Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Torah vs. Public Issues
To dedicate this lesson

Confusing Roles


Rabbi Berel Wein

All people are duty bound to try and help other people in need of such help. Rabbis are especially called upon to be available to help others in their times of distress and difficulties. Nevertheless, it is essential for one to be able to recognize one's limitations and true role. Many a rabbi has gotten himself into deep trouble by acting as a psychologist, therapist, financial advisor, marriage counselor or business consultant when that rabbi had no particular training or real talent in that field or profession. One does not consult one's stockbroker regarding medical issues just as one does not consult one's physician regarding which stocks to purchase. This seemingly logical and axiomatic lesson is nevertheless violated on a daily basis, often with sad and tragic results for all concerned. Especially in our very specialized world it should be apparent that one should not undertake being seen as an expert in a certain specialty for which one has no training or education. In biblical times Jews turned to prophets for advice and succor. But prophets disappeared from our world millennia ago. With the rise of the Chasidic movement in the eighteenth century, the figure of an all-knowing, almost omniscient, spiritual leader was recreated. That person was consulted on all issues of life because it was felt that somehow he had a special connection to Heaven and therefore to all that that this entailed. This concept, really rooted in certain kabalistic thought, soon spilled over into the general rabbinate. Though no matter how many rabbis attempted to avoid such an image and such practices, the idea of the rabbi as being an expert in all fields of life and available for constant consultation on all matters has taken current hold in the Jewish world. It has made life very uncomfortable for the ordinary communal/congregational rabbi - if there is such an "ordinary" creature.

A rabbi must of necessity possess wisdom and compassion. But that is true of every Jew, if not of every human being. There are many areas of life that a rabbi should abstain from ever giving advice about. One should avoid those issues that one is not well qualified professionally to render advice. Many of the difficult situations that have occurred over the past decade regarding rabbis and educators and their congregants and students are simply a product of the person in authority or being consulted confusing one's role and playing the professional or prophet when not really qualified to do so. It is easy to become sucked into the morass of other’s problems and attempt to help. But oftentimes such help turns into harm and exacerbates problems instead of solving them. It is very difficult to say no to people who ask for one's help. But simple logic and clear honesty demands that one should never overstep one's boundaries or confuse one's role in society. This does not mean that one should never be attentive to someone else's narrative of problems. But it does mean that one should be cautious and careful in one's response and to keep in mind that in most cases the wrong answer is far worse than getting no answer at all. I come from a generation where rabbis were very reticent to advance solutions to people's personal issues and problems. The world has changed greatly since I observed my father's rabbinic behavior. But I nevertheless think that one should not expect one's rabbi, physician, financial advisor or even good friend to become one's psychological therapist. It just will not turn out well.

In a truly democratic society, the leaders and politicians are subject to public opinion. Nevertheless, they possess knowledge of facts that the public is never privy to. That being the case, these leaders will often make decisions, which appear to be completely contrary to those of the constituencies that they were elected to represent. But that is pretty much what we pay them to do since political, diplomatic and military matters require experience, professionalism and wisdom. Many times our leaders have made grievous mistakes, but certainly those who do not possess the requisite credentials for making such decisions should not be empowered to make those decisions. This is really the thin line dividing democratic governments from autocracy. All of the "divine" kings and dictators were at one and the same time all-knowing, great military strategists, economic geniuses and omniscient in every way. All of them led their countries into eventual ruin and personal downfall. Confusing one's role is a sign of arrogance and indicative if a personality of hubris. The greatest of the teachers of Israel, from Moses till today, were and are people who can say "I don't know. Consult someone who perhaps does."
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