All Rabbinics Is Local – Rabbi Barry Gelman

The most basic question is – who is a real leader? And the pertinent question for our generation is: are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation?

This quote, from this article by Rav Adin Steinsaltz reminded me of a conversation I was involved with a few years ago at a meeting of the Houston Rabbinical Association.

An internationally known, media savvy Rabbi spent a 1/2 hour telling a group of 20 or so communal Rabbis that focusing our attention on communal needs (visiting the sick, kashrut, Torah classes, counseling etc.) was not the best use of our time. Really what we should be focusing on is how we could be impacting the general community. If only we could show the world that Judaism had a universal message, we would be successful.

While Rav Steinsaltz’s article is more far reaching, there is a connection between his search for a “head” and the role of community Rabbis.

Rabbi Steinsaltz relates this touching episode in his article.

My sandak, Rabbi Avraham Chen, wrote a very emotional book about his father, Rabbi David Zvi Chen, who was a great man in many ways and the rabbi of Chernigov, in the Ukraine. In this book he relates how a young man came to his father to register for marriage. While formally examining his documents, Rabbi Chen discovered that the young man, who was also a Torah scholar, was actually a mamzer. There was not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that this man was indeed a mamzer. It was not even a question. He held the papers in his hand, and the young man, who realized that something was amiss, asked: “Rabbi, what about my match?” and the Rabbi said: “It cannot be.” The young man said: “I understand that there is a reason why this match cannot work, so what do you suggest I do?” At that point the rabbi had to reveal to him that the match could not be, not because the specific bride was unworthy of him, but because, being a mamzer, he could not marry at all. At this point, the son discloses that eventually he found the young man sitting in the rabbi’s lap and both were weeping.


Local Rabbis are the ones who know about the personal challenges of community members. Community Rabbis understand family dynamics and relationships precisely because of the time spent locally as opposed to on the road. Community Rabbis are the ones who can sincerely cry with their members.

This is one of the challenges of a centralized Rabbinate/Rabbinic authority. Local Rabbis are best suited to establish local halachik practice. All too often communities look for what “other communities” are doing, without considering that what they do may not be best for their community. Lay leaders should encourage Rabbis to lead locally by first and foremost focusing on what is really needed for religious growth within their community.

While this approach may not help identifying “The” head – that Rav Steinsaltz is looking for, it does remind us that if we are to have any hope of meaningful rabbinic leadership that Rabbis and community members should focus on local needs.  Neither Rabbis or community members should judge success by how they “play” in the media, but by how well they address local religious and pastoral needs.

3 Responses to All Rabbinics Is Local – Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. Mr. Cohen says:


    “Really what we should be focusing on is how
    we could be impacting the general community.”


    Precisely, what is meant by “general community?”

    If this includes Gentiles, the please remember that
    Jewish Law [Halachah] prohibits teaching
    Torah to Gentiles, except for the Seven Noachide
    Commandments [Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach].

    If anyone doubts that that Jewish Law prohibits
    teaching Torah to Gentiles, then I can easily provide
    a long list of quotes from Torah books that prove it.

  2. Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein says:

    What a touching and important story. Halacha is setting of standards of what is acceptable and permitted. Local Rabbinics can and should set standards for how we bring the Halacha and our community members together. If we could use this approach with so many different elements of the human condition that have to be integrated into our observance of Halacha, THEN maybe we could come up with reasonable approaches to the HALACHIC concerns regarding Mamzerut and so much else, including our GLBTQ children, siblings, parents and friends whom we so value, and others…. the possibilities are endless. I think that RACHMANA (one of the names we use for G-d, meaning Compassionare One) would approve. Happy 2014, all! Here’s to a year of understanding, wisdom, and COMPASSION — all which are also part of Halachic standards!

  3. The problem is one of access.
    Once upon a time you had no choice but to access your local Rav for personal and halachic issues. Meeting a Gadol meant a long journey through potentially dangerous terrain with no guarantee for meeting the Gadol when you got there.
    Nowadays everyone knows where the Gedolim live, where they daven and learn and what hours they keep.
    Think of it this way: if you had chest pain, chas v’shalom, and had a choice between the local family doctor and the number one cardiologist in the country who would you go to first? Probably the latter. But who knows you better, your family and circumstances, your past history, and all that? Your family doctor which means he’d be a more accurate source of information and planning.
    Gedolim at some point need to stop answering just anyone’s questions. Like Moshe and his judicial system their wisdom has to be reserved for the big questions. All their micromanaging has just made for more chumros. Their first response to any shailoh should be “Did you ask your Rav? What did he say?”

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