The rabbi of a town is called a mara de-asra, “master of the place.” This title is reminiscent of the Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 6a) that all matters of the town are the rabbi’s responsibility. Today, in the US, most rabbis serve congregations and not towns. However, it seems to me that their religious authority still applies to their community, i.e. those families who voluntarily join a rabbi’s synagogue.
What does “religious authority” mean? The Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 245:22) writes that a rabbi is not allowed to rule on ritual matters within the domain of another rabbi. The Gra (ad loc., no. 36) points to talmudic examples of rabbis refusing to rule inside another rabbi’s town (e.g. Chullin 53b). In other words, a rabbi is the sole halakhic authority for members of his synagogue and no other rabbi has the right to rule on halakhic matters for them.
Click here to read moreII. Outside Rabbis
The Gemara (Shabbos 19b) tells of a case in which R. Hamnuna excommunicated a rabbi who ruled like Shmuel within the region where Rav was the authority. Based on this, the Sheyarei Knesses Ha-Gedolah (Hagahos Beis Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 242:17) rules that a rabbi who issues a halakhic ruling within another rabbi’s domain is subject to excommunication (although some commentators understand the talmudic case as ruling against an established custom). (Cf. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Collected Writings, vol. 6 pp. 271-277.)
In other words, outside rabbis should not be asserting their views to members of someone else’s synagogue. That is one of the reasons that my standard answer to people who e-mail me halakhic questions is to ask their rabbi. (I find it difficult to understand the halakhic legitimacy of “Ask the Rabbi” features in newspapers and on websites.)
However, the reality is that not everyone who manages to pass his ordination exams is qualified to rule on halakhic matters. Some rabbis are excellent leaders and organizers but not halakhic experts. What should a rabbi tell someone from the congregation of such a rabbi? Ask your incompetent rabbi who might stumble onto the right answer?
III. Army Rabbis
I saw an interesting attempt to balance the prerogatvies of a mara de-asra with potential incompetence in R. Eliezer Melamed’s Revivim: Am, Eretz, Tzava (pp. 250-254, taken from his columns in the newspaper Be-Sheva in late 2004). Asked whether an Israeli soldier is bound by the halakhic decisions of an army rabbi or should instead consult with his rosh yeshiva or hometown rabbi, R. Melamed answered as follows: There are many excellent army rabbis but some are unqualified and/or too deferential to military superiors. Therefore, a soldier should follow the ruling of the army rabbi, who is the mara de-asra, unless his decision does not “make sense,” in which case the soldier should ask an outside rabbi.
R. Achiah Amitai wrote a letter disagreeing, pointing out that whether a ruling “makes sense” is so subjective that it effectively dismisses the authority of the army rabbinate for anyone who prefers to look elsewhere for guidance. Additionally, outside rabbis frequently do not understand the immediate circumstances and often are educators without training in practical halakhah. This approach will also lead to religious disunity withing units consisting of soldiers from different towns or yeshivos. And officers will ignore army rabbis when they see that even religious soldiers do not follow their instructions.
IV. Other Applications
R. Melamed’s response was, essentially, that despite all these problems, this is the way it has to be. I believe that his approach can be reformulated as follows: When a soldier receives a ruling that does not “make sense” to him, he should ask an outside rabbi whether this ruling falls under the category of a mistaken and reversible decision as defined in Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 242:31) and commentaries (admittedly a long discussion in itself). If it does, then the outside rabbi can give a ruling to the contrary. Otherwise, the soldier must follow the army rabbi’s ruling even if his outside rabbi reached a different conclusion. As long as the army rabbi’s ruling is not so mistaken as to be reversible, it is binding because he is the mara de-asra.
This same approach can be applied to synagogue members. An outside rabbi who is consulted and is concerned about the competence of a rabbi, can tell those who ask him that they should respect their rabbi and follow his decision. And if they should ever think that their rabbi’s ruling is mistaken, they can come back to this outside rabbi and he will tell them whether it is reversible, and if so give them an alternate ruling.