Question: Do older Jews have a rebbe?
Answer: Recently I met with one of the gedolei yisrael in Yerushalayim to discuss a halachic issue. In the course of our conversation he asked me, “Who is your rebbe?” The question seemed out of place. I am a great-grandfather who has served as a rav for 50 years in some of the most prestigious rabbinical positions in the United States and Australia. I have also written seven sefarim on halacha. Should someone at my age and with my experience have a rebbe?
When this gadol b’yisrael posed his question, I must say I looked at this octogenarian rav and tried to imagine whether he had a rebbe. But I felt that was not a proper thought to voice and so instead responded, “I have no rebbe today.”
In fact, though, my response was not quite accurate. I have three rebbeim: my father, my father-in-law, and my rosh yeshiva. All are in shamayim. My father, HaRav Meyer Cohen, z”l, was the menahel of the Agudat HaRabonim for over 20 years. He decorated our home with sefarim and devoted his life to Torah and klal Yisrael, setting the tone for my life as well. My father-in-law, HaRav Yaakov Nayman, z”l, lived to over 100 and was always available to respond with a Brisker approach to halachic issues of both a personal and communal nature. (He was a talmid muvhak and ben bayit of the Brisker Rav.) Finally, my rosh yeshiva, HaGoan HaRav Yitzchok Hutner, z”l, the brilliant head of Metivta Rabainu Chaim Berlin, helped mold my approach to Torah. Even though these rabbanim are no longer alive, they still impact my life.
Many years ago I met with Rav Waldman, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Nir in Kiryat Arba. At that time I asked him who his rebbe was. He responded, “Reb Simcha, are you not aware that people like us in their forties no longer have a living rebbe? My rebbe is not alive; he resides in shamayim.”
The truth is that I’ve come to realize that as we grow older the role of a rebbe in our life changes. The Gemara states that Rabbi Eliezer contended that he never said any words of Torah that he did not hear from his rebbe (Sukkah 28a). Yet, from a pragmatic point of view, this statement cannot possibly be meant literally. Perhaps what he meant was that whenever he had a halachic or hashkafic problem, he always asked himself how his rebbe would have responded. “What would my rebbe have thought? What would he have done?” In this manner, his rebbe constantly permeated his life.
I still recall asking my father-in-law, HaRav Nayman why he always wore his hat, kapoteh and tie even in the privacy of his own home. He responded, “This is the custom of my rebbe, the Brisker Rav. I am simply following his minhag.” When asked a halachic question, he thought about what his rebbe would have said. As such, throughout his life, Rav Nayman lived with the guidance of the Brisker Rav.
I suggest that’s the way to have a rebbe even at an advanced age. I should not have been startled by the gadol b’yisrael’s question about whether I had a rebbe. I should have said, “Yes, I have a rebbe.”
Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, is the author of several books on Jewish law. His latest work, Jewish Prayer The Right Way (Urim Publications), will be published in the winter.