A Spectrum of Rabbi-Student Relationships in Light of the Year in Israel

The Gemara in Berakhot 62a relates a series of anecdotes about two Tanna’im and an Amora and the extremes to which each of them went in order to learn from his teacher. R. Akiva and Ben Azzai followed their mentors to the bathroom, while R. Kahana lay hidden under the marital bed of his teacher, Rav. When rebuked for taking such liberties with their masters, all three justified their actions by declaring, “Torah hi ve-lilmod ani tsarikh –It is Torah and I am required to study it.”

One issue these stories raise is how far one may go to further one’s pursuit of Torah knowledge. However, a more general issue raised in these anecdotes is that of the boundaries of the rabbi-student relationship. The stories in the Gemara relate to the rabbi-student relationship as being centered around talmud Torah and Halakhah, but the question of parameters is equally pertinent when it comes to the parts of these relationships that exist outside of the classroom and beit midrash. When students look to their teachers for instruction on matters external to the halakhic system, boundaries that may already be unclear can be blurred further. Thus, healthy relationships between rabbis and their students should be subject to certain limits in order to uphold more important values. In the case of R. Akiva, Ben Azzai, and R. Kahana, the principles that may or may not have been violated were ones of modesty and privacy. In the context of extra-halakhic instruction, the values at stake include, but are not limited to, intellectual autonomy and self-expression.

Throughout my studies both at an Israeli high school and an institution for advanced women’s learning, I was always interested in the overlap between learning Torah from educators in the classroom and learning about life from these same people in other contexts. The above story from Berakhot is obviously an extreme, almost ludicrous, example. To me, the story has always highlighted the need for boundaries between rabbis and students. For the Modern Orthodox community, which generally champions the value of critical and independent thought, this question is particularly relevant. An examination of the parameters that govern these relationships is especially vital in light of the relatively recent addition to the standard track of Modern Orthodox Jewish education, namely, the year in Israel. Since the end of the twentieth century, thousands of Modern Orthodox students have decided to extend their formal Jewish education by spending at least a year immersed in Torah study in Israel, and the numbers are growing steadily.[1]

Rabbis and educators in these post-high school programs are usually significantly more involved in the spiritual development of their students than their American yeshivah high school counterparts. This can be attributed to the fact that while consistency and excellence in learning are encouraged at the high school level, students at yeshivot and midrashotin Israel are free of the stressful scholastic pressures of high school. Even in those programs that do administer tests and give grades, these are not a central part of the experience. The informal atmosphere that prevails, as a result, encourages the cultivation of rabbi/teacher-student relationships.[2]

Another circumstance that is conducive to teacher-student relationships in Israel is the nature of the year in Israel as a transition period for most students, largely because it is an experience that forces them to make important life decisions – religious and otherwise – for themselves. Therefore, they often reach out to their rabbis and teachers in search of emotional and psychological assistance.[3] Students seek advice on topics ranging from family and romantic relationships to their future goals and life plans.

In a community that educates for independent thought and healthy doses of skepticism, is this new model of rabbi-student relationships counterproductive to its goals? Furthermore, are rabbis and educators in year in Israel programs qualified to counsel their students on extra-halakhic issues? How so? This question pertains to the relationships between rabbis and members of the Modern Orthodox community both individually and collectively. This article, however, will focus on the individual aspect of this question.

There is a broad spectrum of approaches that can be adopted in justifying these relationships, ranging from models originating in the ultra-Orthodox community to models molded after various Western perceptions of leadership. It is my intention to discuss three such models that, in my opinion, represent the most significant points on this spectrum.

The first model is the one adopted, for the most part, by Harediand Yeshivish communities in Israel and the Diaspora alike: a concept often referred to as Da’at Torah. It is important to note that the origins of the concept of Da’at Torah and the extent of its basis in rabbinic literature are much-disputed issues and are beyond the scope of this article.[4]

R. Bernard Weinberger, former leader of the Young Israel of Brooklyn and member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America (RAA), eloquently defines Da’at Torah as understood by the RAA and the Agudath Israel of America:

“This [Da’at Torah] involves a lot more than a Torah Weltanschauung, or a Torah-saturated perspective. It assumes a special endowment or capacity to penetrate objective reality, recognize the facts as they ‘really’ are, and apply the pertinent Halakhic principles. It is a form of ‘Ruach Hakodesh,’ as it were, which borders if only remotely on the periphery of prophecy.”[5]

Proponents of Da’at Torah believe that extensive knowledge of Torah imbues a person with the ability to render judgment not only on matters of halakhic concern, but also on political, psychological, economic, and other issues.

One example of a supposed manifestation of Da’at Torah in the 20th century is the source of the extensive medical knowledge of R. Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, also known as the Hazon Ish. The ArtScroll History volume on the Hazon Ish’s life relates the marvels and miracles that took place as a result of his expert medical counseling. The Hazon Ish purportedly possessed knowledge of human anatomy and medicine as broad as any professionally-trained physician of his time, and he would frequently issue practical medical instructions to those who sought his counsel. The source of his vast repository of knowledge is unknown, though ArtScroll suggests that “his every counsel was Divinely inspired.”[6]

It is important to note that while individuals allegedly possessing Da’at Torah must be experts on Halakhah, decisions involving Da’at Torah are not arrived at through halakhic arguments. While halakhic reasoning may be part of the decision-making process, conclusions are reached by means external to Halakhah, be they ruah ha-kodesh (divine inspiration), intuition, or worldly knowledge acquired outside the beit midrash.[7]

According to this extreme view that upholds the idea of Da’at Torah, rabbinic leaders are qualified to offer advice and even issue binding statements regarding issues unrelated to Halakhah. Consequently, it would be very fitting for a rabbi at a post-high school program in Israel to advise his students on matters pertaining to family, relationships, dress, college, emotional wellbeing, or other extra-halakhic questions.

Another justification for rabbinic counseling outside the framework of pesak Halakhah (rendering a legal judgment)lies in a reexamination of the definition of pesak Halakhah. The concept of halakhic pesak need not necessarily be interpreted in the classical sense of a rabbi issuing a definitive ruling regarding questions of issur ve-hetter (the prohibited and the permitted). Many issues, individual or communal, presented to rabbinic figures might not appear at face value to be halakhic in nature, although they do indeed have halakhic ramifications.

On an individual level, a student may come to his/her rabbi seeking advice regarding which institution of higher education to attend. The choice may be between attending a religious versus a secular university, or between attending a university at all versus learning full-time in a yeshivah gevohah (advanced yeshivah). Whatever the options are, though the decision may seem to be outside the realm of Halakhah, its halakhic ramifications place it within the boundaries of halakhic pesak;that is to say, Jewish law extends beyond immediate questions of issur ve-hetter. In this instance, since the student has a halakhic obligation to be engaged in talmud Torah,a rabbi may advise his student against attending an institution at which he believes the student’s commitment to learning will falter.

The concept of what seem to be extra-halakhic issues having halakhic extensions can hold true on a communal level as well. For instance, R. Ovadia Yosef is the spiritual leader of the Shas political party in Israel, and thus his opinions have extensive weight in the forming of party policy. There is a general consensus in Israeli ultra-Orthodox society (especially in the Sefaradi community) that R. Yosef’s decisions are to be accepted by virtue of their coming from a source of Da’at Torah,in the strongest sense of the term. According to the model presented above, however, R. Yosef’s pronouncements could be binding for his community, not because he is a gadol possessed of Da’at Torah,nor because he is qualified to make political decisions, but rather because these political decisions are actually halakhic in nature (and R. Yosef’s qualifications as a halakhist are virtually undisputed in the Orthodox community today). For example, it can be suggested that when R. Yosef issued a statement in 2004 declaring that anyone who voted for Shas in the upcoming elections would be ensured a place in Heaven,[8] he did so in order to enable Shas to maximize its efforts to build and improve the religious infrastructure in Israel, a cause which can certainly be considered halakhically-driven.

A third justification for rabbis proffering extra-halakhic advice to their students is by virtue of their being “Torah personalities.” As an educator, a rabbi’s job does not end with teaching a shi’ur and assisting his students in honing their talmud Torah skills. It is the rabbi’s duty to impart to his students his worldview and system of values. R. Shalom Carmy describes R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik as conveying to his students

“Not only an introduction to halakhic literature and its analysis, but also a ‘philosophy,’ a way of thinking about, and weighing, the principles underlying the Halakhah, a living sense of religious experience, and a sensitivity to human variety and particular circumstance.”[9]

Indeed, the Rav’s goals as an educator were not limited to teaching Torah, but rather extended to passing on a religious experience and a hashkafah.

Without asserting that the Torah is the exclusive source of all knowledge, it is still reasonable to suggest that subsumed within it is an ennobling system of values and principles.[10] Thus, when a student looks up to a “Torah individual” who embodies many of the values that the student is striving to embody, it is quite logical for the student to seek counsel from that individual. The rabbi’s advice would then be considered more like a “point in the right direction” or a way to assist the student in applying his values to his life, rather than a formal pesak.

As mentioned earlier, the above three models represent what I believe to be three significant points on a broad spectrum of models of rabbi-student relationships. To me, a glaring, but not fundamental, issue with the first two models that is somewhat minimized in the third is the tremendous risk of abuse of power they pose. I think the third model provides more opportunity for students and congregants to be critical in choosing role models and counselors. But wherever on the spectrum a rabbi-student relationship stands, rabbis must be conscious of the weighty responsibility that comes along with agreeing to counsel students/congregants on extra-halakhic matters. However they justify giving advice on a matter that is outside their professional area of expertise, they must bear in mind the enormity of the power they possess to influence the lives of those who trust and admire them. With this power comes a measure of accountability, if not technical then spiritual, for whatever action the recipient of advice may or may not take.

On the flip side, it is crucial that the individual consulting with a rabbi is cognizant of certain risks implicit in seeking counsel on questions outside of Halakhah. Asking for advice when confronted with a difficult situation is surely a wise and commendable step. However, a distinction must be drawn between asking a rabbi for guidance so as to make a better-informed and insightful decision, and asking a rabbi to make the decision. When torn by a troubling issue, it is easy to abdicate personal responsibility for one’s decisions by attributing them to a rabbi and leaning on his status as a “Torah individual” for legitimization in the face of challenges to one’s actions. It is not difficult to fall into a passive approach to one’s life, in which all the important issues and decisions are turned over to people who are supposedly better equipped to deal with them.

This is especially true within the context of the shanah ba-arets experience. During the course of the year in Israel, students often undergo transformative processes that challenge many of their pre-conceived notions about Judaism, Torah, and life in general. When contemplating how to proceed with these developments, both during the year and after it, the idea of finding a trusted mentor to whom one can turn for advice amidst all of the change and challenge is an attractive one. Students must be mindfully accountable for their decisions and the actions that follow them. Extra-halakhic rabbinic guidance is not meant to provide miraculous answers and solutions, but to encourage self-awareness and trigger thoughtful decision-making.


Talya Laufer is a sophomore at SCW majoring in Chemistry and Talmudic Studies.

[1] Daniel Jacobson, “In Search of Self: Psychological Perspectives on Change During the ‘Year in Israel,’” in Flipping Out?: Myth or Fact?: The Impact of the “Year in Israel,ed. by Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson, and Chaim I. Waxman (Brooklyn, NY: Yashar Books, 2007), p. 90.

[2] Jacobson, p. 118.

[3] Jacobson, p. 120.

[4] For further reading, see Lawrence Kaplan, “Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority,” in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy,ed. by Moshe Z. Sokol (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992), pp. 1-60; Alfred S. Cohen, “Daat Torah,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 45 (2003): 67-105.

[5] Bernard Weinberger, “The Role of the Gedolim,” The Jewish Observer 1,2 (1963): 6-10.

[6] Shimon Finkelman, The Chazon Ish: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (Brooklyn, NY:Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1989), p. 205.

[7] Kaplan, p. 18.

[8] Lilach Weissman Itim, “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: Whoever Votes for Kadima Will Go to Hell,” Haaretz,March 25, 2006, available at: http://www.haaretz.com/news/rabbi-ovadia-yosef-whoever-votes-for-kadima-will-go-to-hell-1.183608.

[9] Shalom Carmy, “The Heart Pained by the Pain of the People: Rabbinic Leadership in Two Discussions by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” The Torah u-Madda Journal 13 (2005): 1-14, at p. 2.

[10] R. Lichtenstein develops this idea in his essay in the 1997 Orthodox Forum: Aharon Lichtenstein, “Legitimization of Modernity: Classical and Contemporary,” in Engaging Modernity: Rabbinic Leaders and the Challenge of the Twentieth Century,ed. by Moshe Z. Sokol (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997), 3-33, at p. 2.