The “Holy Jew” of Pryzucka1 once said: “First there were the prophets, but God
looked and saw that the situation was deteriorating and that the prophets no
longer were what they used to be. Then prophecy ceased, and the prophets were
replaced by the mishnaic and talmudic sages. After some time, they too, began to
go downhill, so God brought the Geonim, but after a while that reality also
began to worsen. The Geonim were then followed by the great rabbis, the Rishonim
and the Aharonim, but they deteriorated as well. So God brought the hassidic
And now,” said the Holy Jew, “I see that this, too, is about to
deteriorate, but I do not know what will come after that.”
This is a
statement not only about the changes that take place in reality, but about the
fact that in every generation and every period the Jewish people always has
leaders. I do not mean political leadership: There are political leaders with
considerable power in their hands, but eventually the memories of even the
greatest dictators fade and they become exactly like their myriad subjects who
were, in their eyes, as the dust of the earth.
What, for instance, is
left from Nimrod, the supreme political leader in the days of our Patriarch
Abraham? Perhaps a few legends, maybe not even that.
In the final
analysis, it is not the political leaders who change the world. Alongside them
there are always people who mold and form the inner essence, even when they have
no official function. Unfortunately, the prophets were not political leaders;
rather, they were like bystanders who served as targets for insults.
the Prophet Isaiah who was of obvious nobility – as is reflected in his high
style, and confirmed by our sages who say (Tractate Megilla 10b) that he was the
king’s cousin – attests (50:6): “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to
them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and
Yet the prophets are remembered much more than most of the
kings, and have had much greater influence both in their own generation and in
the times to come. In every generation there are leaders. They may be prophets
or philosophers, technicians or scientists, inventors of new contraptions or
mass media figures. They are the ones who set the course of the
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? In the past century, the
role of the rabbi has undergone a major transformation.
The reasons for
this are numerous, some of which are economic.
However, the fact is that
today, the rabbi’s position as a consultant on halachic matters is not very
relevant. How many people turn to rabbis with questions about kashrut? Today
rabbis are being asked to solve totally different problems: husband-wife or
parent-child relationships, and sometimes also issues of faith. As such, the
rabbi, who is not a trained marriage counselor, psychologist or philosopher, is
forced to answer them. Consequently, nowadays rabbis are, unfortunately, dealing
mainly with issues for which they have not been properly trained, and rarely are
they dealing with those areas for which they did receive the proper training.
How can a typical rabbi who married at the age of 19 and has been living with
the same woman ever since, truly help someone who is involved in a relationship
with his friend’s wife? How many rabbis have delved into issues of faith in
sufficient depth as to enable them to answer questions on this topic? What,
then, is a true Jewish leader? The Torah (Numbers 1:15) calls the leaders “the
heads of the thousands of Israel.” This defines their essence.
is thus telling us that a true leader is like a head. The head is the part of
the body that knows what is happening in all of the other organs, and feels the
pain of each and every one of them. Similarly, the leader is supposed to sense
the problems and feel the pains of everyone.
The rebbe of Ruzhyn used to
say that he could hear the cry of a woman in labor 400 miles away from
Regretfully, I ask which rabbi or rabbinic organization in the State
of Israel cares about the young prostitutes at the Tel Baruch beach? Most of
them do not even know what is happening there. I do not mean to say that rabbis
should go visit the place; but whoever is one of the “heads of the thousands of
Israel” should know that something like this exists, that there are X number of
girls there. These young girls – and it does not really matter what their
precise number is – may not be quite like our Matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, Rachel
and Leah, but they are our girls, blood of our blood and flesh of our flesh, and
if we do not feel their pain – that is a problem. This head may wear a shtreiml,
a simple hat, or a stuffed animal skin, but if it does not feel the pain of the
entire body, it is not a head.
Every Jew is an organ in the national
body, and every Jew – even one who is like the little finger on the left hand –
wants to know that s/he is connected by nerves, flesh and blood to its
S/he wants to know that s/he is not an amputated finger but rather
a part of the body, able to feel the workings of his/her head: We all are
members of the Jewish body, interconnected and attached, and therefore ought to
seek the head, our “head of the thousands of Israel.”
This is a genuine
search. I do not intend to carefully examine any of the rabbis, the famous and
popular ones, those not so popular or this or that baba (miracle maker): ^They
are all pure and holy. I am not looking for someone who will be given a platform
or granted an honor. It is my head that I seek; please tell me where it
I cannot point to anyone right now, or even suggest a way to look for
such a person, but I can tell a story. Before his passing, the maggid of
Mezeritch told his disciples that he was about to die that year, and that they
should seek another rebbe. They asked him: “How can we tell whom to follow, who
is a rebbe?” And he replied that they should ask him for a way to fight vain
pride. If he gives them advice, then he is worthless; and if he says “God will
help,” then they should follow him, for he is a real tzaddik.
should not go to those who claim to have answers to all of the questions, but
rather to a person who, when asked what the remedy for the entire Jewish people
is, will reply: “I do not know!” 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 Ukraine. In this book he relates how a
young man came to his father to register for marriage.
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
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.
the kind of rabbi I am looking for. Rabbi Chen did not suggest a solution for
that young man’s problem, because there was no solution, nor was he the kind of
person who would contrive a solution for a person born of a forbidden union. But
he wept together with him. He wept because he was a “head”; and he felt the
terrible pain of the young man who would never be able to have a family of his
own, just as he would feel a pain in his own body. For a pain, even in the
smallest of fingers, is felt first of all in the brain.
And one final
story: the city of Dvinsk (today: Daugavpils) in Lithuania had at one point two
great chief rabbis who were appointed, inter alia, in order to counterbalance
each other; one was Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen, who was the rabbi of the
mitnagdim, and the other Rabbi Yosef Rozin, known as the Rogochover Gaon, who
was the rabbi of the hassidim. Incidentally, they had an excellent
One day a third person – a Jewish doctor or lawyer, someone
with an official diploma – was appointed as the rabbi designated by the
Sometime later a local gentile encountered a local Jew and
told him: “Last night we got together to drink and play cards all night, and one
of the gang was your rabbi.” The Jew asked, “You mean Rabbi Hacohen?” “Of course
not!” said the gentile.
“Rabbi Rozin?” the Jew asked. “Surely not!”
replied the Gentile. “So who was it?” asked the Jew. The gentile named the rabbi
designated by the authorities.
To this the Jew responded: “Him? He is
your rabbi, not ours!” Indeed, the question about all kinds of rabbis,
designated or not designated, is: Whose rabbi is he? Is he the rabbi of this or
that organization that chose him? Is he perhaps the rabbi of the 1920 Edict for
Electing the Rabbinate, or maybe the outcome of this or that intrigue? If so, it
is no wonder that he is connected with all kinds of acts or rumors that are not
exactly pleasing to God. Who, then, is worthy of being a rabbi, a “head” for the
People of Israel? It is hard to tell, but there are indications. The Hebrew
letters of the name “Israel” also form the words li rosh, which mean “I have a
head,” or “a head for me.”
The People of Israel is seeking its head.
There may not be a visible head, but it is nevertheless incumbent upon us to
seek a real head and to follow him, regardless of whether or not he has some
public office, is famous or anonymous. We must find a person who is a head, one
who can feel the pains of the public as well as of the individual and uplift
them, one who can cry over the sorrows and tribulations of the Jews both to God
and together with other people, and occasionally also participate in the joys of
his fellow Jews.
This op-ed is based on a speech given at the Annual
Tribute Dinner to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and his work in Jerusalem on November
25, 2013. More information can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org or