The Annoying Rabbi Question

January 16, 2014


It looks like I’ve arrived. My blog post about not shaking hands has officially annoyed someone I don’t know. I’m not sure how annoyed she is since I don’t know her, but she’s telling me her rabbi’s name (which I also don’t know)  and why he poskens (rules) that it’s okay for women to shake men’s hands, adding that if we are “more severe in our practice, that’s our own personal deal.” Definitely annoyed.

Her rabbi has apparently come to a different conclusion than my rabbi. Which leads me to the question that annoys still more people–why do we have to ask our rabbis all these annoying questions in the first place?

The common perception is that we don’t think for ourselves. That’s only partially true. And I’m not embarrassed to say that that’s actually one of the biggest benefits of Torah observant life. But I do have to say it was annoying at first to have to ask my rabbi about so many details of my daily life that I never had to consider before.

But I told myself, if G-d wants us to keep the commandments, they must be true. With a capital T. So I kept asking the questions, kept listening to the answers, kept doing the mitzvos. The premise is that if we find a mitzva to be difficult, we should ask ourselves what it is about us that makes it that way. G-d and Torah were not superimposed on the world; it’s the other way around.

 I heard a story many years ago that has stayed with me always. Two elderly ladies were standing in front of a modern painting at the Louvre, both of them thoroughly unable to appreciate it.  “You call this art?” one scoffed, while her friend responded that her granddaughter could surely paint better. A guard overheard their mocking and offered a simple rebuke. “Excuse me, ladies,” he admonished them, “when you view the paintings at the Louvre, you’re the ones on trial.”

So it is with G-d; the world is his “Louvre.” The premise that “G-d is One” doesn’t mean that there are no other gods worth praying to, but rather that He is everything, always and forever. (The term used is ain od milvado, which means “there is nothing devoid of Him.”) With this premise, thinking for myself means something entirely different. The most important thought to think for myself is, “how can I become someone who appreciates this?”

The intricate details of how to follow the mitzvos in order to try become that someone are what fill those gigantic books that line the shelves in observant Jewish homes. (Why to do this is what fills the pages of the Tanya, the pivotal work of Chabad Chassidus.) And while not everyone has the inclination or ability to be a Torah scholar, every observant Jew does have the obligation to keep the Commandments. Which is why G-d made rabbis, professional learners of halacha (Jewish law) who study these complex, mysterious texts so that the rest of us know how to, well, pretty much do everything, including shake hands. 

As for rabbis who are less than perfect? Only G-d is perfect; my rabbi just has to be knowledgeable and trustworthy. Rabbi-hopping is discouraged; as you see from my annoyed commenter, rabbis can interpret the texts very differently. The idea is to find one halachic expert and listen to that person’s answer, not shop around until you find the answer you want. And if you don’t want to ask the question altogether, chances are good that you really need to. 

The idea of a rabbi is built into the whole G-d and Torah package. The notion that G-d is alive in the world means that His answers to our questions of how to keep His mitzvos must also be alive in this world. G-d helps these experts answer our questions (which is why we aren’t supposed to ask theoretical ones, just real questions so real G-d can help real rabbis give real answers).

As for rabbis who are way less than perfect? Shame on them. And the good news is that there aren’t very many of them and that we are still surprised when we read about one. Women can also be experts and give rulings in halacha, too, but it’s quite a hefty commitment for a nice Jewish girl.

If the Torah was given in all its detail in order to make us G-dly individuals, there are lots of practical questions that need to be answered. The learning, the asking, the grappling, the doing are meant to be more than a bunch of rules that turn us into people who don’t think for themselves.

They are meant to turn us into people who are physically and spiritually fit to see G-dliness in everything, everyone, everywhere.

Now that’s my own personal deal.  And I’m trying to deal with it.



1 Comment

  1. Reply


    the concept of differing interpretations is what is so wonderful in judaism—and so misunderstood—we are supposed to think for ourselves, but how incredible it is to have access to someone who has studied and thought and thought and studied some more and can give a decision based on classical jewish texts and not just on his own opinion — i can’t help but think of hillel and shammai—and though the notion of differing interpretations can be very confusing— once you ‘get it’—how incredible!!!!
    …and how lucky you are to have found a rabbi to go to with your questions…

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