Say you have a problem with a significant relationship in your life. It’s spinning in your mind and taking over your thoughts. It needs to be resolved as soon as possible so you repair, restore and move on. But you can’t figure out the solution on your own. You recognize you need someone objective to hear you out and provide perspective on the situation. To help you navigate this challenge and come out on the other side. But who do you turn to?
Sometimes a trusted friend is the address. The friend knows you well, is wise and perceptive, and can offer tailor-made advice. Other times, talking to a mental health professional is ideal to help you sift through the situation in a psychologically healthy and informed way. Perhaps a mentor in the community who you admire and know is excellent at giving counsel.
Reaching out to individuals to ask for help requires vulnerability. You have to be willing to reveal your insecurities and challenges in order to make headway in finding a solution to your problem. It will require emotional energy and investment in a relationship.
It is hard. There must be an easier way, right?
The easier way is hiding behind the blue light of a screen. You post your question anonymously on a social media group. Your dilemma involves significant others in your life, and your decision will have far-reaching repercussions. But you tell your problem to a group of thousands of Facebook users and ask them for their advice because you feel safe behind the screen.
The responses start coming in, fast and furious. They range from mild sympathy to outrage. Some suggest you break off your relationship with the significant other in question. Others take a more cautionary approach and suggest you seek therapy. On the one hand, you feel validated. Your problem really is a problem, and you even realize you’re not alone. But you feel confused. Should you “get out as soon as you can”? Should you “do whatever you can to invest more in this relationship”? Or should you just hire a therapist?
Suddenly, your intuition is blurred, and instead of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, you just see multiple tunnels going in various directions. You are left with zero clarity. If you do choose one approach (the one offered by the majority of Facebook users), you’ll still hear the voices of others, especially the outraged ones, grating in the back of your mind.
What is the Jewish approach to seeking counsel?
There is the famous mishnah in Pirkei Avos: “Appoint a teacher (rav) for yourself; acquire a friend for yourself” (1;6). The Rambam comments that even if a person is inferior to you intellectually, you can still appoint that person as your teacher, because the exchange of ideas yields greater clarity. Speaking about a problem and hashing it out with someone else can lead you closer to finding a solution. However, other commentators translate the word “Rav” literally, not as teacher, but as Rabbi, seeing in these words a charge that every community must engage a Rabbi who will act as a spiritual mentor.
Do you have a Rabbi?
The “Do you have a Rabbi?” topic is fraught nowadays. There can be many reasons why one may not have one:
- Many people do not have a family Rabbi because they do not daven in a traditional shul. They daven in a basement-type minyan that does not have a Rabbi.
- Some families have a shul Rabbi, but do not feel the Rabbi is a good fit for them. They feel that the Rabbi is too frum or not frum enough, not their vision of their ‘ideal Rabbi,’ or lacking empathy and understanding of who they are.
- Some men had a relationship with a Rebbi during their Yeshiva days but did not maintain it for various reasons, including not wanting to take up their his time or a general veering away from the yeshiva world.
- We’re hesitant to speak to a Rav about an issue because we don’t want a “psak” – we don’t want to be pushed into anything. Asking a Rav is different than asking a friend because some form of obligation will be attached.
- Some men and women feel distrust for Rabbonim. Due to past negative experiences, or a lack of belief that a Rav can offer personalized guidance, they prefer to solve their problems independently.
Regarding Rebbetzins, some Rabbi’s wives are only Rebbetzins by default, as they married a Rabbi. They are not interested, do not have the time, or do not feel qualified to serve as a mentor and advisor. For women with a more formal Rebbetzin in their shul, it may simply not be a good shidduch. We need to feel comfortable and aligned with a mentor before sharing and seeking advice. Finally, there appears to be a shortage of women in mentorship roles, whether shul Rebbetzins or not, in our communities. And if someone seeks counsel from a Rebbetzin or mentor in another city, the Rebbetzin may likely not have the time to invest in this out-of-town relationship.
Having a Rav is having a relationship. We often live on autopilot, trying to get through the day. We try to solve our problems on our own, and sometimes we just make the problems worse. We don’t have the emotional energy to pick up the phone or fear what that conversation might yield.
But the cornerstone of Jewish life is community, and the cornerstone of a Jewish community is Jewish leadership. Our leaders are our Rabbonim, Rebbetzins, and mentors. Not every Rav and Rebbetzin will be a good fit, and we don’t have to force a relationship that isn’t comfortable. However, for the sake of our growth and the growth of our families, we need to find that one person who can help us find clarity whenever life decisions become too challenging for us to navigate on our own.