Ask The Rabbi, Part 8

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at

Here is the eighth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

If parents disagree with something their child learned in school, should they say something? Or is it better for them to bite their lip and say nothing?

In our world, especially, it is unrealistic to expect most parents to be their children’s official teachers. Nevertheless, parents must never abdicate their primary responsibility for their children’s education. We are taught “and you will teach your children to speak of them [words of Torah]” (Devarim 11:19) and the Gemara (Bava Batra 21a) underscores that formal schools were secondary alternatives to parental instruction. Too often parents fully delegate this vital role and forfeit the opportunity to be the main religious influences in their children’s lives.

That being said, there are caveats to this assertion. There are occasions when children learn in school ideas, values, or practices that their parents, either from ignorance or laxity, do not embrace. It is surely harmful for children to simply hear from their parents that “we don’t have to do that,” as that will engender in the child’s mind that what is taught in school is optional and unserious. Conversely, it would be proper for parents who follow halacha meticulously to inform their children that they do not accept a particular chumrah (stringency) that the school has taught, or to engage college children so as to rectify the harmful indoctrination that is prevalent today on many college campuses.

And parents must always convey any disagreement with teachers respectfully and substantively. They should be able to show chapter and verse where and why they disagree but also underscore to the children the need for tolerance and reverence for individuals with whom we do not share a complete identity of thought and opinion. There are different and valid approaches to a variety of issues in Jewish life – Israel, Aliya, Talmud Torah, earning a living, etc. Parents are obligated to transmit their Torah value system to their children.

Biting lips will only cause soreness. Polite disagreement will complement the educational role of the school and fulfill the parents’ responsibilities.

How would you advise fulfilling the mitzvah of “you shall surely rebuke your fellow”?   Perhaps due to America’s “live and let live attitude,” many Jews feel uncomfortable fulfilling this mitzvah — even when their motives are pure and even when the person is open to rebuke. 

What is perceived today as “uncomfortable” has always been uncomfortable. Already 2000 years ago, the Gemara (Arachin 16b) stated – categorically – that there was no one in that generation who could give or accept reproof. Things have not changed much since the time of Rebbi Akiva or Rebbi Tarfon. It is the special person who can reprimand someone properly and effectively – and who can listen with an open mind and accept such criticism. Yet, tochacha is one of the 613 commandments. So how can it be done – and why should it still be done?

Perhaps it would help to redefine the mitzvah. We perceive tochacha as the admonitions of judgmental scolds who think they must be perfect and therefore can deign to tell us what to do. But that is pure defensiveness on the part people who must think they are flawless. Tochacha, in fact, is reproof – but reproof is rooted in the word “proof,” just like tochacha is rooted in the word “le’hochiach,” to prove something. Tochacha should never be intended to knock people down but rather to build them to up – to prove to them, gently and respectfully, the error of their ways and the harm they are causing to themselves.

This type of reproof is based on the notion that we are all responsible for each other and thus we cannot simply abstain. We are all one family that seeks the best for each other. If done with love, and privately, the target of the tochacha should be much more responsive.

The complicating factor today is not the perceived arrogance or nosiness of the critic but the pervasive moral relativity. “Live and let live” has morphed into the denial of any sense of objective right or wrong, and even truth or falsehood. The Torah Jew unequivocally dissents from that notion – and proves it by giving and accepting reproofs in an appropriate and loving way.

Should rabbis recommend that people vote for a particular candidate?

For a purist, the answer would be “no,” for practical, spiritual and psychological reasons. Rabbis do not inherently have any particular expertise in politics. Being perceived as just another partisan activist diminishes a rabbi’s spiritual stature, and could make him look foolish and hypocritical if his preferred candidate is actually an unprincipled, corrupt hack who promises and promises, takes our votes and then legislates against the community’s interests. It can be divisive, embedding the rabbi on one side of our overheated, polarized society. I never did it from the pulpit, which is not to say that I didn’t make my views known via a timely quip or barb directed for or against a candidate.

Decades of misunderstanding of American law inhibited rabbis from directly addressing the acceptability of certain candidates, something which never deterred black churches or clergymen from hosting, endorsing, campaigning for and insisting that parishioners vote as they recommend. And it is quite common in Israel for rabbis to endorse politicians and even guarantee divine blessings and eternal reward to those who abide by their wishes. Neither approach is particularly sensible.

Yet, people often asked me privately how I was voting in a particular election and I always shared my opinions and reasons. Politics, after all, is the pursuit of policies that further society’s ultimate objectives and interests, and surely that must be informed by the values and morality of the Torah. And when Jewish interests would be adversely affected by the elevation of one candidate to power, or Jews would be deemed insufficiently grateful if they didn’t vote for a politician who has been most responsive to our causes, a rabbi must find a way to make that known.

Explicit endorsements can be thorny, unwise and imprudent. Usually, subtlety is more effective. When warranted, it is critical not to remain silent about public matters or personalities that affect Jewish life.

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