To Rabbi Jacobson
With a plethora of spiritual options out there,
how can I know what Rabbi and synagogue to choose for myself?
One Rabbi tells me that the other one is a sham, the other
one tells me that the first one is a lowlife. A third one
tells me that both of them are in it for the money. Pray tell,
how does one navigate among the multitude of paths being presented
To boot I am constantly reminded of my ignorance.
Having never gone to yeshiva and never formally studying Judaism
I have no way of knowing which Rabbi is authentic? Many of
the Rabbis I meet tell me that I have to defer to them as
authorities. But I am then presented with the conundrum: How
can I decide who is the right authority when each ‘authority’
invalidates the other?
What is a lost soul to do?
Thank you so much for your question, and especially
about a topic so critically important, one that really needs
to be addressed today. For some reason many people don’t have
the courage to ask these direct questions, or they are silenced
when then do. It’s quite refreshing to hear someone ‘put it
the way it is’ and perhaps expose the ‘emperor with no clothes.’
I appreciate your candidness and I will try to reciprocate.
First of all, I empathize with you profoundly.
I have met far too many people who are disillusioned precisely
by the confusion you describe and by the divisiveness amongst
Rabbis, synagogues and denominations. Almost everyone out
there claims to be an authority and so many just simply contradict
Allow me therefore to address your question
from two perspectives. First, regarding the criteria in searching
for a Rabbi. Second, regarding divisiveness.
I would like to begin by expanding on your question.
Since the Torah is Divine, what did G-d have in mind for us
to do when we are faced with the dilemma you describe of choosing
the appropriate Rabbi, teacher and authority? The issue at
hand is obviously not just about a Rabbi; it is about any
teacher you choose. How do we know whom to trust as the right
and truthful educator?
By no means is this a minor question. If we
don’t know whether our teachers are authentic, how can we
ever know whether the information they impart is true? In
other words, all our knowledge seems to be dependent on people
(teachers, parents, clergy etc.), who, with all their flaws
and subjectivity may be feeding us distortions and personal
opinions, rather than objective truth. And these so called
‘authorities’ themselves may be victims of the ‘teachers’
No wonder so many people have simply drifted
(or ran) away from all types of ‘authorities,’ especially
those claiming a monopoly on absolute truth…
Reminds me of the new constituent who approached
his Rabbi. “Rabbi, I hear that the Torah contains the absolute
truth, will you teach it to me?” “Of course,” the Rabbi answers.
“How much will these lessons cost me?” asks the constituent.
“No cost,” the Rabbi exclaims. “How can I charge you for the
Torah which G-d gave us for free?!” The man is impressed.
They get together to begin the first class. They open up a
Torah (Chumash), which is all in Hebrew, and the man cries
out: “I don’t read Hebrew. I can’t understand one word in
this book!” To which the Rabbi replies: “Hebrew lessons will
What then is G-d’s plan for us: How does He
allow us to discover the truth amongst all these unknown pitfalls
and uncertainties? What value does the Torah have as a blueprint
for life, if we are dependent on fallible human beings to
understand this blueprint?
G-d had to somehow and somewhere have built
in an ‘immune system’ into the Torah that would allow it to
protect itself from con-artists, exploiters, abusers and plain
ignoramuses (the list, of course, goes on).
And indeed He did. The Torah itself tells us
the nature of truth, Torah and the criteria for a Rabbi and
The Talmud tells us, that each of us was taught
the entire Torah in our mothers’ womb. Just like our bodies
grow through pregnancy and go through their developmental
stages, so too our minds and souls develop during these nine
months. Modern medicine knows a little about the fetus’s physiological
development, the Torah teaches us about its psychological
and the spiritual development. Upon birth we were made to
consciously forget, but the truth remains etched in our unconscious
psyches. When we discover a truth in our lives – when we are
educated and taught wisdom – the truth resonates, because
we already have it inside ourselves; it was just concealed
beneath the conscious layers of existence.
Truth, in other words, is not owned by anyone.
Not by teachers, not by Rabbis, not by scientists. No one
has a monopoly on truth. G-d’s truth is planted into all of
existence and ingrained in our psyches. We have both the truth
within us as well as the tools to discover it. A good teacher
is one who helps us cut away the weeds and uncover the flowers
Education, in other words, is not so much about
imparting information than it is about discovering our inner
wisdom. Not so much about educating, as it is about un-educating
us from ignorance and bad habits that impede the way to recognize
the inner truths within ourselves and others, within life
Following this line of thought let us now go
back to the search for a true Rabbi.
The Torah actually tells us the criteria of
a true Rabbi:
1) Mastery of Torah knowledge.
2) Formal ordination from a Rabbi who too was
ordained by a Rabbi before him. In effect, every rabbi receives
his ordination (“ish me’pi ish”) in an unbroken chain
all the way to Moses.
3) Apprenticeship under the guidance and tutelage
of an established rabbi and expert in the particular field
of law in which the Rabbi will officiate.
And above all – the one least mentioned and
4) Yirat Shomayim – fear and awe
of Heaven. Absolute humility in face of G-d. A Rabbi is not
an administrator or a fund-raiser, not merely a nice guy with
charisma, not even an educator or a mentor; he is a G-dly
man, a ‘soul doctor’ if you will, interested only in bringing
G-d’s will and wisdom to others.
The most vital credential of a true teacher
and Rabbi is humility: the humble recognition that these truths
are not his own; they are G-d’s. The Rabbi, the teacher, the
authority has to brutally ensure that not one iota of ego
gets in the way of his teachings. Before rendering a legal
decision, a Rabbi must feel like ‘a sword is hanging over
his throat,’ the Talmud says.
Now, you may ask, how can one tell which Rabbi
fits these criteria?
Let me suggest a simple foolproof test, which
has been proven to work time and again.
If you hear a rabbi – or some other religious
authority – say something that doesn’t sound right to you,
ask him respectfully the following question, preferably in
private: What is the source for the statement you made?
You will find Rabbis answering three different
types of answers.
One will say or imply with his body language:
“What right do you have to ask me that question? Who do you
think you are? I – I am the Rabbi; you are just a simple ignoramus!”
Some rabbis may not use these exact words, but this will be
their condescending message. More compassionate Rabbis will
patronize you instead of insulting you outright. This first
category will not allow you to challenge them.
A second answer: I don’t really have a source.
It’s my own idea and innovation.” (Some will proudly add:
Don’t you find my thoughts brilliant?”)
The third answer: The Rabbi will humbly listen
to you, and politely answer: “Here are my sources. Chapter
and verse. This is how I interpreted a particular source based
on the following commentaries. Here is where I added a certain
point, based on the following logic.” In other words, he will
show you all his sources and allow you to retrace his logic
I believe that there is no need to tell you
which answer is the only one acceptable by Torah standards.
The Torah tells us that a true Rabbi must be
able to verify his sources and answer the question: “Mi’haychon
dantuni,” what is your source for your judgment of me?
He has no right to get angry at that question or feel any
personal affront. If he does, he should go get another ‘job.’
Indeed, legitimate Rabbis and Poskim, without
waiting to be asked, will include in their legal renderings
(‘piskei dinim’) a list of sources and precedents that
substantiates their rulings.
Only the teacher that demonstrates humility
– subjugates his person to the teachings (not vice versa)
– is the one that earns the right to be your true teacher
and authority, one that can motivate you and demand of you.
All others may impart information, even of vital importance,
but you can never trust whether you are getting ‘their
truth’ or truth’s truth.
By no means does this suggest that every layperson
is equal to a Rabbi and that everyone is an equal authority.
On the contrary: Sincere humility – not just brilliant erudition
– earns a true Rabbi and teacher the right to be an authority.
Laypeople have the right to question with respect and deference
– but this questioning too must not be out of arrogance or
a need to reject authority in order to justify one’s own position.
It too must be done with humility – the humble and sincere
search for truth, and for the true authority that can convey
Needless to say, a Rabbi of this caliber will
exude only love. He will educate with an attitude that is
warm and non-judgmental. His words will resonate with his
listeners and students. In his words they will feel G-d’s
presence, not his (the Rabbi’s) presence. The words
from his heart will enter their hearts.
After all, even a Rabbi and teacher is commanded
(in last week’s Torah portion) “V’ohavto l’rayecho komocho”
– love your fellow as yourself.
Try out my little test with different Rabbis.
Ask them for their sources, and let me know what you discover…
*** *** ***
This message about the nature of true education
is also alluded to in the Torah portion, Emor, which begins
with the words “Speak…and you shall tell them.” Our sages
associate this commandment with the obligation of education.
The redundancy (“speak” and “tell them”) informs us ‘to caution
the adults concerning the children’ (Talmud Yevamot 114a.
Cited in Rashi’s opening commentary to this week’s portion).
The Hebrew word used here for ‘caution’ – ‘lihazhir’
– shares the same root as the word ‘zohar,’ meaning
“radiance.” This teaches us the fundamental ingredients of
true education: Caution suggests a superimposed warning from
without. To radiate implies a resonance from within. We must
not merely caution our children and students but we must radiate
for them. ‘Speak’ to your children and warn them of all life’s
dangers, but do so in a way that ‘you shall tell them’ and
radiate from within the inherent beauties of life.
Discipline is a most necessary component in
the education. An unshaped and impressionable child needs
direction and guidance to grow into a healthy and virtuous
adult. Discipline helps avoid the pitfalls and traps of our
own selfishness. Yet, how often do we witness – and how many
of us have been hurt if not damaged – by discipline devoid
Especially in the religious world, how many
of us have been affected by dogmatic, fear driven discipline?!
I personally have witnessed the devastating psychological
effects of many people growing up (can we call it ‘up’?) in
homes and schools that indoctrinated children with the wrath
of G-d, with fear and guilt – with everything that has been
coined today as ‘religious neurosis.’
Emor tells us – it actually commands
us – to educate our children and students with radiance and
love. Discipline and caution are necessary, but they are part
of and rooted in the same word as ‘radiate;’ discipline is
but a dimension in radiance – gevurah within chesed.
See yourself as a gardener, the Torah is telling
us. Within the earth lie flower seeds. Each person carries
within him/herself divine beauty and light, by virtue of the
fact that we have all been created in the Divine Image. As
a gardener, the role of parent and educator is to clean the
earth, rip out the weeds – create a nurturing environment
so that the ‘flowers’ within your child or student can emerge
Discipline is cleaning out the weeds in your
life, in your home and in your behavior, so that your child
can flourish. Even when discipline is required in education,
always, but always ensure that the child feels that it is
coming from a loving place.
A Rabbi or teacher that approaches education
in this loving fashion will only bring joy and unity into
his community and by extension – into other communities as
Which leads us into the second issue of divisiveness.
How can you tell which Rabbi brings love into the world and
which one causes divisiveness? I discovered the answer to
this question in an unforgettable experience that took place
several years ago. In the process, I learned of yet another
question to ask your Rabbi that will clearly tell you much
about his personality.
Part 2 of this Discussion.