Ask the Rabbi, Part 13

For over a year, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com

Assuming one is following the letter of the halacha, is it proper to do fun things during the 9 Days–such as gathering with a few friends or taking the kids on an outing?

The operative principle should be as the Mishnah Berurah (554:21) stated: “The House of God deserves that we grieve over its destruction at least one day a year.” By extension, the Three Weeks and Nine Days are periods of escalating sadness that culminate on Tish’a B’Av – that “one day a year” of intense mourning. As we cannot abruptly enter a period of national mourning (personal sorrow is exactly the opposite) we prepare for Tish’a B’Av by decreasing our pleasure excursions.

That being said, we should be able to retain our social interactions (as they are not inherently joyous or frivolous) and certainly to enjoy time with our children. Such outings need not be incongruous with the period of mourning, mindful of what is age appropriate for children. At no time should a person be oblivious to the mourning, and social interactions – and particularly time with the children – can be used for meaningful discussions about inyana d’yoma, the matters at hand.

We should also be wary of imposing mourning practices on children who are not mature enough to understand, and certainly avoid conveying the impression that Judaism is a religion of misery and anguish. We are always mindful of the churban, and more intensely so this time of year, but we are mandated to enjoy a simchat hachayim as well, as that is the most exalted service of Hashem

Thus gatherings and outings need not be incompatible with this sorrowful season – and it is most proper to infuse those interactions with discussions of the hardships of the past (the churban and other tragedies), the blessings of the present (Israel, Aliya, etc.), as well as the joyful challenges of the future redemption that is unfolding before our eyes.

Is it proper to use the title “Rabbi” when referring to someone who received rabbinic ordination from a Reform or Conservative institution?

The counterargument would be that such ordination does not really confer the status of rabbi and therefore demeans the title for all rabbis. I do not find this contention very compelling; indeed, it is unnecessarily provocative. Notice how the title doctor encompasses everyone from a neurosurgeon to one who holds a doctorate in ethnic studies. It is a form of addressing someone by a title they have chosen, earned, or claim that ordinarily should be uncontroversial.

Rav Moshe Feinstein in several of his responsa referred to non-Orthodox rabbis as “rabbis,” phonetically spelled out in Hebrew, in contradistinction to his references to Orthodox rabbis as “Rabbanim” and other such honorifics. It is as if he used the term “rabbi” to denote a lesser or unworthy form of ordination. “Rabbis,” apparently, can be non-Orthodox, men or women, and in the recent case of a Haredi-dressing man in Yerushalayim, a Christian. The term has been so abused that true Rabbanim deserve better.

Indeed, it has become quite common in rabbinic circles to refer to Rabbanim by the title “Rav” and not Rabbi, to make the distinction even clearer. It is used on letterheads and in advertisements and immediately identifies the individual as an Orthodox rabbi.

If only for the purpose of friendly relations it is appropriate to call someone by the title of their choice. They can be rabbis. I am happy to be a Rav.

Is it presumptuous for a regular frum Jew to disagree (not face to face, obviously) with a great rabbi on a particular matter in Jewish thought or public policy?

This treads on very sensitive territory and the critical element is the precise area of disagreement. Certainly on halachic matters the opinions of a “regular frum Jew” carry little weight. Psak, like any specialty, requires extensive training and preparation and encompasses far more than knowledge of books or texts. I can read an X-ray and ascertain obvious fractures; undoubtedly, though, I will miss 95-98% of what there is to see in an X-ray. Great rabbis are radiologists, while the average person is not.

Similarly, matters of Jewish thought also require expertise in a given area. We may be living in the “era of feelings,” but not every feeling translates into a cogent and legitimate expression of Jewish thought. Not everything that a Jew says (or thinks) becomes, by definition, a valid part of Torah. Without a background in Jewish thought, it would be presumptuous to disagree with a Rav who possesses such a background.

Public policy matters are somewhat different because determination of the proper approach requires more than just knowledge of Torah. It requires a worldly understanding of life, politics, societal trends, culture and current events. Not every rabbi – even great ones – is necessarily conversant with all these issues. Nevertheless, two points must be added.

The “regular frum Jew” might have a sensible approach to public policy but it might not be informed by the Torah. If so, then these lay approaches will be less compelling and should be treated accordingly. Conversely, unless we maintain that rabbis have daas Torah that affords them unerring insight into public policy, then rabbis will have no special proficiency in these areas. Those who believe in daas Torah must explain why rabbis often disagree on matters of public policy, something that undercuts the idea that there is only one daas Torah.

Respectful dialogue between rabbis and laymen on policy issues is the ideal.

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