“A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.” These words, which are said to have been uttered by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, are often quoted to Rabbinical students in order to remind them of the need to speak truth and promote mitzvah observance – even if some of their community finds the message disagreeable.
Of course, from the community’s perspective, they want a rabbi who teaches Torah but not in a disagreeable way – as per the story where a young rabbi, fresh from rabbinical school, chooses Shabbat observance, Lashon Hara, and honesty in business as the themes for his first three sermons. In response, the president of the shul told him that these topics were agitating the community. “But what,” asked the Rabbi, “do you suggest that I speak about in my sermons?”, to which the president replied: “Judaism! Why not just talk about Judaism?!”.
I mention all this in response to a teaching of Abaye in today’s daf (Ketubot 105b) where he explains that ‘a rabbinic scholar is not liked by the people because they think he is of such fine character but because he does not rebuke his community in matters of Heaven (במילי דשמיא)’. Simply put, there are times when a Rabbi needs to say what needs to be heard. Still, what makes a good Rabbi is the ability to convey what needs to be said in a way that it will be heard.
Interestingly, numerous commentaries raise the question of what is meant by the phrase במילי דשמיא – ‘in matters of heaven’, to which one answer is offered (in ‘Likutei Batar Likutei’) that while Rabbis often prefer speaking about interpersonal transgressions ((בין אדם לחבירו, they often avoid emphasizing the importance of observing mitzvot and avoiding transgressions relating to the human-divine relationship (בין אדם למקום).
Naturally, just as the Torah has a balance between מצוות בין אדם לחבירו and מצוות בין אדם למקום, so too must the topics chosen to be addressed by Rabbis be balanced. However, what is important is that religious leaders don’t hold back from saying what needs to be said for fear of the kind of feedback they will receive, and while the word ‘rebuke’ may not resonate today, certainly it is the duty of a Rabbi to ‘remind’ their community of laws and values that can be overlooked.
Sadly, we are living in a time when ‘likeability’ oftentimes becomes the primary consideration for religious leaders, and while being disagreeable is never good, there are many instances when saying things that some find disagreeable is necessary. Ultimately, we’d do well to remember the words of Abaye and of Rabbi Salanter because authentic Judaism demands that we speak up even when we are the lone voice in the crowd, and speaking for truth even if what you say is disagreeable.