By Rachel Kohl Finegold
Imagine you are twenty-one years old and have a halakhic question you’d like to ask your rabbi. But who is your rabbi? Is it the rabbi of the shul where you grew up, who knew you as a child? He has known your family for decades, but doesn’t know you personally very well. Maybe it’s the rabbi at your high school with whom you had a close relationship. But it has been many years since you’ve seen him. There is the rabbi who was your daily “morning rebbe” at yeshiva in Israel, who helped you solidify your current religious outlook. But you are no longer in Israel, have not been in touch with him since you left, and are not sure that he understands the nature of your life as a Jewish student on an American secular college campus. Perhaps the person who would most understand the situation is the rabbi of your campus Hillel, who seems great. But you’ve only heard him speak at the “Pizza and Parsha” program and have never had a substantive conversation with him. You are not sure he even knows your name. In the end, you decide it is easier to try to find an answer online.
The task of “Aseh lekha rav” (“Make for yourself a rabbi,” Avot 1:6) is not simple in the twenty-first century. And lest one think it is difficult only for college students, whose lives are especially transient, imagine what happens after this student graduates. Perhaps she moves into her own apartment with roommates; maybe she lives on the Upper West Side of New York City for a few years (or in a similar community in Chicago, Los Angeles, or Boston). She eventually gets married and moves again while completing her medical residency. Soon after, she will move once or twice more, perhaps for her or her husband’s work or for other reasons, until finding the community where she will raise her kids and send them to school. It may be fifteen years after college before she finds a long-term shul community and rabbi.
Even in their later years, many Orthodox Jews continue to wonder, “Who is my rabbi?” One woman often calls me with niddah questions. She has a rabbi whom she respects and feels comfortable asking her halakhic questions—that is, most of her questions. She calls me only when she has a niddah question. I met her once, a couple of years ago, and I have no other relationship with her other than to consult on these questions, although we have developed a relationship in this way. Even someone who has settled into a relationship with a particular rabbi might still have other rabbis (or maharats or halakhic advisors) to whom they turn at particular moments.
What is to become of the rabbinic relationship in the twenty-first century? What can “Aseh lekha rav” mean for our changing world? How does this affect what we mean by p’sak?
Factors Contributing to Change in Rabbinic Relationships
There are many factors contributing to the changing nature of rabbinic relationships. Three are discussed here.
Asking “Who is my rabbi?” is another way of asking “Who is my community?” This question is far more complex than it was in the shtetl, and has changed even more in the past thirty years. Young families often do not settle near their parents or other relatives. Even those who do may find several Jewish communities, and even several Orthodox communities, within a single geographical location.
In this setting, community is a choice—and the choice can be complicated. If you are in the New York metropolitan area, you might rotate shuls as often as some people rotate coats of nail polish. People often do not settle on a single community or follow a single rabbinic leadership. However, if you live outside New York or another major metropolitan area, then the chances are that your choices are more limited. You might attend a shul that is not the ideal fit but is the closest to what you would really want. You may or may not feel ideologically in step with the rabbinic leadership, just as you may send your child to the only Jewish day school in town because there is no other choice. Even in an age when one’s community and rabbi are choices that people make, some are given more options to choose from than others.
Hence, when asking themselves the question “Who is my rabbi?”, some people will have more than one answer, whereas others may feel that they have no answer at all.
At one time, most lay people did not have the text skills, the time, or the opportunity to acquire their own advanced Jewish knowledge. One would learn how to live a halakhic life mimetically—through watching one’s parents and community members—but not from text. In this world, the rabbi was the key to the world of halakhic text and halakhic decision making.
In a world, however, where lay people are Jewishly educated—and might learn daf yomi or even teach a shiur themselves—many look up the answers to their own questions. In this setting, what is the role of the rabbi or maharat? First, the answer should not be simply “muttar” or “assur,” but the rabbi rather should assume a basis of knowledge and discuss the rationale for halakhic decisions. An educated lay person might also be looking for the rabbi to pass along the mesorah of his teachers— to convey a worldview and a particular approach to halakhic decision making. When I am approached with a question, I hear my teachers’ and rebbes’ voices in my head, which helps me to think about how to approach the halakhic dilemma. This is what rabbinic training is all about. Lay persons who have book knowledge might be seeking not simply information, which they might find on their own, but rather guidance toward an ideological approach.
Rabbinic guidance also contains a heavy pastoral element, wherein understanding the sho’el (questioner) is just as important as understanding the question. The rabbi might need to help someone navigate a complex relationship or a difficult time in her life. This, too, is the role of the rabbi outside the realm of simply looking up the answer in a book.
Autonomy and Individual Empowerment
Ours is a culture that values the autonomy of the individual. I have often heard the remark, “I could predict the answer I was going to get, so I decided not to ask because it wasn’t the answer I wanted.” This, of course, relates to the preceding discussion of the reality that lay people are educated enough to glean information and make their own decisions. But there is also something else at play here. Some who reach their own conclusions might suspect that their rabbi’s answer will be different from their own.
This means that people might pasken for themselves, even when they assume that their rabbi would disagree. What lies beneath this decision not to ask? It is possible that this individual values her own autonomy over rabbinic authority. Perhaps she would not directly disobey a rabbinic p’sak, so the choice not to ask allows the individual to sustain her autonomy without directly shirking rabbinic authority: Better not to ask rather than to disobey directly.
The decision not to ask is tragic, for a number of reasons. First, people who pasken for themselves often come up with a more stringent answer than their rabbi might give them. They might be unnecessarily restricting themselves, and asking would give them a more lenient answer. This is very often in the case in questions of niddah that I have dealt with.
Furthermore, if someone suspects that she knows the rabbi’s answer without even asking, this means that she assumes she will be getting a pat answer, not one that speaks to her personally. Someone who feels that the answer will not suit her needs probably feels that her rabbi doesn’t know her well and will not take the time to understand where she is coming from.
Refraining from asking is most unfortunate because it prevents a relationship from developing—it prevents the process of “aseh lekha rav” for someone who has not yet secured that relationship.
Developing a Connection between the Sho’el and Meshiv
P’sak in the twenty-first century must focus first and foremost on the development of a connection between the sho’el and the meshiv, the questioner and the responder. Especially in an exceptionally mobile society, and in a setting where people prize their ability to find their own answers, religious leaders must prioritize the rabbinic relationship. For even the most knowledgeable Jew, there are times in life when she seeks religious guidance. It is then that she must have the confidence that a question will not simply be answered in a yes/no manner, but that the leader will take the time to understand where the questioner is coming from, what the surrounding situation is, and to give a sensitive answer that will enhance the individual’s Judaism. That means not that the answer will always be “muttar,” but that it will be a sensitive and nuanced response that upholds the questioner’s dignity, knowledge, and empowerment.
An empowering and sensitive p’sak is the only p’sak that can remain relevant as we move into the future. And it is the only p’sak that will encourage people, whether aged twenty-one or ninety-one, to keep asking their questions.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is the director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. She received a B.A. in religion from Boston University, completed the Drisha Institute Scholars Program, and was ordained a maharat in 2013. She is a member of the JOFA Journal Editorial Board.