How Do I Find a Rabbi

Following from your comments in the Deep Dive on My Daughter the Lawyer, I would like to ask some questions about finding a local rabbi. First of all, am I correct in assuming that, even though you refer to yourself as my rabbi, you recognize the importance of our primary Rabbi being someone in the local community. Am I getting that right?

Second, following from your comments in the Deep Dive, would you please spell out the changes that you have seen in the office of rabbi over the last few generations? What are the implications of those changes for the Jewish happy warrior?

JR

Dear JR,

Thank you for making a valuable point. Yes, when I [RDL] call myself “your rabbi” on the podcast or elsewhere that refers to the meaning of the word rabbi as teacher. Someone who wants personal guidance in a deep and meaningful way or who has a specific question on Jewish behavior needs to have a personal relationship with a rabbi who knows the individual and the specific community in which that individual lives. I would always defer to your own learned, local, Orthodox rabbi.

While Jews are the ‘People of the Book,’ one can’t live a Jewish life based only on seeking answers in books. One needs a one-on-one teacher. To drive this point home, we’ll give an example. We, and other Jews who revere God’s law, eat kosher food. Sometimes, a question arises as to whether something is kosher or not. The answer, asked to one’s personal rabbi, may actually differ based on one’s economic and other individual circumstances. It’s a spiritual thing as well as a chemical one.


As to the changes over the years, the word rabbi as it was originally used, lost its technical meaning millennia ago when being given the title implied a direct transmission that could be cited leading back to Moses. It morphed into meaning someone judged to be qualified in his learning and behavior by someone who had previously received such a qualification. That is entirely lost now, and the title rabbi should not be assumed to say anything about the person holding that honorific. It can have great meaning and it can be entirely meaningless. One needs to explore the individual’s background and path to the title rather than take it at face value.

For instance, my [RDL] line of rabbinic succession goes through my father, his teacher, and uncle, Rabbi Elya Lapian, to Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm, to Rabbi Israel Salanter, to Rabbi Zundel Salanter, to Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, to Rabbi Elijah, the Vilna Gaon, who lived from 1720 to 1797, and whose line of rabbinic succession is known and runs back a long way.

One can find communities that revere their rabbi and follow his guidance on issues large and small and one can also find communities where the rabbi is an employee like any other who obeys the instructions of his (or her) board of directors rather than actually working in a leadership role. In some synagogues, the job is more of resident social worker and community organizer than having to do with anything religious or specifically Jewish. Furthermore, quite correctly, most of those holding the title rabbi, depicting their level of knowledge, are not connected to any official organizational position. This is very much a case of caveat emptor. We recommend that the Jewish Happy Warrior obeys the injunction of the head of the Sanhedrin during the 2nd century, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia in Pirkei Avot, and appoints for himself a rabbi.

We hope this answers your questions.

Find a rabbi,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

This Ask the Rabbi is dedicated in memory of Albert Miles, age 80, born in Cairo (before the Jews were expelled from Egypt) and slaughtered on October 7, 2023.

With prayers for the release of all the remaining hostages and among them Dror Or, 49. He and his two children, Noam, 17, and Alma, 13, were kidnapped on October 7, 2023. They were released only to discover that their mother had been murdered on that day. May they be reunited in safety with their father.


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