“Steinsaltz vs. Boteach”

Recently, an article came out titled “Who will be our rabbis?” By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. It was very impressive to read his unusual stance and his non-acceptance of Rabbis who are not 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 explains leaders should be able to sense the problems and pains of their people. Steinsaltz concluded by saying that it is incumbent upon us to seek a real leader and follow him, regardless of whether he has some public office and is famous or not.

Shortly afterward, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a counter article that 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 the keys to redemption and direct them out of the labyrinth of life. A Rabbi, as its Hebrew name implies, says Boteach 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.”

 Despite the flashy usage of the word “rejection” that Boteach uses, neither of them truly disagree with each other. Steinsaltz and Boteach 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 as well.

 But one can easily see that both articles emphasize the 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. Rabbi Boteach, on the other hand, seems to emphasize the action and has taken the advocate role in many areas. 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. As intellectual strength can lead to emotional detachment. Boteach, on the other hand, desires the muscular Rabbi who offers a robust defense of Israel. This means going out there and advocating to make a difference in real time.

 But can every leader or rabbi can provide strength in all three levels of thought, emotion, and action? Can a rabbi really be your everything? This seems to be a modern misconception. I believe it is based on the fact that many Tzadikim were said to have the ability 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? Perhaps some but not all. So what is the role of the Rabbi beyond issues of meat and milk or community organizer?

Rabbi Manis Freidman once explained that Rabbis who are not professionally trained in psychology shouldn’t pretend to play the role 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. Personal situations based on mental health issues, disorders or interpersonal relationships in crisis are really the realm of the psychologist.  

The job of the Rabbi is to explain to the foundations, background, and fundamentals of life itself according to the Torah 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 of personal and spiritual preference according to the desire of their own heart. 


About the Author
Rabbi Gershom Francis. A Doctoral Student of Clinical Psychology and an influential Judaic Studies instructor for over a decade. Over the years Rabbi Francis has become known for his profound knowledge of Jewish Mysticism and Psychology.