In The Legacy Of The Rav, Allowing Rabbis To Decide


“What do you think?”

These are the words I often heard from my revered teacher, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (known to his students as “the Rav”), when, as a younger rabbi, I came before him to ask questions pertaining to Jewish law.  Rather than directly respond, he would ask, “what’s your opinion.”  Often, he would challenge me to support my own conclusions.  After listening closely, he would at times say that though he was more comfortable with another opinion, my position had standing.  And since I was the spiritual leader of my community and understood it best, it was my responsibility to follow the conclusions I had reached.

These memories come to mind in recent weeks as questions have surfaced in our community concerning partnership minyanim and women putting on tefillin.  In contrast to my experience with the Rav, some roshei yeshiva (rabbinic heads of yeshivot) have adopted an opposite approach.  Their argument is that only those who are on their level of learning are equipped to answer these questions. 

For many years, I have been promoting a vision of a more inclusive, non-judgmental and open Orthodoxy.  Those who identify with this vision believe in the divinity of Torah and are committed to the detailed observance of the practices of Jewish law. But such a faith commitment does not have to translate into rigidity.  We believe in an Orthodoxy that empowers women to be more involved in Jewish ritual and spiritual leadership; invites religious struggle and questioning; promotes dialogue across the Jewish denominations; welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation or level of religious observance; and looks outward, driven by a sense of responsibility to all people.

But perhaps the most significant contrast is our attitude toward centralization of rabbinic authority.  There was a time when only the haredi community emphasized the central authority of select rabbis.  But recently, this trend has been growing in other segments of the Orthodox Jewish community. 

The Rav did not feed into this trend.  His goal was to be persuasive rather than coercive.  While the Rav welcomed his students to consult with him, he encouraged local rabbis to understand that they are the final authorities of psak (legal decisions) in their respective communities.

Centralization of rabbinic authority corrodes the nature of psak.  By its very definition, psak must take into account situations and conditions of people in front of you.  When done properly psak is rendered by local community rabbis in consultation, when necessary, with great Torah scholars.  It’s done wrongly when this authority is transferred to those who are outside of the community, ensconced within the walls of the beit midrash (study hall). 

One of the most troubling aspects of the recent rabbinic proclamations concerning partnership minyanim and women donning tefillin appears to be the absence of any real engagement with the people directly involved.  How can one rule on partnership minyanim without reaching out to the men and women who daven there?  Or to the rabbis whose constituents in large numbers leave their synagogues to attend partnership minyanim when they are held in their communities?  How can one rule on allowing high school girls to wear tefillin without talking to the principals or the students involved?  

With so much at stake, shouldn’t it be imperative to seek out and have open and honest discussion with halachic decisors who permit these practices, or those who prohibit them but respect the position of those who argue they are permissible? These issues are tremendously weighty on both sides: communal boundaries on one, and a pushing away of serious committed Jews on the other.  Are we really prepared, with a flick of the wrist, to cast out thousands of Orthodox Jews in America and in Israel who seek spiritual meaning through these endeavors? 

Several years ago, Rabbi Dov Linzer, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), was presenting to a group of community rabbis on the important issue of conversion.  I still remember his opening words, which echoed the Rav’s approach.  Turning to the gathered rabbis, many of whom were his students, he said: “You are in the field.  You know the realities.  What are your perspectives?”  It is this type of humility that we need from our rabbinic leaders.

It is with this vision that we need to train our rabbis. The goal should not be to control, but to empower them.  To empower them with deep ahavat haTorah (love of Torah) and Yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven), to take the tools they have been given and use them in the way they feel is most responsive to individuals and their communities, consistent with tradition and God’s intention. 

Built into empowerment is trust — trust that rabbis will have the humility to recognize what they know and what they don’t know.  And when unsure, they will consult, while realizing that, in the end, they are responsible to make the important decisions for their own communities.  After all, what does semicha (ordination) mean if not the giving of authority to rabbis to make halachic decisions?

Great leaders do not focus on having followers, but on creating leaders.  That’s what the Rav meant when he would ask, over and over, “What do you think?” This, I believe, is one of his great legacies. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-the Bayit, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.