Beyond the Pulpit

June 7, 2024

Why so many don’t have a rav and what we can do about it

Elisheva Braun

He sits framed by overflowing bookshelves. He steeples his fingers and strokes them through his flowing, snow-white beard. His gaze is piercing yet compassionate as he weaves eloquent answers, filling paragraphs with prose.

(The archetypal rav, novelist rendering)


Do today’s rabbanim resemble the home study versions found in literature? Or have they taken on a different form?

The need for a rav we can form a connection with is as pressing today as ever, perhaps more so.

But contemporary rabbanim bat an unending volley of curveballs and crises.

Do rabbanim really have time for the pedestrian problems and everyday shailos that comprise the day-to-day? Where can we find them? Most importantly, how can we build these vital connections?

The Voice asked the rabbis.


Surveying the 70 percent

Yehuda Tomor, CEO of Cooloo frozen cocktail pops, recalls the moment that sparked his concern: “My wife was on a chat with hundreds of women. Someone posted that she was looking for a heter for a delicate and personal area of halachah. When my wife shared the incident, I was very disturbed. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way.

“That Shabbos, I bumped into a friend of mine who’s a rav in Lakewood. He shared with me that one of the biggest challenges today is that so many people, particularly in Lakewood, don’t have a rav to talk to.

“I decided to find out more.”

Yehuda took to the streets, asking people, “Do you have a rav?” Seventy percent of the 175 individuals he surveyed answered, “No.”

Tomor asked the obvious: “Why?”

The common answers were: “I don’t want a rav,” “I never made that relationship,” “I feel uncomfortable discussing things with a rav,” “I don’t connect with my neighborhood rav,” “I lost touch with my rav,” “Rabbanim are busy; I feel bad bothering them,” and “Why do I need a rav? When I have a she’eilah, I call the Bais Hora’ah.” Less commonly, people shared that they were raised in families where consulting a rav wasn’t valued, they were burned by a rav, or they weren’t “entertaining or personable enough to build the relationship.”

Across the spectrum, the numbers were about the same.

Most want a rav, but few realize how crucial having a rav truly is.

“The more rabbanim I consulted, the more I realized how big the gap really is.”

What is a rav?

“My relative’s community was looking for a rav,” shares Rav Yosef Fund, rav in Beis Aharon of Westgate. “They asked everyone what the rav should look like. My relative literally drew a picture, partly in jest and partly to highlight what we often do when we look for a rav—chase the image of what a rav should be. Similarly, a community in Switzerland ran an ad looking for a rav. The list of required qualifications lined up almost perfectly with what the old rav was capable of doing. Many times, people look back at what they grew up with and mistakenly think that’s what a rav has to be.”

So, what really is a rav?

Is he the embodiment of a stereotype? The clerical version of a therapist? A breathing encyclopedia who dispenses halachic knowledge when you need it?

“There are many different ways to fill the role of rav,” Rav Fund maintains. “For instance, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach distinguished that the rav of a small moshav must be able to answer she’eilos in every category, while a rav in a larger city where there are many qualified poskim is held to a different standard. A place like Lakewood certainly fits this description, where, for example, we can address halachic questions to one rav and seek hashkafic guidance from another.”

“Rav Raphael Pelcovitz shared Rav Shlomo Heiman’s counsel at the time he gave him semichah: ‘A rav doesn’t need to know all the answers; a rav needs to know where to find them.’”

That said, it’s key to know whom to turn to for what.

Rav Fund continues, “I had a close relationship with Rav Gavriel Finkel. We sat just one row apart in the Alumni Beis Medrash, and he would often include me in the discussion when yungerleit approached him with questions. Occasionally, Rav Finkel would advise them, ‘That’s a question for your personal rav.’ Some would inquire, ‘But what if my rav doesn’t have the answer?’ And Rav Finkel would respond, ‘Then your rav will guide you to the right person.’

“Regarding the role of a rav, Rav Eliezer ben-Porat once shared a valuable insight from London’s Rav Shloma Baumgarten: ‘A rav doesn’t need to say ‘assur,’ a rav needs to tell the person what to do.’”

The communal perspective

In a well-publicized recent Q & A session, Rav Gershon Ribner discussed the role of a rav.

“There have been many occasions where committees were tasked with finding a rav, but the process often proved ineffective. Opinions clash, and the decision is delayed for months or even years. The longer the seat is unoccupied, the more the dissention grows, and the more difficult it is for a rav to come in.

Rav Ribner attributed much of the difficulty to a distorted perception of the role of a rav. “Many people view rabbanim as ‘religious therapists.’ They worry whether a new rav will try to impose certain religious practices on them.”

In reality, Rav Ribner emphasized, the primary role of a rav is not to proselytize but to serve the community. He highlighted the example of Rav Chaim Brisk, whose epitaph reads, ‘Ish chessed’—a man of kindness. Despite his immense Torah knowledge and influence, Rav Chaim’s greatest legacy was his dedication to caring for his people.

Spotlight on the issue

Yehuda Tomor reflects, “I’ve always been curious why podcasts are so popular. My theory is that listening in on a conversation makes you feel like you know the people talking. There’s something very intimate about it.”

Harnessing this power, he’s currently building a podcast to introduce listeners to established and emerging rabbanim in the Lakewood area. The goal is twofold: to familiarize people with local rabbanim and to initiate conversations about the significance of having a rav. Through personal histories, anecdotes, and reflections shared by the rabbanim, the aim is to engage listeners in meaningful discussions about the role of a rav in their lives.


Clearing the path

Exploring the hesitations and possible solutions to finding a rav

“My father is very controlling, and we’ve been dealing with this very difficult family dynamic for a few years now. Our marriage therapist is advising us to put our own needs first in whichever ways are necessary. We need a rav’s perspective but don’t have one we feel close enough to consult. Aside from the weekly “Good Shabbos” nod-and-handshake, my husband has no relationship with our neighborhood rav. He has long lost contact with his rebbi from his yeshivah days and feels awkward reaching out with something so sensitive.”

There’s an explosion of Torah, shiurim, kollelim, and yeshivos, enough to fill an ocean. And yet, in a way, we may be more lost and leaderless than ever. So many bob about the uncertain seas of life, anchorless, leaderless, ships without a captain. So many don’t have a moreh derech.

We sat down with a variety of rabbanim to challenge the reservations surrounding cultivating a bond with a rav.

“I call the beis hora’ah when I have a she’eilah. Why do I need a rav?

When Rav Avroham Adlin receives a call, he listens to more than just the question.

“Sometimes, what seems to be a straightforward she’eilah is actually a lot more complicated. It bothers me that people don’t have who to ask, so I do my best to make callers feel comfortable. I’ve seen how tremendous the difference is between having a rav and not having one.”

Rav Adlin outlines the three major areas in which having a relationship with a rav is critical: halachah, hashkafah, and personal problems.

  • “There’s the person who tries to avoid asking even halachic she’eilos. If he needs an answer, he calls anyone, not necessarily the right person. If there’s a rav he feels is there for him, he’ll be much quicker to ask. With time, the rav will get to know him, his family, and his background, and they’ll build a relationship. Because halachah isn’t only black and white, this understanding is crucial. Instead of cookie-cutter, textbook teshuvos, he’ll get answers based on his specific circumstances,” Rav Adlin explains.
  • Aside from the letter of the law, hashkafah plays a role too.

“Every person has to find a rav who can help him get closer to the Ribono Shel Olam and help him understand what He wants from him in different situations.”

Additionally, “Not always does a halachic question get a halachic answer. Sometimes, what the sho’el needs is guidance. Not always does he realize this, perhaps because he doesn’t understand the sugya or the situation well enough.

“And even if the rav has to tell him things he might not want to hear, he’ll have an easier time accepting it because he feels connected to the rav. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t have such a relationship, he may view the rav as a spiritual ATM machine, where he submits a question and the rav dispenses an answer. In that case, when he hears an answer he doesn’t want to hear, he may want to ‘get a second opinion,’ whether or not it’s the right thing to do.”

  • Finally, a rav can offer chizuk and support in personal issues.

“Although I’m in touch with professionals when necessary, the role of a rav is very different from that of a therapist.” The rav provides chizuk, guidance, and hashkafah. In times of difficulty, both the rabbinic and the therapeutic relationships are necessary.

As far as crisis prevention goes, Yehuda Tomor says, “A prominent rav told me, ’90 percent of the people who call me in a crisis don’t have a personal rav.’ Imagine how much fewer crises we’d have if everyone had a rav. Issues would be addressed long before they spiraled out of control. Rabbanim wouldn’t be putting out so many fires; we wouldn’t be operating in crisis mode all the time.”

A rav’s involvement extends beyond formal consultations.

As the mother of bachurim, Shainy deeply appreciates her neighborhood rav. “The rav’s number is saved on our landline. When our kids have a question, we encourage them to call the rav and ask. The rav notices if one of my boys needs a good word. When my son was having a hard time in cheder, the rav would ask him to help set up for the shul shalosh seudos, which made him feel so important. On Shabbos, the rav speaks, and my husband and sons come home and discuss the vort. It brings the family together in a ruchniyus way.

“We pay an arm and a leg for rent, but we’ll never buy a house further out. Living near the shul and near our rav is non-negotiable. It’s so important to us to have that sense of connection and community; it’s worthwhile to be in galus to have it.”

“Where can I find a rav I can connect with?”

Finding a rav isn’t always a matter of being handed a leader. Often, you have to seek him out.

“Rav Adlin’s ‘virtual kehillah,’ as he fondly calls it, is a community of individuals who ask, discuss, and seek counsel with him. Organic connections have blossomed into a full-fledged kehillah, albeit without the pulpit.

“I learned with many of them when they were chassanim,” says Rav Adlin, noting that chosson rebbeim are often an excellent choice for young couples seeking a rav. “Others got to know me through my chaburah in BMG, and many were referred by friends or mentors. Some connected with me through the Bais Hora’ah.”

How do I build a relationship?

“As an icebreaker,” Rav Fund says, “people often like to approach a rav with less-sensitive questions. If they feel comfortable with him, they eventually start asking more personal things.

“I’ve noticed that sometimes, individuals come in with a minor she’eilah but really want to discuss other matters. Once, a yungerman came in with a small she’eilah well past my lunchtime. When I answered, he asked a seemingly offhand follow-up question. ‘Have a seat,’ I told him. My gut feeling was right: there was a lot more to the story.”

To find the right fit, Rav Adlin recommends treating the process like a shidduch. “Choose someone to start asking she’eilos to and see if it works. Once you find that rav, stick with him.” Consistency is important. “Have more or less one rav that you call. A rav answers your she’eilos based on how he learned the sugya. If you ask another rav a similar she’eilah, he may have a different mehalech. You may then be operating on a stira without realizing it. I’ve seen this happen.”

Genuine relationships are a two-way street. Look for ways to benefit your rav. Is he making a simchah? Perhaps a platter or a check would be appreciated. If you need a very long appointment, perhaps offer to drive the rav to a long-distance obligation and use that time for discussion. A mutually beneficial relationship will allow you to feel comfortable consulting when you need to.

“I’m afraid my rav won’t understand”

Says Rav Yosef Fund, “Understanding a questioner’s situation is important when answering questions. My good friend Philadelphia rosh yeshivah Rav Sholom Kamenetsky shared with me that his grandfather Rav Yaakov used to say, “We need to answer a questioner, not a question.”

“People are often concerned that the rav won’t understand their situation. This is a very real concern. We’re all individuals with individual situations, and we’re limited in how much we can understand of others’ experiences.

“Some rabbanim can bridge the gap more fully than others. If your rav doesn’t understand your situation, I’d say not to give up. Try explaining it again or ask someone else. Life is too important to just give up.”

Rav Fund was once asked to deal with a complex situation. “I discussed the situation with many rabbanim, gathering a lot of eitzos and insights. When I consulted Rav Eliyahu Rosenthal of Yerushalayim, he pointed me to a vort from Rav Chaim Volozhin in Sefer Ruach Chaim.

Rav Chaim comments on the mishnah (Avos 2:7) “Marbeh eitzah marbeh tevunah” by quoting the pasuk (Mishlei 11: 14) ‘Uteshuah brov yo’etz,’ stating, “Marbeh yo’etz marbeh tevunah.”

He explains why people achieve tevunah, or one’s own understanding after seeking advice. No advisor, being on the outside, fully comprehends the internal complexities of the matter. The person who seeks counsel understands the entirety of the issue but lacks the wisdom of others. By gathering advice, and only by gathering advice, can one understand how to choose from various ideas. Rav Rosenthal assured Rav Fund, “Once you gather all the advice, you’ll understand what to do.”

“I don’t want to be a bother”

“I don’t connect with my neighborhood rav, and it feels wrong to approach the rav of a nearby kehillah. After all, I’m not a paying congregant.”

“My rav is so busy dealing with huge issues. I feel bad bothering him with my stuff.”

“I never know when to ask. Is my problem really big enough to warrant a rav’s involvement?”

“I don’t want to take advantage.”

When Yehuda Tomor ran his survey, he found that for many, their lack of a moreh derech was the outgrowth of not wanting to take advantage.

We asked Rav Shmuel Perlstein, rav of Khal Eitz Chaim in Brookwood 4 in Jackson, to address these hesitations.

“I always tell people that talking to them is not lost time; It’s accomplished time. The Eibershter gave me time so I can help people. And it’s not just rabbanim. In Yiddishkeit, we don’t have designated jobs to talk to people, like therapists. Every Yid is born zulaso, to help others. ‘Olam chessed yibaneh.’

A person shouldn’t feel uncomfortable asking—you’re not taking anyone’s time. This is what we’re here for.”

Is it okay to consult a rav from a different neighborhood? “Of course. You can talk to anyone; everyone should be available to speak to people.”

There’s one stipulation. “If it’s a question that pertains to your kehillah, ask the rav of your kehillah.”

“Many senior rabbanim are overloaded. Can I trust a newer rav?”

Rav Belsky once pointed out that people are hesitant to ask younger rabbanim she’eilos.

“How are the older rabbanim able to answer she’eilos?” Rav Belsky asked. “Because when they were young, people asked them she’eilos. They consulted their rebbeim, and they grew from the experience.”

“When you have a she’eilah, ask, and the rav will get guidance if he has to,” Rav Adlin says. “Younger rabbanim generally have more time to help people, so they’re a good avenue. If you’re not sure you can trust the rav, I suggest asking who his shimush rebbi was and speak to that rav about him. There’s a mesorah. We all learn from our rebbe’im and then pass on what we learned to the next generation.”

Because ultimately, none of this takes place in a vacuum.

Leadership is a chain, from Moshe to Yehoshua to today’s gedolim and to young, pre-biography rabbanim.

It’s a chain we each have a place in. With the right direction, we can pass on the mesorah, as pure as the original, to the future generations.