How To Build A Rate-A-Rabbi App

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imageFinding the perfect rabbi is an exercise in futility because every person has a unique combination of skills. A rabbi is in the right position when his skills match the needs of most of his congregants. However, those with other needs, who do not fit in with the majority and may wish to look elsewhere for rabbinic services, need the tools to find the right rabbi for them. These tools can be incredibly beneficial to Israel’s diverse society or they can be destructive to careers, to rabbinic authority and to organized religion in general. They key is maintaining a healthy balance between the rights of consumers to receive the best treatment and the rights of service providers for a fair evaluation.

With the new Tzohar Law in Israel, people can choose among authorized rabbis for at least some official Rabbinate services. They are customers who wish to use the rabbi who serves their needs best. Itim, a communal advocacy group that has at times taken a very antagonistic stance toward the Israeli Rabbinate, has announced plans to launch an app with which the public can rate rabbis and share their experiences: link).

I have not seen Itim’s app and cannot evaluate it. Instead, I will discuss the concept in general. Let me reiterate that what follows is not a description nor an evaluation of Itim’s app, which is not even available yet for review. (UPDATE: Itim’s web app is online here: link)

R. Aaron Levine, in his Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics (pp. 280-303), discusses the halakhic considerations of student evaluations of teachers. I believe that his discussion can be directly related to the issue of rating a rabbi, with perhaps one additional consideration. An important difference is that teachers’ employers support the evaluation process and may even require a self-appraisal. With rabbis, it is unclear how the Israeli Rabbinate will react to these reviews or whether the rabbis will be forced to complete self-appraisals or respond to the customers’ reviews. Therefore, what follows is my own summary of many of the issues R. Levine raises as I believe they apply to this situation. The reader would do well to consult R. Levine’s full discussion.

1. Fair Warning

The first point is that rabbis offer services and those who use those services are customers. Customers deserve to know in advance about defective service providers. If a rabbi consistently mistreats people or overcharges them, customers have the right to be warned. This is not inherently lashon ha-ra but, quite the opposite, a mitzvah of saving people from harm (lo sa’amod al dam rei’ekha, see here: link). If a rabbi rating service appropriately allows future customers to avoid poor service, then it potentially fulfills an important mitzvah–but only if done right.

2. Bias

Let’s discuss how to do it right. The first concern is bias. A major problem with most online rating services is that they lack quality control. Anyone with a grudge can leave a negative review. As we know, public figures accumulate enemies quickly, sometimes regular people who are somehow irked but often mentally disturbed people. A proper rating service must filter complaints so that 1) only actual customers with experience can review the service and 2) reviewers are honest and do not display a bias. This can be realistically accomplished, as we will discuss.

3. Relevance

Another concern is relevance. The rating service must only address issues that are relevant to prospective customers. They cannot turn into general complaint forums about the service provider unrelated to the actual service. Nor should unusual demands be portrayed as standard service. If the service provider is asked to do more than usual and fails, the review must include that information rather than simply saying that he failed.

4. Purpose

Additionally, the information should only be provided to prospective customers. Reviews should not become what R. Levine calls “a matter of curiosity and entertainment” (p. 286). Reading rabbinic reviews can easily become sport, or even worse in the hands of an unsympathetic media.

5. Timeliness

Hopefully, customer reviews encourage service providers to improve. If so, old reviews should be removed. It is not entirely clear how frequently this must be done but it seems improper to rate a rabbi today based on how he performed ten years ago. A review service should make appropriate measures to ensure that service providers are not punished for old mistakes.

6. Balance

Additionally, the perennial problem of customer reviews is that the unhappy customer complains much more than the satisfied customer praises. This creates an imbalance in the reviews. Rating services must make an effort to obtain a balance portrait of the service provider.

7. Respect

Finally, all reviews must be written respectfully and constructively. Nastiness and sarcasm detract from the seriousness of this exercise. This rating service is specifically intended to harm people’s livelihood and should be undertaken with the fear that a mistake can damage either the customer or the service provider.

Related to this, although not present in R. Levine’s case, is kevod ha-Torah, respect for the Torah, its students and its teachers. Rabbis, by their very position, deserve respect. Constructive criticism is appropriate but it must be solicited, provided and–if need be–publicized all in a respectful manner. Rabbis should not be above criticism, even strong criticism, but they still deserve to be treated with respect.

II. Proposed Service Terms

The wrong solution is refraining from soliciting customer reviews. That fails to achieve the important goal of warning future customers and also deprives service providers of important feedback that can help them improve. What follows are suggestions based on the above discussion:

  1. A rating app of rabbis should allow customers to enter their feedback but requires their including identifying information that includes how they received the service and what it was. The service must assure reviewers of confidentiality.
  2. The review should primarily consist of yes/no or multiple choice questions that directly reflect the service provided, although a free-form comment must also be allowed so the customer can explain his specific circumstances.
  3. The feedback is reviewed by a committee looking to weed out unfair ratings.
  4. The free-form reviews are edited for language to ensure they are serious and constructive.
  5. Reviews are actively solicited from all customers, those with positive and negative experiences, to ensure balance. Indeed, if this review service becomes popular, rabbis should be told to encourage happy customers to fill out a review. The unhappy customers will presumably register their complaints without prompting.
  6. The rating app requires prospective customers to actively request reviews of specific rabbis they are considering using. There should be a request feature rather than automatic availability of information on every service provider. While this will be easily undermined by malicious journalists, it puts the burden of lashon ha-ra on the journalists and not the organization providing the rating service.

These are my suggestions. I’m interested in hearing what others have to say about developing a positive way of reviewing rabbinic services.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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