The role of a rabbi
The role of a rabbi

Precis: Torah should be taught in a way that respects and engages the learners, and thus, the learning is clarified for both the rabbi and the students * When necessary, a rabbi is also required to stand firm against opinions and attitudes that are liable to be harmful, but in a way that empowers people, and not the opposite * Struggles of rabbis against women who want to dance with a Torah scroll on Simchat Torah, or read the megillah in a women’s minyan, occasionally go beyond the desired bounds, and may provoke unnecessary controversies * And a letter about the impact of Torah on a nurses hospital shift

From time to time rabbis consult with me, asking what I think the main role of a rabbi is. I respond: to teach Torah, because the greatness of Torah study is that it elevates one’s soul and corrects one’s middot (character traits), making a person honest, dedicated, and diligent in his job, a good friend and neighbor, someone who knows how to contribute his talents to helping others, loves his people and his country, respects every honest and decent person, is faithful to Torah and tradition, observes and beautifies Shabbat joyfully with a significant amount of Torah study, donates maser kesafim to magnify Torah and glorify it and to help the poor. And all this, from Torah study.

Likewise, over the years I have attended several rabbinic meetings, and occasionally in various ways the question comes up about what the main role of a community rabbi should be. The prevailing opinion: to stand firm against destructive attitudes blowing in the winds of society that seek to harm tradition, and accordingly, they see the focus being to strengthen yirat shamayim (awe of God) and adherence to Torah. About a month ago, in a Shabbat sermon in Har Bracha, I shared this with the community. A week later, I received a booklet from one of the members of the community which captures my position on the appropriate influence of a rabbi on his community.

The Letter from a Member of the Community

“To our teacher and guide, Rabbi Melamed:

Rabbi, for about twenty years we have merited to take pleasure from your brilliance and Torah teachings. On various occasions, Rabbi, you have encouraged us to see the great value of our work, and learn to tell the great story of common people. So, as a simple person who still struggles between the ideal and reality in serving Hashem, and between man and his fellow man … I wanted to share with you, Rabbi, a preliminary and half-finished booklet I wrote in a personal style. A story of life’s complications and dealing with sickness, death and bereavement, along with hope and joy, faith and love, and a little Torah and redemption. This booklet was mostly written during my years of work as a hospital nurse.

On this occasion, I would like to say thank you, Rabbi, and bless you and your family to continue illuminating us and all of Israel with the light of Torah, the light of Torat Eretz Yisrael, out of good health, joy, happiness and abundance of all the best, for days and years to come.”

From the booklet, I collected some excerpts. Words written in brackets are my additions.

A Deep Cut in the Forehead

“The end of a 12-hour morning shift. A new patient. A 21-year-old woman after a motorcycle accident, who was admitted to the emergency room and put on respirator due to agitation and combativeness (acute mental upset) that did not allow treatment. Injuries – fractures in both arms, and a deep cut in the forehead and side of the eye. We received her anesthetized, on a respirator, and covered with blood in her hair, and on her face. She is accompanied from the emergency room with a surgeon who wants to sew her forehead. The nurse on duty wishes to wait until her initial admission, connect the new patient to the instruments, and perform the initial tests. After a few minutes, another doctor arrives, an on-duty general surgeon, who wants to sew the young woman’s face. The nurse on duty continues to insist on finding a plastic surgeon. After all, we’re talking about the face of a young woman – the best aesthetics is also a significant, remedial objective …

To our delight, a plastic surgeon arrived, a senior, specialist surgeon. The sewing is done with fine thread, 0-6, for about half an hour. The doctors leave instructions for continued wound treatment. The unit’s deputy director notes the nurse in praise for the insistence (the nurse is the one writing these lines).

The patient was released the next day to the orthopedic department for continued treatment and surgery of fractures in her hands. It could be, she may never know how her face was saved…

And I pray I will be able to combine sensitivity and professionalism, and stick to my opinion – even against senior staff and doctors in similar cases.”

The Injured Motorcyclist

Erev Chag Shevi’ shel Pesach (the evening of the Seventh Night of Passover). Night. Lying in the unit, a motorcyclist after an accident. Depressed, and anxious. At first, he asked to die when he realized he would probably never stand on his legs again. Second time, he asked to die when his pain increased while changing his position after sedation had worn off. Just then the nurse from the night shift came in, and explained to his father that he couldn’t stay the night with his son, and the patients’ anxiety rose to insane levels…

Then … a wonderful and gentle nurse walked in to the room, and whispered in his ear: Don’t worry, tonight the outstanding nurse from Har Bracha is going to be taking care of you. I’ll also be here, and make sure to give you painkillers before any treatment.

Anxiety levels go down … and so we start the treatment, change his position with the lever, the analgesia (pain killers) and sedatatatzia (sedation) help, but still the pain is intense. But his head is being held by warm, gentle, caressing and soothing hands. Now, things are easier… at the end of the night the patient excitedly kisses the glove wrapped around the nurse’s hand, and without a sound, his lips whisper: ‘thank you’!!!”

A Letter Never Sent

“An open letter that was never sent to the patient’s family … Your loved one, 46 years old, married to a loving wife and an adorable toddler, came to us on a cold and rainy Shabbat, after a long bout of resuscitation, with faint signs of life … Miraculously, he left the unit after six weeks, alert, communicating with those around him, recognizing his family, breathing on his own, able to move his arms and legs, without pressure sores, and accompanied by his loving family…

You, his family, left our unit in anger – threatening, gritting your teeth, and with endless grievances… nonetheless, you admittedly said it was a miracle! You should know, and it is important that we also remember, we are also an important part of the miracle! Every male and female nurse, every doctor, every cleaner and every intern, has a part in the miracle! A miracle of professional and effective care, of attention, of frustrating treatment, and sometimes of respiration and rehabilitation, of lung infections and inexplicable high temperature, of prolonged conscious sedation, muscle and joint stiffness, constipation and diarrhea, of severe liver and renal impairment, of sustaining emotional pressure, and allowing close and distant family members to remain for long periods of time.

We are partners in your miracle, even if you aren’t aware of it, and we will continue to strive to be partners in the miracle of every patient in need, if not above and beyond that!”

When a Rabbi Needs to Stand Firm

Unquestionably, a rabbi’s role is also to stand up against potentially harmful views and attitudes, even if they are voiced with good intentions, however, with two reservations: 1) The majority of effort should be directed to empowering a person to act according to his positive aspects, out of his natural tendency of emunah (faith) and achva (brotherhood) and ma’asim tovim (doing good deeds), and to elevate and perfect his good tendencies through the study of Torah. 2) Even when one has to fight, the correct wars must be chosen, and it is best not to fight against trends that are not so bad.

For example, I have heard from some rabbis that they are going to great lengths in the fight against the wishes of some women who want to dance on Simchat Torah with a Torah scroll, or to read the megillah on Purim by themselves. I asked: What’s so bad about that? After all, we’re not talking about profaning Shabbat, or something similar!? They replied: ‘This is a dangerous process stemming from ulterior motives that will eventually lead them to want to be called up to the Torah’. I asked: And what’s so terrible about that? After all, in principle, our Sages said that it’s possible, and only because of k’vode ha’tzibbur (respect for the congregation) we should not do so (Megillah 23a). They responded: ‘Because this leads to reform, and the Gedolei Yisrael (eminent rabbis) have already banned the Reform Jews’. However, in my opinion, this is an unnecessary war. From here until the reform movement, the road is very long, and in the meantime, there are countless important issues a rabbi can deal with.

The Attitude towards Reform Jews

Besides that, the Gedolei Yisrael did not ban the Reform Jews; only when the Reformers reached the point of kefira (heresy) in the Torah of Israel, the People of Israel, and the Land of Israel was a disconnect created, and even then, they did not ban and exclude them from Clal Yisrael. For example, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Aryeh Weil ztz”lH’YD, who for forty years served as rabbi, twenty years in the Haredi community in Düsseldorf, Germany, cooperated with the Reform community in the building of a mikveh, providing kosher food for Jewish institutions, and expanding the Jewish cemetery. However, according to his youngest daughter, Hannah Paltiel, he became disappointed, because in practice, most of the burden fell on the small Haredi community. In any case, there was no banning whatsoever.

My Approach in the Community of Har Bracha

Incidentally, over ten years ago, when I heard that in certain synagogues there were arguments on Simchat Torah about women dancing with Torah scrolls in the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section), I said that in Har Bracha, if there were women who wanted to, they could dance with the Torah scroll. This, so as not to incite controversies and insults about unnecessary issues, and also, so there would be no woman who thought it was prohibited.

Similarly, I was asked whether a women’s quorum could be organized to read the megillah on Purim, and I answered that although the choicest reading was be’rov am (with a lot of people) in the synagogue, nevertheless, since in the opinion of the vast majority of poskim (Jewish law arbiters) it is permitted, every woman is permitted to decide how she wishes to act, and women interested, are permitted to organize such a reading.

Nevertheless, it is important to note: There are communities where for many people, violation of the minhag (custom) is very disruptive, and if this is the case, they must be taken into consideration, and such initiatives should not be done in their synagogue. Not because this is the halakha, but rather, because a change of minhag sometimes causes a great deal of grief and is liable to destroy their world, and therefore in such cases we say – he who alters is at a disadvantage. But on the other hand, ways must be found in different frameworks to enable those interested to do what they wish if it is not halachically prohibited.

The Value of Torah Study

In summary: The rabbi’s role is to increase emunahyirat shamayim (awe of God), middot tovot (good virtues) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds) – by means of meaningful Torah study for men and women. In such study, the various explanations and considerations of our Sages, Rishonim and Achronim, must be clearly and honestly clarified, and engage listeners with respectful thoughts, as much as possible. In this way, the study is deep and well-clarified, for both the rabbi and the students, and a genuine identification with, and commitment to, Torah, is created. And although seemingly this is not a novel idea, seeing as this is the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, the value of studying the Torah, which builds man, family, community and nation, needs to be repeatedly emphasized.

It is important to add that the way to do this is to strengthen Torah study on Shabbatot and holidays, as our Sages said: “Shabbatot and ‘Yamim Tovim’ (holidays) were given to Israel only to engage on them in the words of Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15:3). Indeed, in practice, Shabbat is the time when significant Torah study, which elevates and guides life, can be held.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.