We live in a drastically different world than people even a generation before us did. The modes of communication open to us allow for instantaneous communication between people around the globe. People used to need to wait for the newspaper the next morning to find out what happened somewhere else, but now, all one needs to do is point their web browser to the right address and discover live feeds of current events in every part of our world. Furthermore, this feed is not one directional any longer. Every person now has the ability to comment publicly about the actions of others. The boundaries of geography, nation, culture, language and religion are all disappearing in our ability to project our opinions and thoughts into the global discourse.
This new reality, with its global implications, bears weight unto the rabbinic discourse as well. The time it took for news to spread created an era of self-enclosed community, where rabbinic leaders of their community, exercised general autonomy over their rabbinic decisions. Yes, rabbis sent in questions to their mentors and teachers when a question was too great for them to handle but overall communal rabbis respected each other in their ability to, along with their community, forge a path that was appropriate for them. This led to very different approaches in Jewish communities in Germany as opposed to Jewish communities in Hungary or Poland, each local rabbinic leader responding to the unique realities in their respective communities.
Indeed, this approach was one very much fortified by rabbinic tradition. While God is one and His Torah is one, there are many ways, within the halakhic construct, to understand that Torah and apply it. Hence, seminal authorities such as Rashi1 and the Ritva2 write explicitly that differences of opinion in approach can arise among rabbis and that the right way will depend on the particular circumstances present.
The Talmud3 in presenting this idea concludes by recalling the Divine voice interjecting and deciding one approach, Beit Hillel, over the other, Beit Shammai. This would seem to contradict our general notion that each communal rabbi has the authority to decide matters that are appropriate for their community. Yet, even in this source from the Talmud, it contextualizes its conclusion by reasoning that Beit Hillel was preferred in that moment because they were “kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs.” In other words, they did not forcefully interject their opinion or aggressively assert their stance and for modeling this right and proper form of rabbinic cooperation, their path was ultimately chosen.
There is a growing tendency within the rabbinic community, corresponding to this tendency in all areas, to publicly critique those with whom we disagree over decision making or policy formulation. One can find rabbis voicing their disagreement in sermons, in articles, and of course, in blog posts. This sort of behavior is not only demeaning to the rabbinate in the eyes of our communities, as who wants to see rabbis feuding publicly, but it also is in contradiction to the very thrust of our tradition. Furthermore, because those critiquing are not intimately and directly involved in that situation, they lack all the details or understanding necessary to come to an intelligible and reasonable decision, and will forcefully present an idea absent the actual facts, nuances and particularities of the place they are speaking about.
Yet, we do live in an unprecedented era of availability of information as to the actions and choices others face in their communities. We are privy to the goings on in places hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from where we live. Are we to be silent when we genuinely disagree? Are we to ignore the information we do have access to simply because we do not live there ourselves and are not in a leadership position there? No, absolutely not, but perhaps there is a more appropriate way to express one’s opinions:
First, reach out to the leaders in that community and express your concerns. Second, truly listen to their response. Third, ask clarifying questions if we are unsure about something. Fourth, respect that there are aspects to a situation that one cannot and should not reasonably expect to know that informed the decision that was locally made. Fifth, if after all of that one still disagrees, express that disagreement to their colleague but do not use it as an opportunity for a sermon, an article or a blog post as more material to make one’s point. No other rabbinic colleague or other community should be objectified to the state of material for someone else’s point. And lastly, appreciate what this approach will mean when you are in a position where others disagree with your approach, and they likewise, respect you.
This method I believe will lead us to cultivating a sustainable rabbinic community in a time of ever increasing access to information and when geographic distance is becoming less and less of an issue.