What Are Rabbis For?
Chapter 1, Mishna 16
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
The original version of this class was written in April, 1999, shortly after the passing of Lifsha bas Mordechai HaCohen, Lucy Rosenfeld, my grandfather's second wife, and was dedicated in her memory. I rededicate this class to her as well. Her long life was filled with kindness, devotion, honesty, and a love of tradition and mankind. I truly hope that this as well as future classes serve as a fitting memorial to the Torah values she cherished so dearly.
"Rabban Gamliel said, make for yourself a rabbi, remove yourself from doubt, and do not give extra tithes due to estimation."
Rabban Gamliel was the grandson of Hillel (of Mishnas 12-14), and the "Nasi" -- head of the rabbinical academy and spiritual leader of the people during his time. He was known as "rabban" (lit., "our rabbi") rather than simply rabbi. This title was reserved for the Nasi. The position of Nasi was almost exclusively held by the descendants of Hillel's family during the period of the Mishna and Talmud.
Rabban Gamliel's first statement, that we make for ourselves a rabbi, appeared earlier in Mishna 6. We discussed there the importance of rabbis in general and of bringing the Torah's teachings to life and meaningful application.
The focus of this mishna is slightly different. Maimonides, in his commentary, distinguishes between the earlier message and this one. Earlier the focus was on having a teacher for the study of Torah, on having a rabbi who takes the tradition and passes it on to the next generation -- and to you in particular. Here, however, the focus is on a rabbi to decide matters of Jewish law. Rather than using your own guesswork to determine what G-d wants of you, be sure to have someone reliable to deal with all of your questions. It should preferably be someone whom you relate to well, and someone who understands your background and circumstances.
Equally important, one should adopt a single rabbi rather than choosing from an assortment. People are in the bad habit today of "shopping around" for opinions, searching until they find a leniency -- or a stringency (takes all kinds, you know). The ideal, however, is to select a single and proper mentor for yourself -- and to submit yourself to his decisions. Who it is may depend upon your geographical location, schooling, synagogue membership, religious affiliation, or family ties (note I didn't mention favorite website) . Regardless, each of us must find his or her own rabbi, and faithfully stick with him. And in so doing he will "remove himself from doubt:" his religious practices will be uniform and consistent.
Our mishna continues, one should not give extra tithes due to estimation. One who grows crops in the Land of Israel is obligated to set aside certain portions of the produce to the Priests, the Levites and the poor. (See Torah.org's Halacha Overview, Week 36) for a more complete discussion. Only a fraction of these portions are separated today.) A tithe, one tenth of the produce, is set aside for the Levites. And the amount has to be precise. If one sets aside less than a tenth, his own produce is not "fixed". If he sets aside more -- say he gives 12% instead of 10% -- the (indeterminate) additional 2% will itself not be tithed: tithe will have never been separated from it. Thus, that which will be given to the Levite will still be forbidden.
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the connection between the earlier part of the mishna and this final point. R. Gamliel is adding a crucial new insight here. A person might very well feel he can get along fine without a rabbi. What about his doubts? There is virtually no one among us who knows all the answers himself? Simple: just be stringent. Not sure if the chicken is kosher? Throw it out. Not sure if an act is forbidden? Just don't do it. Easier to waste a little money or deny yourself a little pleasure here and there than run after a rabbi, opening up your own life and personal affairs to him. Why bring a rabbi into your life? Life is much easier without rabbis (as many of us have noticed) . Forget it; just be stringent. Life may sometimes require just a bit more asceticism (not counting all those issues you didn't even know were questions in the first place -- and of course the times that you *really* thought you knew the answer yourself), but most of us would much prefer to be left alone.
In response to this R. Gamliel introduces the case of tithes. It does not always work to just say no or to round things up; here is a case in which it positively backfires. And as we will see below, R. Gamliel has far more than tithes alone in mind.
There are two primary reasons why not making for oneself a rabbi is inherently wrong. First, the more you ask your rabbi for decisions and advice, the more the rabbi will enter your life -- and the more your life will be accordingly enriched. Your life will be forced to bear much closer and healthier scrutiny. And this is invaluable. Is your personal life the sort that will hold up to rabbinic scrutiny? Does your lifestyle involve all sorts of devious and shady behaviors which much better the rabbi not know about? Does your life -- does your heart -- contain dark and secret corners not illuminated by Torah values?
Thus, a rabbi should be very much a part of your life. And there should be nothing embarrassing about having to share your personal issues with a learned yet understanding human being. First of all, an experienced rabbi has heard it all already -- sometimes the most shameful from the most respected. The rabbi who is "yours" -- the one you have "made" for yourself, should know who you truly are, what your nature is, what you can be proud of, and what needs improvement. Don't hide your true life behind a flimsy facade of piety. Your rabbi must be a part of your life, for if he is, your life will be mightily enriched.
There is a very different but equally critical reason for making a rabbi a part of your life. It is actually the one more closely implied by our mishna. As we saw above, without rabbinic guidance one may find he at times has to be stringent with himself. A basically-observant individual, when confronted with cases of doubt, will have to forgo some possibly-permitted pleasure here and there.
And this is not the point of Judaism -- at all.
G-d does not want us denying ourselves that which is actually permitted. It is unnecessary, and more importantly, it will probably backfire. The Talmud puts it pithily -- and all too well: "The Torah hasn't forbidden enough on you already that you want to add to it?!" (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1).
Forbidding upon ourselves as much as we can -- though often mistaken to be the point of Judaism -- in actuality has nothing to do with what Judaism is all about. G-d has no interest in our making ourselves martyrs or ascetics. We must never feel religion forces us to decide between this world and the next: Deny yourself the pleasures of this world if you want a share in the World to Come. Judaism believes in discipline, that everything has its proper time and place, and that we do not allow the animal within to run loose. But the one-word description of Judaism is harmony, not suppression. We do not see spirituality as the quelling of our natural desires. It is the sublimation of all our drives towards the spiritual. Everything G-d created in us is purposeful; otherwise G-d would not have created it. This is axiomatic to what Judaism and the belief in a perfect G-d are all about. Our mission is to take all our G-d-given talents, drives and tendencies and to use them -- not to ignore or misuse them -- in the manner G-d wants.
This is a daunting and likely frustrating task. We must find positive outlets for drives which on the surface appear anything but spiritual. But in the final analysis, there cannot be a more rewarding -- and fulfilling -- endeavor.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.