one of the truly eternal debates, and the halachah l'maaseh varies among many points of view.
And so my commenter asked:
Given the debate and difference among different knowledgeable people, am I free to choose the view that is most compelling and convincing to me? And, is it then important to be sure that one's Rav sizes up the answer similarly to the one asking the question?
This is where the discussion transcended the specific realm of Torah study vs. secular study and became a general discussion about the rabbi's role:
1) Can I (as student/congregant) choose between valid opinions on my own, or do I need to consult a rabbi?
2) If I need to consult a rabbi, how do I choose one? Or should I be choosing at all - perhaps I should just accept the person the geographic community around me accepts?
To which I would say the following:
First: I believe, per Avot 2:1, that I may not make a decision like the one mentioned above about Torah/secular study on my own; I need the counsel of objective others, or at least an objective other - a rabbinic expert. I am biased by my own preferences, and may not read the sources accurately in making this decision.
Second: I must choose a rabbi rather than follow whoever is around; see Eruvin 47b, which notes that not every rabbi is a good fit for everyone.
Third: So how do I choose a rabbi? I believe that I must choose a rabbi I can follow, meaning one whose orientation and approach is one I can understand and accept. Of course, that orientation and approach must be firmly grounded in Torah sources and in solid mentors, but I must also feel that I will be able to find myself in his Torah, that his guidance will help me grow in Torah.
At the same time, going back to my earlier point, I cannot choose a specific rabbi because his opinions and practices mirror my own. Then I would be my own rabbi - which is as bad as being your own lawyer or barber. Rather, I should choose a rabbi who will, again, help me to grow, even demand that I grow, along a path that is consistent with Torah and with my ideals and personality.
And so I replied:
I'd say we all need an objective Torah voice, someone with nothing to gain and with a view anchored in Torah, to help us answer these questions for ourselves. We are too biased by our own experiences and interests. That person, I'd think, should be one's Rav.
But I'm a rabbi by profession, so maybe I'm biased. What do you think?