Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Choose a rabbi you can follow

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?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. When we have a question on an opinion, we usually tend to "know the answer" and tend to keep asking until someone agrees with us (does that make sense) there is the obvious "danger" in finding a Rabbi or other authority that agrees with your opinion rather than truly seeking a "second opinion" or option.

    Isn't it important to have at least SOME knowledge of Greek or other wisdom? we don't live "isolated" from each other. Therefore, it is safe to assume that someone might have questions. To this, an authority should have intelligent answers, other than "its irrelevant" or "we don't study those things".

    Case in point, I was at a course with several young women, obviously influenced by Oprah and Buddhism. THey had questions. The teachers answer was just "no". or saying Jewish people don't believe that. I'm not sure that gives a convincing argument, and given the "flash" or celebrities especially among younger people, its important to have at least somewhat flashy answers from the Jewish perspective.

    Rambling done.


  3. for what types of questions do you think a person needs to turn to a rabbi.

  4. There seems to be somewhat of a contradiction when it comes to this search that always bothered me. On the one hand you should nto choose a mentor/rabbi based on your pre-assumed perceptions of what the truth is. This points to choosing someone with a background and community very different from your own. On the other hand, you need to ask your questions to someone who knows you and can appreciate your background and upbringing and can tailor the answwer to the person asking the question...most of the time that points to someone who does come from your background and upbringing. Im not being as eloquent about what the problem is exactly right now, but im pretty sure there is a conflict of needs in the quest.what to think about.Brad

  5. "obviously influenced by Oprah and Buddhism."

    I'm having great fun trying to imagine the questions that made these influences so "obvious" :)

  6. there were some questions regarding kindness and positive thinking and whether Buddism was influended by Judaism in some way.

  7. Shorty-
    Very true;the issue of the tension between all-Torah and secular study really needs its own post (its own blog, actually). I certainly could not see doing my job without my training in a pretty broad variety of secular subjects.

    "What time is it," "Will it rain today," "What is my favorite color," that sort of thing.

    Yes, that's exactly the tension in this issue, and I don't think there is a clear answer.

  8. i don't understand. why would i ask a rabbi those questions?

  9. Lion-

    "What time is it" - To know when to daven.

    "Will it rain today" - To know whether to put on a raincoat.

    "What is my favorite color" - To figure out which suit I should get.

    All right, fine. It's just my sense of humor. In truth, the answer is that this is a very vague issue, without a clear resolution. I might post on this in the next week or so.

  10. RH -LOL. You forgot:
    "Can you see this stumbling block?" :)

  11. i think it's important to find a rabbi who shares your values and understands your context. if i'm Modern Orthodox, i should find a Modern Orthodox rabbi, not a Hhareidi one. Maybe it's important to not assume that you're always right or know everything — but it's also important to not assume that you're wrong, and need someone from a different ideological community to "correct" you!

  12. Steg-
    Agreed - but only if the differences are truly matters of ideology and not matters of loyalty to Torah. Which is not an easy thing to assess.

  13. How does one choose a Rabbi? It's a tough question. I'd like to add this link to those interested in learning more about this topic. It has some insights, a video and two terrific links to the best ideas I've seen on how to go about this important task. See:

  14. Anon 2:33 PM-
    Thanks for the link; it's a well-written article, but where is the video?