How to find the right rabbi

August 31, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Does Judaism really teach “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:4)?

A. The “lex talionis” (“an eye for an eye”) is understood as requiring a criminal to pay compensation.

It is not a primitive law of revenge whereby if you injured my eye, I injure yours.

It also establishes that the compensation paid by a criminal is not affected by whether the criminal is a noble or the victim is a slave.

The law of capital punishment (seen as necessary on the statute book in order to highlight the gravity of offences such as bloodshed) was hardly ever applied.

The sages of the Mishnah (Makkot 1:10) say that a court which imposes the death penalty is a bloodthirsty court.


Q. What is it about rabbis that makes it so hard to find a suitable one for our synagogue?

A. If I believed in old jokes I would simply say the rabbinate is not a job for a Jewish boy.

But the subject is too serious to be brushed aside with tired witticisms that were never really witty anyhow.

The paradox is that more people than ever before are learning Torah, but less and less want to be community rabbis.

Some taste the profession and give it up after a few years. One former rabbi used to say, “I was a pulpit rabbi for twenty years – and then I went straight!”

One explanation is that the life is hard, it tells on the rabbi and his family, and it constantly upsets you when your community is unresponsive to your message of piety and prayer.

The community judges its rabbi by his television charisma, his platform oratory, his tolerance (especially towards his congregants’ transgressions), his ability to mix, mingle, and tell jokes. The rabbi judges himself by his ability to be a man of Torah and to convey the timeless teachings of the tradition.

Both sides find the other wanting and quickly determine to divorce one another.

Whom do I blame?

The community, for being unfair and making a mockery out of the rabbinic profession – especially for calling the rabbis spiritual leaders and not letting them lead.

The rabbi, for not always being prepared to take a long-haul view and realising that true progress is bound to be slow.

The elder statesmen on both sides, for not properly mentoring the rabbi and the community.

I also blame the more religious and learned groups within the community. So what if they think they could do a better job than the rabbi? If they are so competent and clever, let them try being the rabbi for a change.

The Rav of Lublin was once asked where he expected to find rabbinic positions for his 300 yeshivah students, and he replied, “I don’t want them all to be rabbis; I want one to be a rabbi and the other 299 to be supportive and helpful”.


The month of Tishri when we observe the High Holydays is awesome and demanding, but the previous month, Ellul, is even harder.

In Tishri we face the Almighty Judge but in Ellul we get ready for the court appearance, and that is when we should really shake with dread.

Of course many people use the days and weeks before facing the music – of any kind – looking for alibis and excuses that might mitigate the sentence.

“I wasn’t there, Your Honour, when the crime was committed”… “Everybody knows I am incapable of committing a crime”… “I have a psychological condition and cannot be held fully responsible for my actions”…

We all become paragons of virtue at times like these – anything to avoid being given a heavy sentence.

A modern syndrome? Far from it.

The Talmud (Yoma 35b) records what people in those days might say when asked why they did not study Torah and keep away from sin. “I was too poor,” one might claim. Another: “I was too rich”. A third: “I was busy with my health and looks”.

The first one was told, “Were you poorer than Hillel? He had hardly any assets yet nothing would ever get in the way of his learning Torah”.

The second one was told, “Were you richer than Elazar ben Harsom? He had a huge business yet nothing impeded his Torah study”.

The third one was told, “Were you better looking than Joseph in the Bible? Yet he would not succumb to the temptation to sin!”

We can look for excuses but what is best in the end is to confess, “Aval anachnu chatanu” – “We admit our failings; we have indeed sinned”.

That’s what should occupy our minds in Ellul, the month of real trepidation.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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