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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Wisdom – Wisdom is the ability to understand the human condition, mixed with experience, compassion, and a gift from Above.
- Racist – Neither a Torah teacher (nor anybody) should ever degrade non-Jews or people of other races. It is an insult to God Himself.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Belittling his or her spouse – I have seen a couple rabbis not treat their wives with respect. Immediately “no.”
- Minimizes the importance of honest conduct – If a rabbi helps you get loopholes to theft or dishonest conduct, run.
- 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)
- Is abusive (controlling, degrading, shaming, physically or sexually) him or herself – Needs no explanation
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