Should a Rabbi Meddle Into Someone Else’s Personal Life?

Dear Jew in the City-

Should a rabbi meddle into someone else’s personal life?

Thank you,

Dear R.B.-

Thanks for your question. First, let’s clarify what you mean by a “rabbi.”

In the Orthodox community, becoming a rabbi is not the same as becoming a priest in Catholicism. In many ways, it’s more like getting a Master’s degree. Many yeshiva students receive rabbinic ordination but they make their livings as accountants, doctors, lawyers or stock brokers. Any number of congregants in an Orthodox minyan might be rabbis, not just the guy sitting in front.

Additionally, one need not be a rabbi to lead the service, read from the Torah, or even to perform a wedding or a funeral. What a rabbi is empowered to do by virtue of his ordination is to answer halachic questions at his level of expertise.

For purposes of your question, I will assume that by “rabbi” you mean the head of a congregation, who has been placed in a position as community leader (not that the laws for rabbis are different than the laws for anyone else).

With this in mind, let us discuss the concept of areivus (interdependency).

The story of areivus starts, in all places, with the tochacha, God’s rebuke to the nation in parshas Bechukosai. In Leviticus 26:37, the Torah tells us, “v’chashlu ish b’achiv,” that when fleeing in fear, “a person will stumble over his fellow.” Rashi cites a midrashic understanding that a person will stumble because of his fellow. Based on this interpretation, the Talmud concludes that “kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh” – all Jews are interconnected. We are all responsible when we are able to mitigate wrongdoing in our community but fail to speak up.

You may be more familiar with the formulation that “kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh” rather than “bazeh.” This version means that “all Jews are guarantors for one another.” It appears in Tanna b’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah chapter 11 and is popularized in later sources (see, for example, Ritva on Rosh Hashana 29a, which discusses the concept of areivus). There is a minor difference in nuance between the versions but the bottom line is the same: we are all connected. To use the Tanna b’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah’s illustrative example, if I’m a passenger on a ship and there’s a leak in my neighbor’s cabin, I don’t shrug it off as his problem. After all, if his cabin fills with water, the whole ship is going down!

So what is the halachic ramification of areivus? Because we are interconnected, one Jew can perform a mitzvah on behalf of another Jew. Reuven can blow shofar for Shimon, and Shimon can recite kiddush for Reuven. This is true even if the person performing the mitzvah has already fulfilled it for himself. There are, however, some necessary parameters. Namely:

(1) The one performing the mitzvah must himself be obligated in the mitzvah, even if he already discharged his own obligation. For this reason, I can recite kiddush for you even if I’m already mid-meal but I can’t say the bracha over an apple for you unless I’m also about to eat a piece of fruit. Kiddush is a mitzvah in which I’m obligated (and therefore responsible to you) while eating an apple is a wholly optional act;

(2) The one performing the mitzvah must have in mind that he is performing the mitzvah on behalf of the other person, or people. One may also have in mind that he is generally performing the mitzvah for whoever may hear it. For this reason, if you’re standing outside the shul and hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana, you can fulfill the mitzvah even though the one blowing shofar has no idea that you’re there;

(3) The one for whom the mitzvah is being performed must have in mind that he is fulfilling the mitzvah through the other person’s actions.

This last point, I think, is telling. We’re responsible for one another – so much so that I can recite kiddush for you even if I already fulfilled my own obligation – but you still have to opt in. I can’t fulfill a mitzvah for you against your will.

We previously discussed the obligation to rebuke others. Leviticus 19:17 tells us, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear a sin because of him.” If one has the ability to correct another’s behavior and fails to do so, he bears partial responsibility for misdeeds that he could have prevented. By way of example, the Talmud in Shabbos (54b) describes how the cow belonging to Rabbi Elazar’s neighbor used to go out on Shabbos wearing a forbidden type of strap. The cow was called by Rabbi Elazar’s name because he never tried to correct his neighbor’s behavior.

We also said there that if we think that a person will be unreceptive to being corrected, it may be advisable not to bring up their bad behavior. In this way, at least they will still be acting unwittingly rather than intentionally (Orach Chaim 608:2 and Rema). It’s a mitzvah to correct others only when we think they might listen; if we know we’ll be ignored, we should keep it to ourselves. As with reciting kiddush for another person, it’s a two-way street; we can’t correct others who refuse to be corrected.

So, getting back to your question, rabbis are just like everyone else. They have the same obligation to correct others, as well as the same limitations. If their rebuke is more likely to be accepted for whatever reason, then they may have more leeway in certain situations but that’s not because there are special rules for people with ordination.

But a congregational rabbi? That might be different by virtue of their position. Remember, this is a person that the community has hired to be a spiritual leader. Accordingly, part of his job is to “butt in.” Just like it would be appropriate for your doctor to comment on your weight but not for your accountant to do so, it might be appropriate for your rabbi to chime in on things that might make your neighbors just regular busybodies.

In this, congregational rabbis might be more like social workers and, by virtue of hiring them, we have invited their opinions in the community’s spiritual affairs. Of course, they’re not the police or the government, so we have the option to ignore their input. And, of course, they should limit their input to relevant areas. So if your shul rabbi tells you that your suit is ugly or that your SUV is bad for the environment, that’s not his sphere. However, if he tells you that your “Kiss me, sexy” tie is inappropriate or that you shouldn’t be buying sushi from the Megalomart, well that’s the kind of thing he was empowered by the community to address. If our bad behavior isn’t negatively influencing others, he should probably say his piece and move on if rebuffed. If we are having an adverse effect on others, though, then it’s absolutely his job to keep on nagging us for the sake of the community.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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