2003 Ending the Madness: The Role of Rabbis
Chananya Weissman
September 26, 2003, Five Towns Jewish Times

Perhaps the most provocative issue in changing the culture of dating is the role of Rabbis in this process. Indeed, the most common question I’ve been asked is “Which gedolim support your philosophies?” My answer, which often comes with a healthy dose of wit and cynicism at no additional charge, is essentially “It doesn’t make any difference.” This will surely strike some readers as shocking effrontery, an arrogant dismissal of tradition. But, as the verse in Koheles goes, the question was not asked through wisdom.

The assumption behind the question is that no meaningful Jewish activity, no matter how grounded it is in authentic Torah values, can be performed without explicit Rabbinic consent. The charge that we are incapable of determining authentic Torah values without a gadol by our side is a cop out. We’re not talking about complex halachic matters, but fundamental flaws in the world of shidduchim. Do you really need a Rabbi, for example, to tell you that one should not judge a girl by her parents’ bank account? If every gadol in the world were to say otherwise, the average Jew should still know better.

(As an aside, this is why I have not posted Rabbinic endorsements for EndTheMadness, even though this has turned some people away. I don’t want people to support my ideas simply because Rabbi X says they are Kosher — after all, Rabbi Y will say they are apikorsus. The last time a person thinks in life should not be when he chooses which Rabbi will do all subsequent thinking for him.)

Rabbis have said some terrible, terrible things on the subject of shidduchim. With my own ears I have heard highly respected Roshei Yeshiva make such proclamations as: “If the mother is a fat woman who watches television all day, that’s what the girl will be like in twenty years”, “It is bittul Torah to have long phone conversations with one’s girlfriend during courtship”, and “It is preferable not to marry a ba’alas teshuva, since you won’t be able to spend Yom Tov with your in-laws”.

These statements were made to a large audience of Yeshiva students, and went completely unquestioned, let alone protested. Does one have to be a talmid chacham to know that these statements are terribly perverse? If these same Rabbis declared cheeseburgers to be kosher, would their words have been so quietly accepted? These statements are just as clearly wrong. I can only wonder how many appropriate shidduchim were terminated as a result; people’s lives are at stake. Are these Rabbis prepared to stand before the beis din shel ma’alah and explain why they ruined someone’s life with a flippant piece of advice?

But it’s a frightening thought to simply dismiss a Rabbi’s statement if it does not strike us as correct. Clearly we need Rabbis to guide us. So what’s a simple Jew to do?

Judaism is unique in that it demands unswerving allegiance to Rabbinic authority, yet every person, ideally, is expected to be an educated, critical thinker. This creates a volatile, but very positive tension between the religious leaders and the kehilla. For example, the Sanhedrin is charged with passing gezeiros to safeguard Torah observance, but may not pass gezeiros that are overly burdensome for the people. When the Sanhedrin announced the passing of a new gezeira, it did not immediately become part of the permanent code of Jewish law, but underwent a one-year trial period. If the gezeira was not sufficiently accepted and observed by the people during this time, it was dropped from the books, regardless of the reasoning behind it (which was not made public until after the trial period). The common Jew needs a religious authority to guide him through life, but the religious authority needs the common Jew to check his authority. When everyone knows and respects their limitations, a healthy balance of power exists, creating a golden age of Torah observance. (See Rambam Hilchos Mamrim Perek 2.)

That balance of power, sadly, does not exist nowadays. So many Jews are afraid to sneeze without receiving a psak. While their devotion to halachic authority is commendable, they have forsaken their obligation to think critically, and are thus primitive in their religious observance. They do what they are told, and assume that everything they are told is proper and true. If perchance something they are told seems incorrect, they dare not challenge it, since “Who are we to question?” In other parts of the world, such nullification of independent thought leads people to blow themselves up on crowded buses. The fact that Jewish non-thinkers are generally peaceful folk who perform chesed does not justify blind adherence to any authority figure.

Furthermore, non-thinkers fail to make the critical distinction between halachic matters and social issues. If some Rabbi believes that men and women should not eat in the same pizza store because he is worried about what could conceivably happen, he has neither the authority nor the right to impose that fear on others. Stringencies are not whimsical matters, and adding to the prohibitions of the Torah under the mantra of protecting it only invites new troubles. The “shidduch crisis” did not appear in this generation by coincidence or an act of God.

The problem is amplified by the fact that Torah scholars are by definition viewed as experts in all areas of life. For example, it is simply assumed that anyone who is an expert in halacha is qualified to be a marriage counselor, as if expertise in the latter field is magically imparted to a talmid chacham after he learns a certain number of Tosfos. Perhaps it is fear of giving credence to non-Torah-scholars, relying on them for something important, that drives people to blindly follow advice from those not qualified to give it. Whatever the case may be, the results are disastrous.

Torah study certainly can imbue people with insight into other areas of life. But Rabbis must have the integrity, humility, and intellectual honesty to say “I don’t know”, “This is not my area of expertise, but here are my thoughts”, or “Let me refer you to someone who is better qualified to deal with your issue”. Doing so does not denigrate Torah or the Rabbi’s authority in halachic matters. It proves that the Rabbi is truly in touch and concerned about the questioner’s best interests.

Rabbis must educate their constituents that in non-halachic matters their opinions are not binding, and should only be taken as guidance. One may not shop around for a psak, but one must shop around for the best advice. Questioners should survey a panel of Rabbis for a broad range of perspectives, as one would do in serious health matters, and follow the advice that most closely hits the mark. This distinction between psak and guidance is fundamental (when was the last time you went to a blood-letter, a medical practitioner highly endorsed by the Gemara?).

But this is only one side of the problem. In many communities the balance of power has shifted in the opposite direction. Rabbis are implicitly and even explicitly intimidated by their constituents from voicing a controversial opinion. In many synagogues, for example, the Rabbi’s authority is limited to demanding (but not too forcefully) that the congregants be quiet already so the layning can be heard. (Note: I wrote these words before a local community Rabbi’s anonymous article on that subject appeared in these pages.) His sermon is rigidly timed and scrutinized for implied criticisms of the community. One infraction leads to a warning. Two and he can say bye-bye to contract renewal. The Rabbi is a necessary piece of synagogue furniture, like an aron and a bimah, and his role is just as static.

Naturally these are extreme examples. In most communities Rabbis do feel comfortable voicing opinions, and laymen feel comfortable discussing these opinions and even respectfully disagreeing. Still, when it comes to serious issues like shidduchim, issues that might make real waves in a community, many Rabbis would rather steer clear of trouble and not say anything too controversial. It is the obligation of the community to encourage Rabbis to talk about these serious issues, to say what needs to be said without fear of retribution. Rabbis must be given the freedom to do their jobs properly, without powerful members of the community undermining their authority. Rabbis should be free to focus on leading, not community politics.

In sum, both Rabbis and lay people must work in unison and harmony to address tough social issues, and strive to create an atmosphere in which frank discussion is viewed as the road to truth, not a threat to one’s lifestyle. Rabbis must be brave in leading the people, and the people must allow the Rabbis to lead them without sacrificing their own vital input in the process.

Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness.org.