The Ultimate Question

Should rabbis have heads, but no heart? Should they have hearts…but no head?

Rebuttals to Rabbi Steinsaltz’s recent essay seem to insist that rabbis choose actions over feelings – or else they are “spiritual sissies.”

These are false choices. They won’t work in the real world.

The Ability to Encompass All Qualities

It is no secret that rabbis come in many different shapes and forms. There are rabbis who are deeply spiritual. There are rabbis who are brilliant intellectuals. There are rabbis who have a passionate heart.

The rabbis that encompass all of these qualities together are few and far between. And Rabbi Steinsaltz is one of those rare few. He is a world scholar, whose advice is sought by world leaders and by renowned entrepreneurs, artists and academics. He has revolutionized the Jewish landscape with his unprecedented translation and commentary of the Talmud, his 60-plus books on Jewish thought and mysticism, and his many educational organizations. Yet if you were to ask Rabbi Steinsaltz what best defines him, you would be surprised by his answer. “I’m only a teacher,” he once told me. “One person at a time, one soul at a time.”

As the pulpit rabbi of a large congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona, I know how hard it is to balance the needs of each congregant with the needs of society as a whole. But Rabbi Steinsaltz taught me that the two must go hand-in-hand: you can only truly lead a team if you know and feel the nature and skills of its every player. You can only truly lead a nation, if you know and feel the inner pains and joys of its every member. A head is healthy because, not in spite, of its ability to feel every organ of its body. No body would want a head that cannot feel its every part. 

What It Means To Be A Rabbi

Years ago, after receiving my rabbinic ordination, I asked Rabbi Steinsaltz: “What is this all about? What does it mean to be a rabbi?” His reply was simple yet profound: “It means that people will now come to you with many questions. Your role is to identify the question behind the question.”

Characteristically, Rabbi Steinsaltz explained his point with a story: A seven year old girl once came to see Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem in the early 1900’s. She was carrying an egg in her hand. The girl had come to ask Rabbi Frank if she could eat the egg, even though it had a blood spot in its yolk. Rabbi Frank looked at her carefully, and replied: “Yes, little girl, you may eat it.” His students could not understand. After all, his ruling was seemingly against halacha, Jewish law. To which Rabbi Frank responded, “Didn’t you see the poor girl? She came, barefoot, all the way from her home, to ask about one single egg. Can’t you see that she is poor and that this egg may be her only meal today? In such cases, of course one can allow the eating of this egg!”

In the personal notebook of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe appears a story about Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) and his brother, Rabbi Zalman Aharon [i]. When they were young children, they played a game of “Rebbe and chasid.” Zalman Aharon, the older brother, played the role of Rebbe, and Shalom Dovber, the younger brother, acted the role of chasid. The “chasid” confessed to the “Rebbe” that he had erred in a particular area, and he wanted to know how to correct this mistake. The “Rebbe” immediately offered him a solution. Upon hearing his quick advice, the young chasid responded: “You’re not a real Rebbe!” “Why not?” asked his brother. “Because a Rebbe would first emit a sigh before replying.”

The Vanishing Art Of Sighing

In our times, the art of sighing and the ability to identify the “question behind the question” is rapidly vanishing. A doctor in my community recently shared with me how disappointed he is in colleagues who order series of tests instead of listening to their patients. “If only these doctors could listen,” he lamented, “most of them would reach a diagnosis within minutes and so much money and heartache could be saved.” In similar fashion, so much money and heartache could be saved if rabbis just knew how to truly listen, sigh and seek to understand “the question behind the question.”

The first recorded act of Moses, our nation’s paramount leader, was that “he went out to his brethren and saw their burdens.”[ii] Rashi comments that Moses “focused his eyes and heart to share their distress.” Similarly, when Moses asked God to appoint his successor, God replied: “Take for yourself Joshua Bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit.[iii] The biblical commentaries expound: “[the word spirit refers to] someone who can connect to the character of each and every individual.”[iv] The lesson is clear; a Moses, a Joshua, a true leader, is one that can share the distress of his people and connect fully to the character of every individual. Yes, leaders can and should lead. Leaders can and should offer daring answers and courageous solutions when possible. But in order to do so they must be able to share the distress and pain of their people and connect to the character of each and every person.

Will the Real Rabbis Step Up?

A few months ago, I was walking with Rabbi Steinsaltz in the busy streets of Manhattan. To my surprise, he insisted on accepting every flyer and leaflet handed to him by complete strangers. “Why do you take them?” I asked him. “You obviously don’t need them.” After a short pause, he replied: “True. I don’t need these papers. But these strangers need me to take them. The faster they get rid of them, the faster they will receive their pay. So why not help them receive their pay a little faster? Why not do a stranger a favor?”

Our world is suffering. People are broken and lonely. They many conceal their pain and solitude, but deep inside, they are hurting and beg to love and be loved. The time has come for real rabbis to step up to the plate. Our world is in need of selfless rabbis who can, first and foremost, sigh and feel the pain of every individual, including the underpaid workers in the avenues of New York. Only when our rabbis understand and identify with the needs of others – only then—will they be able to provide true guidance and direction.

So, in Rabbi Steinsaltz’s words, “Who will be our rabbis?”


[i] Reshimot 118

[ii] Exodus 2:11

[iii] Numbers 27:18

[iv] See Sifri and Rashi ibid.