Independent Decision-Making

  • Harav Yehuda Amital



The Mishna in Avot (5:20) states:


Yehuda ben Teima said: Be strong as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a stag, and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.


A Jew is expected to be strong in his belief and in his adherence to his chosen path. This is all the more important in our generation, when the surrounding culture is so inimical to the ways of the Torah. A person's character is measured according to his ability to act with determination, undeterred by difficulties.


            A person is further expected to be capable of deciding issues on his own. His character is also measured according to his decision-making ability. There are those who believe that, ideally, a person should turn to a rabbi for guidance in all matters; they see this as an elevated expression of fear of Heaven. In my opinion, this is a problematic phenomenon, one that contradicts what is expected of man. It also runs counter to our prayer, "And instill within us good counsel before You." Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya writes, (Iggeret ha-Kodesh 22):


My beloved, my brethren and friends: Out of [my] hidden love [for you, springs] an overt rebuke. Come now and let us debate; remember the days of old, consider the years of every generation. Has such a thing ever happened in days past? Where indeed have you found such a custom in any of the books of the early or latter sages of Israel, that it should be the custom and established norm to ask for advice in mundane matters, as to what one ought to do in matters of the physical world? [Such questions were not asked] even of the greatest of the former sages of Israel, such as the authors of the Mishna and the Gemara, from whom no secret was hidden, and for whom all the paths of heaven were clearly illuminated. Rather, these questions were asked only of actual prophets who used to live among the Jewish people, such as Shmuel the Seer to whom Shaul went to inquire of God about the donkeys that his father had lost. For, in fact, all matters pertaining to man, except for words of Torah and the fear of Heaven, are apprehended only by prophecy. [As the verse states,] "There is no bread unto the wise." And as our Sages, of blessed memory, said: "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven." Likewise, "Seven things are hidden… ; no man knows how he will earn his living, nor when the Kingdom of David will be restored…" Note that these [two questions] are likened to one another…


It is interesting to note that while we know that people sought out the Ba'al Shem Tov's counsel on all types of matters, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, disciple of the Maggid of Mezerich (third generation to the Ba'al Shem Tov), asks: "Where indeed have you found such a custom in any of the books of the early or latter sages of Israel?"




The ability to decide issues is important for various reasons. First of all, when a person is unable to decide for himself, his character weakens. A person's character is tested in part by his ability to gird himself with courage and make difficult decisions. The Gemara in Yoma (71a) states:


"To you, O men, I call" (Mishlei 8:4). Rabbi Berachya said: This refers to Torah scholars, who are similar to women, but act with might like men.


Rashi (ad loc.) comments:


"Who are similar to women" – modest and of feeble strength.


Where, then, does the might of these Torah scholars come to expression? In the spiritual strength that allows them to make courageous decisions.


            Second, the ability to decide matters is valuable in one's service of God. The Torah states (Devarim 18:10-13):


There must not be found among you anyone that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you. You shall be perfect with the Lord your God.


Rashi (ad loc.) explains:


"You shall be perfect with the Lord your God" – Walk before Him whole-heartedly, put your hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with Him and become His portion.


There is a value in a person putting his entire trust in God. Someone who constantly aspires to know with certainty how he should act in practical matters must understand that there is no guaranteed way of arriving at the truth. It was once common to go to a prophet with specific questions, as when Shaul inquired after his asses. Going to one's rebbe is not the same thing as going to a wizard, but even so, it may testify to a certain deficiency regarding being "perfect with the Lord your God."


            As a rule, a person must not allow himself to be dependent upon another person, even if that other person is his rebbe. Chassidut itself fought against this phenomenon. A famous Chassidic story tells of a Chassid who went to his rebbe with a certain problem. The rebbe told him that in order for him to resolve the difficulty, the Chassid would have to pay him a large sum as a pidyon (ransom). A few days later, the Chassid returned and informed his rebbe that, with great effort, he succeeded to raise half of the desired sum. The rebbe refused it. The Chassid went back and raised additional money, but the rebbe refused to agree upon anything less than the amount he had originally demanded. In the end, the Chassid lost his patience, and declared: "If this is the case, I believe that God will help me, even without the rebbe's assistance." The rebbe heard this and said: "Now, indeed, God will help you." As soon as the Chassid understood that his primary efforts must be invested in turning directly to God, the objective was reached.


            In later generations, Chassidic attitudes changed, and greater and greater emphasis was placed on the idea that the Chassid is dependent upon his rebbe even regarding material matters. Moreover, this understanding has recently spread even beyond Chassidic circles. I assume that they have answers to the points raised above. In any event, the approach presented here is one that I received from my teachers: my revered master, the gaon and tzaddik, Rabbi Chayyim Yehuda Halevi, Hy"d, and from my teachers in Eretz Israel - the heads of the Hebron yeshiva, Rabbi Y.M. Charlap, ztz"l, and others.


            This dependency is problematic not only for the disciple, but for the rebbe as well. It is inappropriate for rabbis to voice their opinions in areas that fall outside of their expertise, e.g., in medical or financial matters. There are times when expressing opinions in these areas can cause great damage. Many mundane matters are far removed from a rabbi's education and training. It goes without saying that this in no way detracts from his standing.


            The role of a rabbi – "Provide yourself with a teacher" (Avot 1:10) – centers on matters of Halakha and issues pertaining to Torah, the fear of Heaven and service of God. It also falls upon him to offer general guidance and counsel. But a rabbi must educate his students in such a way that they develop the capacity to decide significant issues on their own.



(Translated by David Strauss)