Auntie Chaya’s Guide to Asking a Rav

Yocheved’s article on birth control made my blood boil for one reason: Her kallah teacher decided for herself that she was qualified to both speak in the name of everything the Rebbe ever said, and to make a psak halacha for Yocheved. “Can I use birth control?” is a question for a Rav. Period. Full stop. Ain’t nobody in the WORLD except your own Rav who has a right to tell you if it is permissible in Jewish law for you to use birth control.

It seems like everyone is a Rav, or at least thinks he or she is. Have you noticed that? How many times have you had some bigmouth say to you, “Chabad doesn’t do that” or “Chassidim don’t do that”, or “Well such-and-such a gadol’s wife does this or that, so I hold by that (and so should you),” or “My friend told me it’s not kosher.”  What ever happened to having a question in Jewish law and calling a Rav?

I’ll tell you that one thing that happened is online social networks. Now, instead of doing the right thing and CALLING A RAV, you can go on imamother.com or Facebook or loshonharamessageboard.com and ask any idiot on the entire internet a she’elah. “I heard that it’s not kosher to eat broccoli anymore. I have a broccoli kugel in my oven and I don’t know if I can eat it.”

DUDE. Call a Rav. Or do you just want to stir up an argument on Facebook about whether or not it’s kosher to eat broccoli? A Rav might tell Susie Sunshine that SHE shouldn’t eat broccoli because of the CHANCE there could be worms in it even after checking, but that SAME RAV might tell YOU that you can eat all the broccoli you want. Why? It’s all in how you ask the question, and what information you give to the Rav that can help him to assess whether or not something is halachicly OK for YOU.

In any question about what you actually can and cannot do in Jewish law, there’s usually room for a few options: bottom-line simple halacha, community customs, assorted stringencies, the possibility of a loophole, or the possibility that you need to be keeping the most strict possible interpretation of that law. Your question pertains to you, and if Susie Sunshine or her husband Rabbi Sunshine got a different answer: Cool for them. EVERYONE HAS HIS OWN SHE’ELAH. THE PSAK A RAV MADE FOR YOUR FRIEND BELONGS TO YOUR FRIEND, AND NOT TO YOU. How much moreso when your friend didn’t even ASK a Rav, but is going by what he or she heard or saw somewhere.

LET ME GIVE YOU A RATHER INCONVENIENT EXAMPLE FROM MY OWN LIFE: People who know me IRL probably have noticed that I do not wear pantyhose, AKA “stockings”. Instead, I wear opaque tights or actual opaque socks. I don’t wear sheer leg coverings. Ever. The reason for this is that…I called my Rav and asked what kind of socks I could wear, and his answer was that I could not wear sheer socks. Well cool for me, eh? This is a Rav who is notoriously lenient, one who can find a loophole or an exception for almost everything (I’ve called him on numerous occasions and gotten answers like, “Well…it’s not preferable but you can do it in this circumstance.”)

Now walk around Crown Heights and you’re going to see a lot of pantyhose. Even this one rebbetzin who lectures on modesty wears pantyhose. But Chaya Kurtz? Nope. Why? Because I asked my Rav, and he said so. Am I telling YOU not to wear pantyhose and to adopt my incredibly chic summertime socks and sandals look? HO-NO, I am not telling you to do anything at all. I simply got sick of reading one thing in books of halacha, but seeing something different practiced around town. When the local Dayan wouldn’t make a psak for me in the leg covering department, I simply took my question to an impartial out-of-town Rav who had time and time again given me straight (and often lenient) answers. Boy, was I surprised by his answer. HOWEVER: The answer he gave me probably had a lot to do with how I phrased the question. Therefore, I’m confident that I’m doing the right thing, but I’m not about to dog on people who do otherwise, since for all I know they asked THEIR own she’elahs and are doing exactly what their Ravs told them to do.

“He does this and she does this and they told me in Machon YoMama that I could do this,” is my least favorite conversation in the world. My second least favorite conversation in the world is, “The Rebbe was every against/very for XYZ, and therefore it is not Chassidish/OK/minhag to do otherwise.” Really?! You read every single letter the Rebbe wrote? You know FOR SURE that NOT ONCE he said differently in a private correspondence? You know FOR SURE that he wouldn’t have said, “Ask a Rav”? You’re THAT well acquainted with the thousands, and thousands, and thousands of pages of responsa that the Rebbe wrote? Wow, you must be quite the scholar!

There are a few people out there who in fact are THAT well-versed in the Rebbe’s writings that you could ask them, “Do you know of an instance when the Rebbe said XYZ on XYZ topic?” These people are few and far between. They’re definitely not Susie and Rabbi Sunshine, or Mrs. “I Got a Bracha From The Rebbe to Teach Shalom Bayis (BUT I SHOW MY FREAKING KNEES WHEN I SIT) So Listen to My Bullshit”. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LISTEN TO THESE PEOPLE. CALL A RAV OF YOUR OWN HASHKAFA. SAY: “This is my circumstance. In this case, can I do this?”

Here is how to ask a Rav:

  1. Find a Rav who is not egotistical. Meaning: Find a very knowledgeable, experienced Rav who doesn’t have an agenda to make sweeping rulings for a whole community. Find someone who can listen to your circumstance and then dig down into his knowledge of Jewish law to find you the appropriate ruling for your situation. Not every Rav fits the bill, but a surprising number can if you speak to them clearly and intelligently.
  2. Call on the phone. When the Rav answers say, “Hello, Rabbi XYZ? I’m calling with a she’elah.” He’ll then say something like, “Yes,” or “I’m not able to speak now. Could you please call back in an hour.”
  3. If he can speak to you, say, “I need to know what I can do in this situation. Here is the circumstance: [explain your circumstance clearly and briefly; answer any questions he has for you as honestly and as clearly as you can].”
  4. If you don’t want a binding psak and you want the ability to ask around before getting a psak, then phrase your question like this: “I need to know what is generally acceptable, and what my options might be for keeping XYZ mitzvah.”
  5. Thank him politely, and get off the phone. You now have officially asked a Rav.

A common gripe I hear about asking a Rav is that people (women especially) find the Ravs whom they call to be too terse, too rushed, and even possibly rude. I don’t doubt that sometimes such is true. HOWEVER: I’ve heard quite a few first-hand accounts of people who treat the Rav like a therapist, or who question the psak after it has been given. Neither will yield good results. You’re calling for a psak, not for therapy or for a debate. If you’re calling a Rav for therapy or for a debate, be clear up front with him that that’s what you’re calling for, and don’t be insulted if he says he doesn’t have time to talk to you.

And if you liked this and you want more no-nonsense talk from Auntie Chaya, read one of these: Auntie Chaya’s Patented Happiness Tips, Auntie Chaya’s Patented Shalom Bayis Tips