Who Will Be Our Rabbis?

The “Holy Jew” of Pryzucka once said: “First there were the prophets, but God looked and saw that the situation was deteriorating and that the prophets no longer were what they used to be. Then prophecy ceased, and the prophets were replaced by the Mishnaic and Talmudic Sages. After some time, they too, began to go downhill, so God brought the Geonim, but after a while that reality also began to worsen. The Geonim were then followed by the great Rabbis, the Rishonim and the Acharonim, but they deteriorated as well. So God brought the Chassidic Rebbes. And now,” said the Holy Jew, “I see that this, too, is about to deteriorate, but I do not know what will come after that.”

This is a statement not only about the changes that take place in reality, but also about the fact that in every generation and every period the Jewish people always has leaders. I do not mean political leadership: there are political leaders with considerable power in their hands, but eventually even the memories of the greatest dictators fade and they become exactly like their myriad subjects who were, in their eyes, like the dust of the earth. What, for instance, is left from Nimrod, the supreme political leader in the days of our Patriarch Abraham? Perhaps a few legends, maybe not even that.

In the final analysis, it is not the political leaders who change the world. Alongside them there are always people who actually mold and form the inner essence, even when they have no official function. Unfortunately, the prophets were not political leaders; rather, they were like bystanders who served as targets for insults. Even the Prophet Isaiah, who was of obvious nobility – as is reflected in his high style, and confirmed by our Sages who say (Massekhet Megilla 10b) that he was the king’s cousin – attests (50:6): “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” Yet the prophets are remembered much more than most of the kings, and have also had much greater influence both in their own generation and in the times to come. In every generation there are leaders. They may be prophets or philosophers, technicians or scientists, inventors of new contraptions or mass media figures. They are the ones who actually set the course of the world.

The most basic question is – who is a real leader? And the pertinent question for our generation is: are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation?

In the past century, the role of the rabbi has undergone a major transformation. The reasons for this are numerous, some of which are economic. However, the fact is that today, the rabbi’s position as a consultant on Halakhic matters is not very relevant. How many people actually turn to rabbis with questions about kashrut? Today rabbis are being asked to solve totally different problems: husband-wife or parent-child relationships, and sometimes also faith issues. As such, the rabbi, who is not a trained marriage counselor, psychologist or philosopher, is forced to answer them. Consequently, nowadays rabbis are, unfortunately, dealing mainly with issues for which they have not been properly trained, and rarely are they dealing with those areas for which they did receive the proper training. How can a typical rabbi who married at the age of 19 and has been living with the same wife ever since, truly help someone who is involved in a relationship with his friend’s wife? How many rabbis have actually delved into issues of faith in sufficient depth as to enable them to answer questions on this topic?

What, then, is a true Jewish leader? The Torah (Bamidbar 1:15) calls the leaders “the heads of the thousands of Israel.” This defines their essence. The Torah is thus telling us that a true leader is like a head. The head is the part of the body that knows what is happening in all of the other organs, and feels the pain of each and every one of them. Similarly, the leader is supposed to sense the problems and feel the pains of everyone.

The Rebbe of Ruzhyn used to say that he could hear the cry of a woman in labor 400 miles away from him. Regretfully, I ask which rabbi or rabbinic organization in the State of Israel cares about the young prostitutes at the Tel Baruch beach? Most of them do not even know what is happening there. I do not mean to say that rabbis should go visit the place; but whoever is one of the “heads of the thousands of Israel” should know that something like this exists, that there is X number of girls there. These young girls – and it does not really matter what their precise number is – may not be quite like our Matriarchs Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah; but they are our girls, blood of our blood and flesh of our flesh, and if we do not feel their pain – that is a problem. This head may be a shtreiml, a simple hat, or a stuffed animal skin, but if it does not feel the pain of the entire body, it is not a head.

Every Jew is an organ in the national body, and every Jew – even one who is like the little finger on the left hand – wants to know that s/he is connected by nerves, flesh and blood to its head. S/he wants to know that s/he is not an amputated finger but rather a part of the body, able to feel the workings of his/her head: we all are members of the Jewish body, interconnected and attached, and therefore ought to seek the head, our “head of the thousands of Israel.” This is a genuine search. I do not intend to carefully examine any of the rabbis, the famous and popular ones, those not so popular or this or that baba (miracle maker): they are all pure and holy. I am not looking for someone who will be given a platform or granted an honor. It is my head that I seek; please tell me where it is.

I cannot point to anyone right now, or even suggest a way for looking for such a person; but I can tell a story. Before his passing, the Maggid of Mezeritch told his disciples that he was about to die that year, and that they should seek another rebbe. They asked him: how can we tell whom to follow, who is a rebbe? And he replied that they should ask him for a way to fight vain pride. If he gives them advice, then he is worthless; and if he says “God will help,” then they should follow him for he is a real tzaddik, a righteous man.

Perhaps we should not go to those who claim to have answers to all of the questions, but rather to a person who, when asked what the remedy for the entire Jewish people is, will reply: “I do not know!”

My sandak, Rabbi Avraham Chen, wrote a very emotional book about his father, Rabbi David Zvi Chen, who was a great man in many ways and the rabbi of Chernigov, in the Ukraine. In this book he relates how a young man came to his father to register for marriage. While formally examining his documents, Rabbi Chen discovered that the young man, who was also a Torah scholar, was actually a mamzer. There was not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that this man was indeed a mamzer. It was not even a question. He held the papers in his hand, and the young man, who realized that something was amiss, asked: “Rabbi, what about my match?” and the Rabbi said: “It cannot be.” The young man said: “I understand that there is a reason why this match cannot work, so what do you suggest I do?” At that point the rabbi had to reveal to him that the match could not be, not because the specific bride was unworthy of him, but because, being a mamzer, he could not marry at all. At this point, the son discloses that eventually he found the young man sitting in the rabbi’s lap and both were weeping.

This is the kind of rabbi I am looking for. Rabbi Chen did not suggest a solution for that young man’s problem, because there was no solution, nor was he the kind of person who would contrive a solution for a person born of a forbidden union. But he wept together with him. He wept because he was a “head”; and he felt the terrible pain of the young man who would never be able to have a family of his own, just as he would feel a pain in his own body. For a pain, even in the smallest of fingers, is felt first of all in the brain.

And one final story: the city of Dvinsk (nowadays: Daugavpils) in Lithuania had at one point two great chief rabbis who were appointed, inter alia, in order to counterbalance each other; one was Rabbi Meir Simcha haCohen, who was the rabbi of the mitnagdim, and the other Rabbi Yosef Rozin, known as the Rogochover Gaon, who was the rabbi of the Chassidim. Incidentally, they had an excellent relationship. One day a third person – a Jewish doctor or lawyer, someone with an official diploma – was also appointed as the rabbi designated by the authorities. Sometime later a local gentile encountered a local Jew and told him: “Last night we got together to drink and play cards all night, and one of the gang was your rabbi.” The Jew asked, “You mean Rabbi HaCohen?” “Of course not!” said the gentile. “Rabbi Rozin?” the Jew asked. “Surely not!” replied the Gentile. “So who was it?” asked the Jew. The gentile named the rabbi designated by the authorities. To this the Jew responded: “Him? He is your rabbi, not ours!”

Indeed, the question about all kinds of rabbis, designated or not designated, is: whose rabbi is he? Is he the rabbi of this or that organization that chose him? Is he perhaps the rabbi of the 1920 Edict for Electing the Rabbinate, or maybe the outcome of this or that intrigue? If so, it is no wonder that he is connected with all kinds of acts or rumors that are not exactly pleasing to God. Who, then, is worthy of being a rabbi, a “head” for the People of Israel? It is hard to tell, but there are some indications. The Hebrew letters of the name Israel also form the words li rosh, which mean “I have a head,” or “a head for me.” The People of Israel is seeking its head. There may not be a visible head, but it is nevertheless incumbent upon us to seek a real head and to follow him, regardless of whether or not he has some public office, is famous or anonymous. We must find a person who is a head, one who can feel the pains of the public as well as of the individual and uplift them, one who can cry over the sorrows and tribulations of the Jews both to God and together with other people, and occasionally also participate in the joys of his fellow Jews.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Times of Israel.