Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Rabbinic Authority - A Symposium and Challenges

This past Motzei Shabbat, I attended the initial session of the Jewish Forum symposium called "The Search for Truth", which featured a symposium staffed by Professor Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University, Rabbi Natan Slifkin (the Zoo Rabbi), and Dr. Marc Shapiro of the University of Scranton. During their Saturday night symposium, titled "Rabbinic Authority vs. Worldly Wisdom", the panel discussed the difficult issue of great rabbis - acknowledged gedolim -- who make statements that seem counter to common sense. In addition, many of the panelists felt that great Torah scholars live in a protected "bubble", isolated from the outside world. They count on their advisers to inform them of important issues and make pronouncements often based on what they're told - and not what they themselves have seen.
The discussion turned to the fact that in reality, many of the statements made by great Torah sages reflect the values of their closed communities, and are not necessarily intended for outside consumption. Thus, when a statement made for "local" consumption reaches the press and the larger Jewish world, while that statement seems incredulous to us, it makes perfect sense to the community for which it was intended.
This discussion got me thinking about a growing problem that rabbis (such as myself) face in the modern world.
It used to be true that rabbis at least enjoyed some level of local autonomy. For lack of a better reason, communication was such that community members counted on their rabbi to resolve local issues without feeling the need to turn to greater poskim out of town to answer their questions. Moreover, when a shailah arose requiring greater expertise, the rabbi himself turned to his mentors and teachers and the greater rabbanim in the larger cities for help, and not the ba'alei batim. Dr. Kellner echoed my sentiments by pointing out that we often refer to the rabbi as the mara d'atra -- the teacher of the place.
To my mind, we have entirely lost any notion of mara d'atra. With international communication, telephones, emails, fax machines and the like, nowadays, the community members themselves turn not to their own rabbi, but immediately to the gedolim. Every important question must be posed to a rabbi in New York -- or if it's really important, in Israel. But even more troubling, every local decision is questioned, analyzed and challenged by community members who take their local issues and pose them to rabbis uninvolved in the local community and often unaware of the delicate balance that exists in that community. It's quite easy to criticize events that seem untoward - either halachically or otherwise -- when you don't have all the facts or don't have to personally juggle the issues, which the local rabbi often must do.
The best example that I can think of to illustrate this point is the complete emasculation of local rabbis and rabbinates with regard to the issue of geirus. One day not long ago, a local rabbi could convene a Beit Din, convert a prospect as he saw fit, and if that rabbi was considered to be operating within the guidelines of halachah, his conversion was accepted without question. After all, that does seem to fit with the normative halachah on the issue.
This no longer holds true. Now, in order to perform a conversion, a rabbi must be approved on a list -- in Israel -- by people who have no knowledge of any of the rabbis on the list, and have no understanding of the local factors which rabbis on the ground deal with day in and day out. Instead, they point to isolated cases of difficult conversions as proof for the need for international oversight from afar.
In today's atmosphere of international communication, websites, blogs and the like, it seems now that if the whole world is one international community, then there can only be one possible mara d'atra - the gadol hador.
And that would ultimately be a tragedy for the Jews who need their own rabbi to deal with their own issues, but cannot because the rest of the world peers over his shoulder.