The Rabbinate and Its Contents

If you had to choose a rabbi (and who doesn’t?), what criteria would you use? And why? Fortunately, few people would choose a rabbi who is recognized as a “tzadik!”

This was the subject of a new survey commissioned by the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics (based here in Modiin), and the results shed light on the modern rabbinate, the modern laity, and some of the differences between the Israeli and American rabbinate. As is often the case, superficial media accounts highlighted one or two points that were not really essential to the report but did accord with the biases of those outlets.

Two important issues need to be underscored. The survey questioned only those who identify as religious-Zionists and who were classified according to varying levels of observance, and thus excluded the larger Charedi community from its deliberations. The Charedi attitudes, in a number of ways, differ significantly from those of the Dati-Leumi community. By the same token, although there is a basic congruity between the religious practices and commitments of the Dati-Leumi world in Israel and what is called “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy in America, they are by no means identical or even symmetrical. Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learned from this study even by American Jews.

The survey questioned hundreds of men and women, of all ages, even sub-dividing them into levels of observance, on issues ranging from the intensity of their connection to rabbis, the frequency of their interactions (questions or personal), and the traits that are most important to them in choosing a rabbi with whom they would consult. What follows are the main features that I extracted from the survey and my deductions.

Those who perceive a rabbi primarily as the source of halachic guidance will be disappointed. Almost 2/3 of the respondents never ask a halachic question (never?!) or ask roughly once a year. It is surely unsurprising that 2/3 of what can be called the Dati-Lite (liberal Religious Zionist, with “flexible” attitudes towards halachic observance) never ask a halachic question. Never!  Why this is so is not addressed, but it might relate to a reduced level of commitment (the “social Orthodox,” those who observe the mitzvot because they desire to associate with or live among other observant people, will be less likely to obsess over halachic minutiae), or to a reluctance to relate to a rabbi, or perhaps, echoing the Talmud (Masechet Yoma 75), the spiritual world appears to them as a plain, all smooth and untroubled. Or perhaps they are fortunate in avoiding the halachic scrapes that arise in the kitchen, workplace or on Shabbat.

Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to ask a she’elah. Almost three times as many young people (aged 16-30) ask she’elot once a week than do people over age 51, and twice as many ask at least once a month. Similarly, the more observant the individual, the more likely he or she is to ask halachic questions; this makes complete sense. In my own personal survey, I have found that 10% of the people ask 80% of the questions – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Of course, 49% of respondents said that they first turn to the Internet (!) with any halachic questions. Rabbi Google might be today the leading “posek” in the world, not so much because of reliability (questions are very fact sensitive and nuances will be lost both to the site and to the questioner) but rather because one can easily hunt for the answer that is desired. As could be anticipated, the younger the questioner, the more likely he or she will turn to the Internet as the first resort, with a full 56.7 of Jews under 30 looking on-line for G-d’s word. But note that this age cohort also asks the most questions of rabbis – so it appears that they will consult Google and then, often, a real, live rabbi as well. It is important to add that more than a third of the respondents will first turn to their permanent rabbi, as opposed to seeking answers “on the street” or randomly.

While this phenomenon is regrettable, and was the source of much hand-wringing and even mockery of the modern rabbinate in some accounts, the unbiased will recognize that the same could be said of medicine, law and almost every discipline. Some doctors will tell you that patients who diagnose themselves on the Internet frequently think they have maladies that they really don’t have – and this pseudo-knowledge hampers the doctor’s ability to properly advise the patient. People will consult their physicians asking for specific medicines they found on the Internet or refuse to take other medications because of side-effects they read about, which are often quite rare. Yet, no one would say doctors are being replaced – or lawyers, accountants, therapists, etc. The Internet is not replacing the rabbi.

More good news: over 90% of respondents said they have (53.8%) or would like to have (35.5%) a rabbi to whom they can ask halachic questions. Some of the reporting actually drew the opposite conclusion, for their own reasons. Apparently, rumors of the demise of the modern rabbinate have been greatly exaggerated.

While the above addressed halachic questions, Jews have been known to ask their rabbis all sorts of questions, relying on their guidance, intuition or something else – but that is not always a good idea. Almost 2/3 of the respondents would never ask a rabbi for business or investment advice, and just as well, assuming the rabbi has no particular expertise in the area. And even if he does, the blurring of roles can cause unnecessary discomfort. (In the Charedi world, of course, this type of consultation is much more widespread.)

Sadly, 1/3 of respondents would never turn to a rabbi for guidance in marital issues, with almost half of older people (over age 51) saying they never would, perhaps reflecting the reticence of older people to open up about personal matters, emotions, etc. By contrast, only 1/5 of younger people would be reluctant to turn to a rabbi for assistance in this area, perhaps having grown up in a world in which baring one’s deepest secrets is done routinely, and often to strangers. The most common areas of consultation – in which respondents would always consult with a rabbi (aside from matters of life and death) – are family, marriage and children’s issues. Again, only 17% of older people approach their rabbis with such matters but fully 44.2% of younger people and 34.4% of middle-aged (31-50) people do so in the first instance. Additionally, 38.3% of young people will consult a rabbi for matters of personal spiritual growth, and in general, men more than women. But both sexes were equal in their willingness to consult rabbis about familial or marital questions.

Another figure that stood out was this: 37.5% would never ask a rabbi about workplace conduct matters – not professional business matters but ethics, interpersonal relations, etc., as if they desire to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But Judaism is a holistic (and holy) system, in which the Torah has something to say about every area of life.

Finally, asked what two characteristics are most important in choosing a rabbi from whom to seek counsel, only 4% stated a “rabbi known as a tzadik,” here referring, apparently, not to personal saintliness but to his ability to perform miracles and wonders and access the mystical world in order to  effect the desired objective. (I’m afraid the figure is actually higher, and clearly is higher in other parts of the Torah world.)  So what then are people looking for in their rabbinical counselor?

More than 50% chose “modesty and humility,” implying not just these wonderful traits but also the lack of a personal agenda, a willingness to admit that not all answers reside in him, and an openness to the questioner. Indeed, the second most favored quality was “a personal relationship” with the rabbi. Grading much lower were qualities such as Torah knowledge, general knowledge and connectedness. Note that the question related not to halachic queries but to general and personal advice that was sought from the rabbi.

As such, it seems clear that what people seek out most in a rabbi is the personal connection, someone who knows them for many years, has experienced life’s highs and lows together with them, and knows what makes them tick. That bond is precious, that connection is sacred, and that relationship is one that is mutually rewarding.

Far from lamenting the state of the modern rabbinate, the study revealed how a significant portion of the religious-Zionist world desires, seeks and sustains a relationship with a rabbi, and this in a secular environment that frowns on and even discourages ultimate answers to life’s questions. Of course there is much that can be improved but only the immature, the impetuous, and the agenda-driven are constantly disappointed when they realize that life itself, and the living, are imperfect. While the American-type rabbinate is not yet pervasive in Israel, organizations such as Barkai are trying to fill that niche, something that can only add to the effectiveness and success of the rabbinate and the well-being of all Jews.



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