I was told that Jewish people must obey the rabbi. Is that true and are there limits?
As a congregational rabbi, I would like to believe that people want to obey me, but that is as unlikely as my children always obeying me. And that is probably for the best, for all of us.
The role of a rabbi in contemporary life is to teach and guide, rather than to make pronouncements. However, there is a strain of truth to what you were told. Another rabbinic role, found in the most traditional communities, is as a posek, one who decides Jewish law. When people in a particular rabbi’s community have a question of Jewish law—Is this chicken kosher? Am I permitted to marry on this date? Can we play music on Shabbat for our child’s bar mitzvah celebration?—they may choose to turn to the rabbi for a definitive answer. When they ask for this kind of decision, they are expected to follow the rabbi’s direction.
Jewish law is always in flux and subject to the interpretation of the time and place. Some rabbis tend to rule on the more lenient side of certain issues, while others tend to be seen as more strict.
Under these circumstances, you may not “shop around” for the answer you want. Once you place your trust in a particular authority and you ask for an opinion, you are obligated to follow that opinion. Some people in this situation choose not to ask their rabbi a particular question if they are fairly certain that the rabbi might disagree with their opinion and they feel confident that they are within the bounds of Jewish law.
Rabbis can also serve as a dayan, a judge, in Jewish legal matters, such as divorce, conversion or a business matter. In these cases, there is a panel of three rabbis, called a bet din, a Jewish court. When you turn to a bet din, you are also obligated to follow their instructions.
Most Jews today, whether they consider themselves part of a synagogue community or not, do not turn to rabbis with the expectation that they must obey the rabbi. Rather, they seek rabbis who will comfort in times of sorrow, rejoice with them in times of joy, instruct them in Jewish practices and culture and guide them to live a meaningful life. In all of these matters, we hope that individuals will consider the rabbi’s words with respect and we hope that they will gain something from the interaction, but we cannot force anyone to follow every instruction. Rabbis are as fallible as anyone else, and our words ought to be considered thoughtfully and critically.