Recently, I read the article “Who will be our rabbis?” By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, I was very impressed by his unusual stance and his non acceptance of Rabbis sitting by ideally not being a source of comfort for their people. In the article Steinsaltz ponders the question; are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation? He answer is a true leader is supposed to sense the problems and feel the pains of everyone. Steinsaltz ends off saying; it is incumbent upon us to seek a real head and to follow him, regardless of whether or not he has some public office, is famous or anonymous.
Shortly afterwards Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a counter article beginning with praise of Rabbi Steinsaltz “I have been a student and admirer of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz for 25 years ..I agree wholeheartedly, Steinsaltz is a rabbinic giant of our time.”
A moment later, Rabbi Boteach rejects Steinsaltz’s idea of A Rabbi; “People are not looking for rabbis to mirror their agony – they are looking for someone to give them keys to redemption and to direct them out of the labyrinth of life. A rabbi, as its Hebrew name implies, is a teacher. Rabbis today need to be problem solvers… I reject Rabbi Steinsaltz’s view of the rabbi-as-emotional-co-traveler, the rabbi who feels but does not guide.”
In both articles, each of these Rabbis convey the spirit of a real Rabbi and leader. Despite the flashy usage of the word “rejection” Boteach uses, neither of them can be said to truly disagree with each other. Steinsaltz and Boteach aren’t really talking about a Mamzer (one of things mentioned in the article by Steinsaltz). They are talking about the fact that a Rabbi shouldn’t be emotionally detached or unable to evoke change for the better when needed. Steinsaltz is emphasizing what Carl Rogers would call positive regard and Boteach is adding that a rabbi should be courageous enough be an advocate for those around him.
But one can easily see that both of the articles emphasize the people and personal opinions of those who wrote them. Rabbi Steinsaltz has been the mind and heart to the Jewish people in his pursuit to promote Jewish education and matters which focus on the mind or heart of the Jewish people. Rabbi Boteach on the other hand has always emphasized action. We have all been privy to see that Boteach will move mountains to help the Jewish people. No authority or organization will block his determination to aid his fellow Jew. Both personalities are important for Jewish continuity.
There are three phases of consciousness through which every human being functions; thought, emotion and action. Steinsaltz discusses the need for Rabbis to uplift others and guide through emotional strength and not just intellectual strength which can be seen as, or lead to, emotional detachment. Boteach, on the other hand, desires the muscular rabbi who, armed with the facts, offers a robust defense of Israel. He is emphasizing the attribute of deed; going out there and making a difference in actuality. He is talking about that level of manifestation called “deed and action” emphasized many times in the Torah and Prophets.
All of this talk of advocacy makes one wonder if every leader or rabbi can provide strength in all three levels of thought, emotion and action. Compassion is one thing, but can a rabbi really be your everything? This seems to be a modern misconception, which I believe it is based off of the fact that many Tzadikim were able to help people in every way. No doubt, not every rabbi is on that level. Can the modern Rabbi really help with marriage, addiction, abuse, disorders and etc?
Rabbis who are not professionally trained in psychology shouldn’t pretend to play psychologist. The Rabbi has an honorable job and so does the psychologist. Personal situations based on mental health issues, disorders or interpersonal relationships in crisis are really the realm and world of the psychologist.
The psychologist deals with all the intricacies of mental health and is identical to the doctor and patient relationship with an added dose of intimacy. Rabbi Manis Freidman really hit it home when he explained that the job of the Rabbi is to explain to the foundations, background and fundamentals of life itself which may have been shaken by a certain negative experience. One who is ill goes to a doctor, but a person who has lost the meaning of life itself seeks council and advice from those who can give it be it a Rabbi, Guru, or Reverend. One who wishes to learn how to paint goes to a painter for lessons. Deciding what to paint is embedded in the soul of the individual and is of personal and spiritual preference according to the desire of their own heart. Indeed, a person who lacks this inner desire will have no need for painting. Similarly, sometimes even the psychologist may suggest to the client to undertake a meaningful journey or a new spiritual path.
Primarily speaking the role of a rabbi is to take us out of and beyond survival mode spiritually. We can all agree that life, even Jewish life, is not merely about survival. Abraham Heschel once said that for a person to really cover the whole gamut of life they must address two questions; 1) To be, or not to be and 2) how to be and how not to be, that is how we answer the whole question of being (Heschel, 1996). What is life about, why were we born, what is the afterlife, does God exists, how to live a spiritual life? All of these questions lay beyond the horizon of psychological mental health but must also be addressed by the person who seeks total serenity and a homeostatic life.
Steinsaltz and Boteach seem to be saying the same thing; rabbis should resemble those biblical icons who intervened and cared immensely for their people even till the point of self sacrifice. Today many rabbis are getting too involved with politics, paychecks, territories and name tag identities. In today’s day and age which Rabbi would be willing to lose his job for another Jew? This results in our forgetting the primary role of the rabbi beyond issues of meat and milk. Regarding social issues the Rabbi is commanded and empowered by the almighty; “Justice, justice you shall pursue…” (Deuteronomy, 16).