For the week ending 2 July 2011 / 29 Sivan 5771

Rate the Rabbi

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Alan

Dear Rabbi,

There’s a certain rabbi on our college campus who is very dynamic and charismatic. Often, kids who don’t have much of a background in Judaism are very taken by him, which I guess is a good thing. But being from a more observant background myself, I know for sure he’s not on the level of what a regular rabbi is as far as Torah knowledge is concerned, and some of his practices are a bit questionable to me as well. In any case, when I hear kids heap praises on this rabbi, I’m not so comfortable. I kind of feel like maybe I should put things in perspective because they are so impressionable they may not realize that he’s not always on the mark. But how could I possibly speak about somebody who is a rabbi in their eyes, and, after all, he is doing a lot of good work on campus in getting kids interested in Judaism. What should I do?

Dear Alan,

The Torah is perfect, and those who study, practice and preach it should be as perfect as humanly possible. It is to this effect that our Sages taught, “If the rabbi is as an angel of G-d, learn Torah from him; if he is not as an angel of G-d, do not learn Torah from him” (Chagiga 15b).

We see from here just how exacting and demanding we should be in what we are to expect and accept from a rabbi. Throughout the ages, our rabbis, of blessed memory, were always the most upright, outstanding examples of ethical and spiritually elevated behavior. They were literally as emissaries for G-d in this world, indeed as angels on earth.

However, unfortunately, times have changed and so have we. Most Jews are no longer observant, and even those who are find it extremely difficult to attain and maintain the level of purity in creed and deed as did our ancestors, and even many rabbis are simply not what a rabbi used to be – including me.

In such times, one can either give up, G-d forbid, or make the best of what he’s got. Our Sages therefore also taught, “In a place where there is nobody, try to be somebody” (Avot 2). Hundreds of thousands of Jews simply have no knowledge of Judaism, and there aren’t enough “angelic” rabbis to go around. In these circumstances, anybody who has even just a little knowledge or ability to inspire has got to give what he’s got.

Apparently, the rabbi you’re discussing is doing just that. And what’s more, he may be more inspiring for college students on their level than someone others might view as more knowledgeable and righteous. In other words, for them, he’s good for starters, while another rabbi might be a non-starter.

So if there are specific instances that you feel he’s misleading students on fundamental issues of Jewish belief or practice, perhaps you could respectfully discuss it with him, another rabbi, or delicately and privately suggest to the specific student at hand to get a second opinion. But otherwise, let it be. Stop wallowing in negativity (which also might not be the most purely motivated) and rather revel in his ability to get kids interested in Judaism where many others could not.

I’ll conclude with a beautiful analogy by the Chafetz Chaim:

There was once a town whose benevolent governor required that all water be filtered from impurities before use. The town enjoyed better health and a higher standard of living than all other towns in the region. Then a fire broke out. Despite the efforts of the inhabitants, the town burned down. Afterwards, the governor found water in the wells. Perturbed, he asked the inhabitants why they weren’t able to put out the fire. The townspeople answered that as hard as they tried they couldn't manage to filter the water fast enough to extinguish the flames. The governor cried, “You fools! I required you to filter the water to maintain purity in normal times. But when fire breaks out, there’s no time to filter. Throw water with its impurities on the fire; the main thing is to put out the conflagration!”

There is a spiritual conflagration out there threatening to destroy the Jewish people. Now is not the time to demand the ideal of purity and expect and accept only the highest standards. Every available person must give whatever Torah they’ve got to put out the fire.

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