Choosing leaders, quizzing authority


A number of years ago, I had an uncomfortable experience. I ran into an old friend who, like me, is an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. He had started a cutting-edge program for women interested in developing rabbinic leadership; in the Orthodox world, a rather new and somewhat controversial idea.

As he shared his enthusiasm for the project, I innocently asked what our rosh yeshiva and mentor, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, thought about his project. His response: “Oh, I’m way past that!” took me by surprise and made me distinctly uncomfortable, though it took me a while to understand why. 

On the one hand, there is something beautiful about a leadership that encourages its students to think for themselves rather than rely completely on their teachers’ opinions. As an example, I distinctly recall Rav Lichtenstein’s and Rav Amital’s strong reactions to students in the yeshiva who opposed their political views, stating unequivocally that such opposition was healthy, especially as they both felt Jewish law did not mandate a specific political opinion. It seemed so refreshingly different from the haredi world whose rabbinic leaders seemed to command fealty to every administrative decision.

And yet the Torah nonetheless clearly commands us to follow our leaders’ rulings: “You shall do according to what they tell you … and keep it according to all which they teach you. According to the Torah they will teach you … you may not deviate from that which they tell you, to the right or the left” (Devarim 17: 10-11).

So how does one balance the value of healthy questioning and diverse opinions with the danger of undermining rabbinic authority? 

This week, in the portion of Shemini, we read one of the most tragic episodes in the entire Torah: the untimely and devastating deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the elder sons of Aaron, on the very day they are all anointed for the first time as kohanim in the newly dedicated Mishkan. 

There are many different opinions as to what transgression these two young leaders committed that necessitated their deaths. Did they bring a fire that was not commanded, caught up in the passion of the moment? Did they enter the holy Tabernacle drunk? Were they arrogant?

Rashi (Vayikra 10:2) quotes the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Eiruvin 63) that they died because they issued a halachic ruling in front of their teacher. They should have asked Moshe before bringing their “foreign” (not commanded) fire.

But why would such a mild mistake require such a severe response? What warranted such a severe punishment?

Interestingly, the Talmud there notes that the same Rabbi Eliezer had a student who once issued a ruling in Rabbi Eliezer’s presence, whereupon R. Eliezer declared that the student would not live out the year. Indeed, the student died less than a year later. Obviously there is a larger issue at stake here.


av Chaim Shmuelevitz, in his Sichos Mussar, suggests that the undermining of rabbinic leadership is a much bigger issue than just disrespect for a teacher. Judaism itself, as a viable ongoing tradition, depends on whether and how we respect the rabbis who teach us Torah. 

Indeed, one can find this question in one of the most magnificent events in Jewish history, as well as one if its most infamous. When the Jewish people leave Egypt for Canaan, Moshe suddenly instructs them to head back towards Egypt (Shemot 14:2). Incredibly, the Jews listen to Moshe and turn around; there is not a word of protest. It’s almost as though G-d had designed this moment to demonstrate that we need to listen to our leaders unfailingly.

But the sin of the Golden Calf begins essentially because the Jewish people do not respect their elders. They did not consult with Aharon and Chur, whom Moshe had left in charge, even murdering Chur for his attempt to defy the mob.

Jewish tradition can only exist if we are committed to a leadership that we are prepared to follow without hesitation (though a teacher who wishes to forgo his honor may do so; Rambam Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:11). 

So how do we differentiate between the value of different opinions and the obedience that true respect for Torah demands? 

Perhaps we need to start with the question of what a rav, particularly a moreh halacha, is. In fact, one might suggest that if we are struggling with whether to adhere to the rulings of a rav, then he is not not really our true teacher.

I recently found an interesting point attributed to the great halachic arbiter of the last generation, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. Noting that the book of Vayikra is also known as Torat Kohanim (the book of laws pertaining to priests), Rav Moshe finds it peculiar that Moshe is exhorted to speak to the entire Jewish people first, and only in the second portion, Tzav, to the Kohanim.

Perhaps because in order to choose educated leaders, we have to first be somewhat educated ourselves. It is not an accident that the greatest Torah leaders belong to the communities of the most Torah-educated Jews.

True leadership begins with trust; we have to be willing to accept what our rabbis teach us even when we find it difficult. Otherwise they are no longer really our teachers. And a Judaism without rabbinic leadership is an orphaned Judaism. It cannot survive. 

A rabbi can forgo his honor, and he can encourage divergence of opinion in matters of politics and daily living, but he cannot compromise his Torah principles. 

We owe it to our children to become educated enough to appoint and choose Torah leadership well versed in Jewish tradition and Torah knowledge. And we owe them just as much to find a rabbinic leadership whose halachic decisions we can accept without hesitation, even when we find them difficult to understand. 

As Rabbi Eliezer intuited, and the Torah teaches through the tragic story of Nadav and Avihu, a Judaism which disrespects or disavow our teachers simply because we do not like their rulings cannot survive. 

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.