Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Respect, Reverence and Idolatry

My parents raised us to be conscious of and to practice good manners. This went beyond just saying please and thank you. We were taught that one speaks to people considerably older than ourselves in a more "serious" fashion than we would if speaking to someone our own age. We were taught to be respectful of those who have attained more than general knowledge, both secular and knowledge of limudei kodesh. We were taught to speak with respect to the rabbi of our shul. We were taught to speak with respect about those on the higher rungs of rabbanus, the gedolei ha'doar. Full truth? We were taught to speak to everyone respectfully, regardless of their status or position in the world.

We were also taught the posuk that begins "Anochi Elokim--I am the Lord thy God. Thou shall have no other gods before me." That one my parents stressed. They carefully pointed out that there is a real difference between respect and reverence for one on a higher level of learning and idolatry. I believe that today those lines have become exceedingly blurry. In point of fact, there are any number of practitioners of Judaism who idolize their leaders, and not in any positive sense of the word.

Nowhere in any of our writings have we ever been shown a "perfect" human being to model ourselves after. Every one of those written about in Tanach was clearly human, with human fallabilities. My parents would point out to us that one thing we must learn is that even the greatest among us has to keep a strict vigilance over their words and actions, precisely because they are human beings and subject to human error. In fact, they must be even stricter than most of the rest of us, because their words and actions are looked at as being on a higher level. Their words and actions affect not only themselves but the rest of us, who look to them as examples, who look to them for guidance.

When we get into the my rabbi/rebbi/rosh yeshiva/godol is better than yours slanging matches we have gone from reverence to indulging in a form of idolatry. When we refuse to believe that anyone but our chosen godol can possibly have any of the answers we need, we are heading towards idolatry. When we refuse to recognize that anyone else but our chosen godol can see what needs to be done in any and all given situations, we are on the way to idolatry.

In the secular world we would scoff at anyone who claimed expertise in all fields based on their expertise in one field. Look at those anointed to greatness in the general scientific fields. Just because a doctor found a breakthrough in epidemiology would you go to that doctor to have your fractured hip fixed? Rational people don't go to their dentist for heart problems, nor to their heart doctor for dental problems. We recognize the brilliance of each in their field, but we also recognize their limitations. Respect yes, reverence yes, but idolatry no.

But leave the scientific arena and the idea remains the same. I don't call my plumber for accounting advice, nor my accountant to fix a clogged drain; each has their area of expertise, and those areas do not overlap. Even in the accounting and plumbing areas there are sub-divisions and sub-specialties--as there are in most other fields as well. Not every accountant, not every plumber, not every one in any profession you can think of is super well-versed in every area of their field. We recognize this as truth in the secular world, but things break down when we move from the secular to the religious.

Years back we had a question of halacha relating to a medical/scientific problem. We asked our local rabbi for a referral to a rav who would have the knowledge to paskin on that particular issue. We were given the name of someone high in the hierarchy who was absolutely the rav to go to. We didn't question that statement. We went, asked, were given a psak and followed it. The result was almost catastrophic, as a family member almost lost his/her life. The problem wasn't this Rav's ability to understand what the words of the halacha were; the problem was the Rav's lack of total information about the medical problem, and his inability to see/know all that was medically involved. He did not say to us, "I will have to consult with medical specialists to get all the information I might need to give you a psak." He paskened based on what he already knew, and he didn't know enough.

This experience didn't send us off the derech nor destroy our belief that rabbanim high in the hierarchy are learned people. What it did do was point out a basic fact of life that applies today: no one person can know everything about everything. The vastness of the knowledge and information available to us today, information that is expanding even as I write this, precludes any one person from being an expert in everything, and certainly would preclude any one Rav from being "the" Rav to whom all is known.

There is a very fine line between respecting/revering a Rav and idolizing that Rav. Respect says that the Rav has a great deal of knowledge, and sufficient humility to know what he doesn't know and go to others, many others if need be, to gain further knowledge before giving out a psak or admitting that he can't give out a psak because he doesn't know enough to do so. Idolatry places a Rav in the category of "all-knowing," a patent impossibility today.

In the internecine warfare that categorizes so many of the sub-groupings of frum Klal, idolatry has taken a front seat, and it is more than time that it be banished as forbidden. I will respect and revere a Rav for the knowledge he does have; I refuse, however, to practice idolatry and mistakenly infuse that Rav with knowledge and/or characteristics that would make him an "ultra being," outside of the parameters of what is possible for a human being.


Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Excellent post.

Just to make clear- there is no 'hierarchy', except in those places where a rav is appointed the posek 'above' other local rabbanim, or where there is a Chief Rabbi. There is no formal structure that says Rav Herschel Schachter is 'higher' than your LOR. We recognize, based on rational considerations as you've noted, his greater ability or accomplishment, and we therefore *choose* to defer to him. But there is no hierarchy compelling us to do so, and we could choose to ignore the 'greater' rav and hold by our little LOR for our own reasons. Additionally, the 'great posek' has no authority to impose his view on a local rav. The appointed LOR is still the 'master of the place' and responsible to make his own final decisions.

This, of course, just supports even more your contention that we need to desperately (my modifier) de-deify much of our leadership. Fortunately, there are many more sane people who think like you than we realize.

Philo said...

Wonderfully written. I agree 100%.

The only time I feel it appropriate to run to a rav to ask questions outside of a halachic or hashkafic decision is if I have a personal relationship with that rav and he knows me and my particular situation. For instance, if I had a problem dealing with a family member, I would be more likely to ask a family counselling specialist. But I might ask a rav if he were a family friend and a mentor. To ask a random rav who doesn't know me at all because he might have some "magical" answer because of his torah knowlege is just silly.

See my related post here:

JS said...

Very good post.

However, you do realize in certain circles they would view this post as heresy, right?

"We recognize this as truth in the secular world, but things break down when we move from the secular to the religious."

Truer words were never spoken. You throw a Yiddish word on something and suddenly all the normal rules disappear. You ask someone how to make a good SALARY and they'll tell you about college and graduate school and networking and putting in long hours, etc. You ask someone about PARNOSAH and they'll tell you about how all depends on Hashem and we need to pray for assistance and it's decided on Rosh Hashanna, etc. Isn't there some intersection between SALARY and PARNOSAH? Aren't they the same? English and Yiddish aside, shouldn't a frum Jew be doing BOTH?

In terms of seeking out a rav, I have to point out an age-old saying that a smart person knows what he doesn't know. A smart person knows what questions to ask, what critical information needs to be acquired to adequately answer a question. A good doctor doesn't just prescribe some medicine after hearing a person has a headache. He asks about possible allergies, other symptoms, medical history, etc. What I see all too often with many rabbeim is either a refusal to answer even the simplest of questions (they need to ask their rav) or a willingness to answer anything and everything because they believe they know it all.

Anybody off the street can tell a person with a headache to take some Aspirin, but the smart person knows what else to ask and what else to think about when a person says their head hurts.

The idolizing of rabbeim has gone to many of their heads, I fear, such that they believe the hype and paskin on matters they aren't qualified in and in matters that may not even be in the realm of halacha per se.

Allen said...

Oh yes do I agree with you JS (and with your post also profk)that too many rabbanim believe the hype about themselves and paskin where they shouldn't be paskining.Some of them have an attitude that starts out that they are right no matter what so everyone else has to be wrong. The facts don't matter.

I was once in a group where a rabbi approached a member of the group who is a high level expert in the electrical engineering field. He wasn't at all ashamed to be speaking in front of the rest of us as he made a request of this expert. He told the man that he had written a psak dealing with a matter of electrical use on shabbos/yom tov and he wanted to know what the science supposedly (his word) says so he'll know how to word the psak against the practice. He had his mind all made up before he even asked an expert a question.

Someone in the group respectfully pointed out that making up your mind before you have the facts won't lead to a valid psak. He waved his hands in dismissal and added "Goyish hasogos require you to paskin against them you so you know everything you need to know once you know it's a secular/science matter."

I don't use this particular rabbi to paskin for me and no one else in that group does either. But we all know people who believe the sun rises and sets on this man. To his followers he is never wrong. We none of us bother pointing out to them that this is impossible because as a human being he is going to make mistakes sometimes. Try even the mildest criticism of him, try even bringing up that other rabbanim paskin differently and they'll rip up at you and call you a kofer.

And here I always thought that tochachah is a requirement for us.

LoZ said...

someone i know rushed to a visiting mekubal to find out if her kid should get physical therapy. this boggled my mind.

"We were taught that one speaks to people considerably older than ourselves in a more "serious" fashion than we would if speaking to someone our own age."

what do you think about kids calling older people (e.g., parents' friends) by their first names without any honorific?


"A good doctor doesn't just prescribe some medicine after hearing a person has a headache. He asks about possible allergies, other symptoms, medical history, etc."

i can tell you from my personal and professional experience that this is not always the case.

Mark said...

JS - "A good doctor doesn't just prescribe some medicine after hearing a person has a headache. He asks about possible allergies, other symptoms, medical history, etc."

LOZ - i can tell you from my personal and professional experience that this is not always the case.

LOZ, by definition, a doctor that doesn't take at least a rudimentary medical history before advising or prescribing anything isn't good!

Miriam said...

I personally will never forget the time my husband and I went to consult his rav about a sholom bayis issue. The advice I got was absolutely horrific and, if i listened, would bring significant destruction to my marriage. Unfortunately, my story is not an isolated incident. I have heard from many friends similar stories where rabbeim thought that their knowledge of Torah was enough to dole out marriage advice and much of that advice was pure garbage.

I am sure that there are many rabbeim are very good at it, but I suspect they have a natural gift for these sort of things and most likely supplemented their knowledge with other books on the subject.