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Practical Guide To Finding A Rabbi Or Torah Teacher Worthy Of Respect

In every field and profession, there are the good guys, the bad guys and the mediocre guys. Rabbinics and Jewish education are no different. Our sages were very aware that not every rabbi will be the right fit for every person or frankly even qualified for the job. So they empowered we the people with the concept of, Asay l’cha rav,” – “Go forth and find for yourself a rabbi.

That’s a wonderful message to start with, but what should you look for in a rabbi or Torah teacher once you know the choice is yours? In light of the very good and very not good takes coming out of the Chaim Walder saga, I thought I’d give you my do’s and don’ts when it comes to what I look for and avoid in a mentor, rabbi, or Torah teacher.

We are told in the Talmud אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי מאי דכתיב (דברים ד, מד) וזאת התורה אשר שם משה זכה נעשית לו סם חיים לא זכה נעשית לו סם מיתה  “…if one merits it, the Torah becomes a life-giving medicine, and if not, it becomes a deadly poison.” Who you get your Torah from really matters and can determine if it is a Tree of Life or, God forbid, a deadly poison.

Case in point: A few years ago, a secular teenage girl was inspired to become observant because of Jew in the City and once she was, she went to a Torah class that was so disturbing, she thought she had made a big mistake. Thankfully, she checked in with us again and we set her straight, but an unhealthy teacher can ruin everything. (Read about that here.)

Menschlichkeit, Erchlichkeit, Seichel

The values of menschlichkeit, erchlichkeit, seichel can be found in our mission statement. (The translation is: kindness, tolerence, sincerity, and critical thinking) As we were re-writing our mission statement a few years ago, we wanted to explain what values make Torah positive, meaningful, and good for you. And what, when it’s lacking, could make Torah destructive? Surrounding yourself with leaders who embody kindness, integrity, and critical thinking is the beginning to finding leaders worthy of respect.

Besides those foundational values, here are some qualities to look for in a leaders and ones to avoid:

Do’s

  1. Sensitivity and Compassion – I once told my rabbi that I was ready to have more kids, and he asked me, “Are you sure?” He wanted to make sure that I wasn’t feeling externally pressured to have the next kid prematurely.
  2. Humility – One of my rabbis came to a simcha and the host wanted him to know how kosher it was. He didn’t want her to feel on the spot and quipped, “When I’m hungry, I don’t ask questions!” Of course he trusted that the event was kosher, but he wanted her to not be self-conscious.
  3. The ability to grapple with the complexity of Torah sources, Jewish law and life – My rabbis will admit when leaders make mistakes, when mitzvos are difficult to understand and not try to whitewash the difficulties away.
  4. Courage to take a public stand -“All the mussar books condemn the world for the sin of lashon hara. I condemn the world for the opposite; an even greater sin which is more common—withholding oneself from speaking up when it is necessary to save the oppressed from their oppressors!”-R Yisrael Isser Isserlin
  5. Courage (if qualified) to make an unpopular ruling – When the pandemic began, there were some rabbis who shut down our synagogues and schools before the government said to because they saw the danger coming. Other big rabbis made important rulings to be extra lenient for mental health issues during this time.
  6. Wisdom – Wisdom is the ability to understand the human condition, mixed with experience, compassion, and a gift from Above.

 

Don’ts

  1. Racist – Neither a Torah teacher (nor anybody) should ever degrade non-Jews or people of other races. It is an insult to God Himself.
  2. Sexist – Sexism in a rabbi can look like an over-obsession with modesty. Sexism can also look like encouraging women to be submissive in their marriages. Marriage should be a partnership and men shouldn’t spend too much time discussing how women dress.
  3. Over-obsession with purity  – Rabbis who constantly harp on laws related to being pure may be over-compensating for what they’re doing behind closed doors.
  4. Degrading non-Orthodox Jews or Orthodox Jews – It is possible to disagree with how someone practices or what they believe without shaming them or condemning them. Our sages teach that “Who is worthy of respect? He who respects all of God’s creations.”
  5. Claiming to know why bad things happen to good people – There are a handful of popular rabbis who are arrogant enough to explain why people suffer even though this is explicitly prohibited to do.
  6. Is not aware of or aligned with accepted modern day psychology – A rabbi should not pretend to be a replacement for a psychologist nor should he preach values that are dymetrically opposed to accepted psychological ideas.
  7. Arrogance – Besides claiming to know why bad things happen to good people, arrogant rabbis or teachers chase spotlight for the sake of spotlight and often belittle others along the way. Our sages teach, “Who is honored? He who runs from honor.”
  8. Simplistic readings of sources – Most Torah and Talmud sources require nuance and an understanding that goes beyond the simplistic reading. It is a travesty when rabbis and Torah teachers do not bring complexity to these sources.
  9. Insensitivity to your suffering of the suffering of others – There have been rabbis and Torah teachers who have minimized the suffering of abuse victims in classes or in public statements when instead they should have been focused on compassion. The Talmud tells of a story where a calf en route to slaughter passed before Rav Yehuda HaNasi. It broke away, and hid its head under Rabbi’s skirt, and lowed pitifully, as though pleading, “save me.” “Go,” said Rabbi HaNasi. “What can I do for you? For this you were created.” At that, it was declared in heaven, “Since he showed no pity upon this calf, let us bring suffering upon him.” Rabbi was afflicted with a stone in the urinary tract and thrush for thirteen years. Being compassionate to the suffering of others is necessary as a rabbi or Torah teacher.
  10. Belittling his or her spouse – I have seen a couple rabbis not treat their wives with respect. Immediately “no.”
  11. Minimizes the importance of honest conduct – If a rabbi helps you get loopholes to theft or dishonest conduct, run.
  12. Minimizes abuse or violence of others  – When someone covers for an abuser, by minimizing the abuse or focusing on all they great things they have done, they aid and abet the abuser. Chazal say that “someone who is merciful to the cruel, will end up being cruel to the merciful.” (Yalkut Shimoni Shmuel I)
  13. Is abusive (controlling, degrading, shaming, physically or sexually) him or herself – Needs no explanation

 

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8 comments

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  • Avatar photo Minna Schmidt says on January 5, 2022

    G-d bless you, Allison Josephs!

    Reply
  • Avatar photo Hillel Elkayam says on January 6, 2022

    Thank you for your wonderful input – especially the part of addressing racism and the belittling of others as an insult to God Almighty. As the Creator of all, God Almighty is beyond all. How we treat the child we treat the parent. And Am Yisrael is beni bechori – HaShem’s first born. It does not say beni yechidi – my only son. We need not supremacism nor Jewpremacism. You honor God by honoring His presence in all beings.
    There is however one point you made I have difficulty with: claiming that investigating into why bad things happen to good people is arrogant. If we do not learn from bad events, how would we improve – and prevent them from repeating? This is probably why it is said in the Jewish books (I do not recall where) that whoever says there is nothing to learn from disasters is called “achzar” -cruel.
    While I agree with you that such investigation should not be done in a way that would condemn anyone for their mistakes or misdeeds, but rather in a way that would empower and inspire us to do better – the fact is that God-Almighty talks to us through events.
    For example – it is said that during the destruction of the 2nd temple, the Romans massacred 10 million Jews – much more than in the Holocaust. And it is declared this happened due to baseless hatred among us.
    Then the Holocaust was brought upon us, and more than 6 million Jews were murdered. Are we to just say “who knows” until the next disaster comes heaven forbid – or earn to correct and prevent it??
    What do I posit to learn from the Holocaust?
    In the simplest most direct way: what did od Almighty do? He brought together into the concentration camps Jews from vastly different places, from vastly different walks of life, outlooks, and levels of religious commitment; stripped away all the money, clothing, titles, and all other things that SEEMED to separate them – to separate us from one another; had them number-stamped like cattle; and together they lived, together they suffered, together they so many of us were worked and starved to death, together so many of us were killed, and together so many of us were burned. TOGETHER.
    And it appears that God is saying: I am the One Creator of all – and you Am Yisrael are to represent my Oneness by being a one unified (not uniform) people. You either die as one or live as one – with all your differences. Now choose. U’bacharta ba’chayim.
    This view of the Horrible things that have happened to good (some of them VERY good) people – is not arrogant, nor does it condemn the victims. It does not even come from looking down at those of us who foment discord among us (baruch HaShem we know we have them). It does come from an urgency to honor God Almighty by pulling His people away from the discord of death (which we see nowadays) to the unity of life.
    Considering we Jews are assigned by God Almighty to be a blessing to all (venivrechu becha col mishpechot ha’adam ya’an ki sham’at bekoli… ve’heyeh beracha) – we have a profound responsibility to be a blesssing by being a living example of unity (again not uniformity) – where different people do not fight but rather complement and empower one another.

    Your response would be appreciated.
    Col Tuv form Israel!

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 10, 2022

      We are supposed to find meaning in our OWN suffering. We are not supposed to tell others why they suffered. The Gemara cites Job’s friends who did this and calls it “onus devarim,” hurtful words.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo Scott says on January 8, 2022

    you are lecturing people about ” oversimplifying the context fo torah messages? How deeply do you actually understand the texts that you clip and paste.. I doubt highly that you read aramaic.. so why quote it?isn that hypocritical?

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 10, 2022

      Thanks for your question, Scott. Aramaic uses Hebrew letters, so I do read Aramaic. Thankfully, there are many texts translated these days. Giving text the complex treatment its due doesn’t require the ability to read or translate. It requires the ability to think and analyze and be guided by Torah teachers who do the same.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo Daniel says on January 12, 2022

    Thanks for this, Allison!

    In terms of psychology, I can see some obvious dangers if leaders hold onto outdated and unhealthy psychological ideas, but I also think that best practices in modern psychology have a lot of ideology embedded in them, like the bent toward individualism and personal happiness over community and responsibility, or sexual freedom, or finding harmony by accepting one’s faults rather than striving to grow and improve. (And I don’t mean to imply a binary, modern psychology says one thing and the Torah says the opposite, but I do think they’re in very different places on the continuum.) I’m curious if you’d look askance at a Rabbi who pushed back on modern psychology on ideological grounds in these kinds of areas, and argued – with evidence – that the Torah’s vision of a healthy person is different in some ways. What are your thoughts?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 12, 2022

      Thanks for your questions. I said widely held psychological concepts. I agree that some new fangled ideas will not be in line with Torah thinking. But there are many established principles in psychology that are very aligned with Torah thought and there are some leaders who dismiss psychology outright which I think is a red flag.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo moshe shoshan says on January 12, 2022

    This is impressive.

    Reply

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