A rabbi that lots of people respect has said some very troubling things. I know we’re supposed to respect rabbinic authority, but what do I do when a rabbi says offensive, troubling things?
While filtering our worldview through the lens of the Torah’s wisdom is an important part of living a Torah life, there are times that you have to say: “this crosses a line for me, and this person can’t be a source of authority or wisdom to me in any way, based on their offensive opinions.” This doesn’t undermine the idea of rabbinic authority – just this specific rabbi’s authority. One thing to keep in mind is that there are times that you can respect a rabbi for their Torah knowledge, and still disagree with some of the things that they are saying. There may be a difference in style and culture, or a bad day, and not a truly substantive issue. But, there absolutely are times when a difference of opinion speaks to the need for further examination.
Having a rabbi or knowledgeable Torah teacher who you truly respect, both for their Torah knowledge and their worldview, is crucial. Besides answering questions of halacha, they can be a sounding board when you encounter something disturbing, to sort of confirm–hey, this isn’t Torah, this is a perversion of the Torah. They can provide guidance when broader issues intersect with questions of halacha. Luckily, there are many rabbis and Torah teachers out there. You should be able to find at least one whose approach truly speaks to you, and who you are comfortable talking to when you need help navigating grey areas.
So, what do you do when you are in a situation where people are quoting or looking up to a rabbi that you truly can’t and don’t respect? One possibility is to extricate yourself gracefully from the conversation. Often, you are not in the position to change other people’s opinions, and your sanity and many relationships can be preserved by recognizing that limitation. If you are able to walk away, do so. If you can change the topic, do so. If it’s social media–click the little x or keep on scrolling. (This life lesson is one many internet commenters can stand to learn!)
On the other hand, in some cases you do have the option, sometimes even the responsibility, to engage in conversation. I would argue that this option should be carefully deployed in three situations. The easiest is when there is a lack of information, and you can take on the role of educator. The people you are talking with just don’t know the offensive opinions, and if they did they would feel differently about learning or sharing this rabbi’s Torah. They would appreciate being filled in! Another situation that calls for engaging – possibly harder, but crucial – is when letting things go would cause others present to be impacted negatively. This might be because they are targets of the offensive rabbi in some way, or because they are likely to end up under this rabbi’s negative influence if no one speaks up. In that case, you may not change everyone’s opinions, but at least you are protecting those in the conversation who are vulnerable. The last situation might be the hardest for you personally, and is sometimes the hardest to identify. There are some views that are so reprehensible that you have a moral obligation to stand up for the truth; even if there is nobody who is willing or able to hear it, you just have to say something.
I will end by saying that unfortunately, we live in a world that is a mixture of light and darkness. You can find yourself spending a lot of time pointing fingers at offensive rabbis, and even, G-d forbid, abusive ones, and educating others about them. This is a worthy task that needs to be done. But know your abilities and your limitations, and don’t lose sight of the fact that there is so much light out there too! To perhaps stretch the metaphor to its limits–you can light a candle to bring light to a dark cellar, or you can step outside into the sunshine. So many, I would say most, rabbis and Torah teachers have so much good to offer. Nourish your soul by spending time with and learning Torah from people that inspire you, and the darkness in the cellar will, G-d willing, bother you less.
P.S. You don’t say what type of “offensive, troubling things” you are speaking of. I am assuming you mean general statements of theology or opinion that you find offensive. If a rabbi is saying things that are in any way abusive, or inappropriate, that rabbi has lost any status or requirement to give them special respect, and should be reported and dealt with just like anyone else. If you are in a situation where a rabbi has said troubling or inappropriate things personally, please report to whatever authorities are relevant, and seek personal, specific guidance, beyond just a general advice column.