Rav vs. Rosh Yeshiva

Of the positions in the orthodox rabbinate, perhaps the two most noticeable and influential are those of the Rav and the Rosh Yeshiva. The Rav is more commonly known as a “pulpit rabbi” and is employed by a community to oversee and establish religious policy for his congregation.1 The Rosh Yeshiva is not necessarily the “head of the school” as its title translated,2 but rather is a Torah scholar who often teaches those who will eventually become Rabbis.

In contemporary halakhic disputes, it is not uncommon to find these two groups on opposite sides – especially regarding modifications to existing practices or customs. A Rav may wish to innovate, and a Rosh Yeshiva would wish to preserve the status quo. The real question is not the nature of the new or modified practice, but who has the real authority to promote change in normative Judaism.


Two of my primary teachers gave similar analogies explaining the differences between the Rav and the Rosh Yeshiva. Haham Yosef (Jose`) Faur compared the Rosh Yeshiva to a law professor and a Rav to a judge. In the American legal system, law is decided, determined, and implemented by a judge. It is the responsibility of the judge to not only know law and legal theory, but to be able to intelligently apply the law to the people before him.

The law professor focuses on legal theory. He studies cases and evolution of law. He tries to predict how the law ought to be as well as deciphering trends, past, present, and future. As a scholar, the law professor will know more law cases and would most likely know more legal theory than a judge.

However, the law professor does not actually make the law, but he merely responds to it. Only once a judge makes his decision can the law professor have something to work with. In terms of creating the law, it is ultimately in the hands of the judges. For example, R. Faur explained that law professors can debate the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the 2000 elections and conclude that Al Gore ought to have won. But while they can present theories explained the flaws in the Court’s decision, law professors have no authority to actually change the law and to bestow the presidency to Al Gore. You can argue why Al Gore ought to have been president, but not that Al Gore actually was president. Similarly, the Roshei Yeshiva may argue why a law ought to be a certain way in theory, but they are not in a position to actively impose or affect halakha.

R. Moshe Tender’s analogy explains the reasoning behind this logic. In the words of R. Tendler, “God forbid you have a Rosh Yeshiva making pesak for you. You want a Rosh Yeshiva making pesak like you want a mathematician to build your bridges.” Even though a mathematician may be an expert in his theoretical field, unless he is a trained engineer, he will lack the basic competency for implementing those rules to achieve a practical result. Does the engineer know more about equations? Probably not. But the engineer’s skill isn’t in understanding the theoretical intricacies at the same level, but of knowing how to implementing them to create a new structure in reality.
Similarly, a Rosh Yeshiva may often know more sources than a Rav. He may also have a better understanding of halakhic theory than a Rav. However, the skill of a Rav is not primarily in his raw knowledge of halakha, but his ability to implement halakha in the real world to real individuals.

Denizens of a Yeshiva live in an idealized world – the Jewish Ivory Tower. Between these walls, ideal halakhic theory can reign supreme. Students and teachers can easily accept upon themselves any stringency they wish. They may, and often do, attempt to fulfill even the most arcane requirements simply because they can.

In the first Edah conference, Rabbi Dov Linzer explained this phenomenon regarding the Aruch HaShulhan and the Mishnah Berurah. Initially, the Aruch HaShulhan – a community rabbi – was more accepted in the global Jewish community and the Mishnah Berurah was followed in yeshivot. As the rabbinical students left the yeshiva to the communities, they replaced the community’s primary text of halakha with their own. What is important to realize is that the shift was not based on any intrinsic merit of the Mishnah Berurah over the Aruch HaShulhan, but of the cultural preference of the rabbinical students.

However, applying this perceived ideal to the Jewish community at large is simply foolish and inappropriate. The Jewish community is far too diverse such that it does not make sense to issue strict halakhic rulings as normative for everyone to follow. Perhaps on an individual level it makes sense, but not for the society at large.

Roshei Yeshiva will often belittle a Rav because they, “do not know enough” or are otherwise unqualified to make halakhic decisions. In many cases, this is unfortunately true. Others, though less erudite in halakha than their Roshei Yeshiva colleagues, they have a greater sense of people and society at large. As such, they may not have the depth and breath of textual knowledge, but they should have the skills to find what they need and to apply the halakha intelligently.

Of course, this assumes that the Rav is properly trained.

Since most, if not all rabbis study in yeshivot, one would assume that they would need additional guidance to apply theoretical halakha to the community. However, this is far from the case in most rabbinical schools. As students in a yeshiva, Rabbanim are not trained not by other Rabbis, but by other Roshei Yeshiva. The typical YU musmach usually spends no more than one academic year doing shimush (internship) with a Rav, and even then there is no guarantee that he will learn how to be an effective Rabbi. It is a flaw within the rabbinical schools themselves that community rabbis do not receive the training necessary to be effective rabbis.

One motive for this negligence, albeit cynical, would be to protect a hegemony of religious power. As each student leaves and spreads the words of his Rebbe, his Rosh Yeshiva gradually increases his halakhic authority while slowly gaining legendary status. Roshei Yeshiva train the future rabbis and send them out to the Jewish world with just enough training that their students must always come back to them. Since the students are not trained as Rav, they lack the skills necessary to be effective Ravs. They have shiurim of theories and notebooks of opinions, but no idea how to answer basic questions, let alone larger ones. Unless students are taught a systematic method of halakha, then they will never be able to learn and discover on their own and certainly will be less likely to help their congregants appropriately. By crippling their students in this way, Roshei Yeshiva accomplish two simultaneous goals. First, they actively perpetuate the myth of “not being worthy” by not training their students to actually be worthy Rabbis in their own right. Secondly, by having students who are forced to go back to them for pesak, they reinforce their own “acceptance” rate in the Jewish comminity. As these Roshei Yeshiva’s students spread the word of their Rebbe, the teacher slowly attains legendary status and so becomes even more of an “accepted authority.”

Many secular law schools struggle with the theory/practice dichotomy – between teaching law and training lawyers. But unlike their religious counterparts, there is no personal advantage to be gained from creating intellectual clones. The ideal traditional Rabbi should be trained not only in halakha, but in human and social nature. The Rav ought to be compotent in both areas, but in reality, very few are. Worse, the way many yeshivot educate their students, very few will ever be.
Coming Soon: My take on the Modern Orthodox rabbinical schools, the future of the Rabbinate, and personal experiences.


1. I will discuss in detail the state of the pulpit rabbi in a future post. This one focuses on halakhic authority.
2. R. Tendler once gave a medical ethics lecture to the Navy. He explained to our shiur that when civilians come to the military, they are given the military equivalent of their civilian title. When the Navy translated R. Tendler?s official title of “Rosh Yeshiva” to “Head of the School,” they gave him the same rank as the head of their own school. Admiral Moshe Tendler was very much amused.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Rabbi Week.

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