"Ask the rabbi"
by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
With all the things that are available online today, things are becoming far more efficient and accessible. There is so much Jewish knowledge available out there; many Jewish websites even have an "ask the rabbi" option. This makes me wonder: is having a personal rabbi still such a necessary component of Jewish life?
Everyone knows the nuisances of those voice automated systems: you call the bank with a very specific question, only to be greeted by that chant "welcome to..." followed by a whole list of options that concludes with "if there's any other information you require see our website...". In fact, recently a bank in America came out with an advertising scheme for their premium members. The gist of their campaign was that if you are a premium member, you can call the bank and speak to a real representative straight away. Incredible! In a world where automation is the call of the hour, premium members are rewarded with avoiding the automated voice prompted service.
What we so dislike about these systems is that they rob us of our individuality. We are all presumed to fit into one of the 11 or 13 options offered by that monotone. Being addressed by a real person gives us the comfort of being assessed as an individual by a human being who understands the frustrations of day-to-day living.
Jewish law is on the one hand very uniform but at the same time very case specific. It is very uniform in that Halacha always tells us how things should optimally be done. At the same time there is hardly a case where Jewish law does not consider the individual and his specific circumstances - providing flexibility based on case specific criterion. These criteria are not necessarily part of the case itself but are often based on the individual's history or even his/her temperament. For example: There are many situations where Jewish Law will allow one to be lenient "but only in a time of great need". "A time of great need" is a very subjective thing which needs to take into account the immediate circumstances, the individual's history, temperament and much more. If it would be left up to the individual to decide for himself there would typically be many who would consider any situation to be "a time of great need" whereas others would not consider it as "a time of great need" even when their lives are on the line.
Our sages instruct us "make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend". A rabbi is not just a knowledge base - the internet provides plenty of that. In order to answer an individual's practical question accurately, a rabbi has to also be a friend, one who has a real connection with those people whose answers he addresses. An individual's situation should not be something that a rabbi has to get a "feel" for, it should be something that he already knows as a friend.
But there's more than that because the role of a rabbi is not just to answer questions. The rabbi is there to serve as "the face" of the religion, the gateway to the community and the religion as a whole. Developing a personal relationship with a rabbi is thus an essential part of ones growth as a Jewish person. G-d wants every individual to become a partner in His "business". The rabbi is there to show one how to become a partner in the "business". If you wanted to invest heavily in a company with unlimited potential, you wouldn't call the automated system; you'd want to get friendly with the directors.
So while the internet is a most incredible tool to advance one's Jewish knowledge, it in no way can replace the role of a friendly rabbi. As a premium member in G-d's "business" you deserve to speak to a person, not to a machine.