Rabbi, I Have a Prob­lem...

A group of syn­a­gogue mem­bers is mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for our rabbi and clearly wants to get rid of him. Surely it is wrong to try to force a rabbi out, and shouldn’t a rabbi en­joy ten­ure af­ter a cer­tain time?

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM JUDAISM -

Rabbi Dr Naf­tali Brawer gives an Ortho­dox per­spec­tive, and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Ro­main a Pro­gres­sive one, on prob­lems in Jewish life

I AM afraid that what you de­scribe is one of the oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ards of serv­ing God’s peo­ple. Moses, the first and great­est rabbi, was con­vinced that his peo­ple wanted to kill him (Ex­o­dus 17:4). The Prophet Jeremiah was beaten and im­pris­oned (Jeremiah 37:15) and the first-cen­tury Tal­mu­dic Rabbi Gam­liel was im­peached (Ber­a­chot 28a).

This is not be­cause they were in­com­pe­tent or lazy but rather be­cause they had the courage to speak un­com­fort­able truths. I am not for a mo­ment sug­gest­ing that mod­ern-day con­gre­ga­tional rab­bis have the spir­i­tual stature of bib­li­cal prophets but they do have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to lead and this of­ten in­volves tak­ing un­pop­u­lar po­si­tions.

When I first be­came a rabbi, I was told that it would be my re­spon­si­bil­ity to com­fort the dis­turbed and to dis­turb the com­fort­able. I can­not think of a more apt or suc­cinct de­scrip­tion of the role of a rabbi.

As such, it is in­evitable that a rabbi with any in­tegrity will not be pop­u­lar with all his con­gre­gants all the time. If he were, he would not be do­ing his duty. To force a rabbi out on this ba­sis is shame­ful and short­sighted. It in­di­cates a lack of ma­tu­rity and an in­abil­ity to ap­pre­ci­ate strong, prin­ci­pled lead­er­ship.

There may how­ever be other prob­lems with the rabbi that have noth­ing to do with prin­ci­pled lead­er­ship. A con­gre­ga­tion may dis­cover that their rabbi is not up to the task. He may be lazy, in­com­pe­tent or unin­spired. He may not be able to re­late to the needs of his com­mu­nity. Th­ese are se­ri­ous points to con­sider and they must be dealt with in the most dig­ni­fied and con­struc­tive man­ner.

In the first in­stance, it is the duty of the hon­orary of­fi­cers to put to the rabbi their con­cerns. To­gether with the rabbi they must set clear achiev­able tar­gets against which the rabbi can ob­jec­tively be as­sessed. With pro­fes­sional help, sup­port and mon­i­tor­ing, it may be pos­si­ble to help the rabbi to over­come his de­fi­cien­cies.

If this proves im­pos­si­ble, the con­gre­ga­tion must, re­spect­fully but firmly, work to­wards ter­mi­nat­ing the rabbi’s ten­ure. Ev­ery con­gre­ga­tion de­serves in­spired lead­er­ship and it is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the shul man­age­ment to en­sure that this is the case.

Keep­ing on an in­com­pe­tent rabbi does no one any favours. Such syn­a­gogues will only have them­selves to blame when their mem­bers vote with their feet and leave in search of a rabbi who re­spects, chal­lenges and in­spires them.

WHY SHOULD it be wrong to force a rabbi out? Some rab­bis are su­perb and de­serve ad­mi­ra­tion, oth­ers are dread­ful and the sooner they are ex­ported the bet­ter.

Be­ing a con­gre­ga­tional rabbi means a job cov­er­ing a wide range of re­li­gious, ed­u­ca­tional and pas­toral re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Rab­bis may have a de­gree in Jewish learn­ing, but that does not re­flect on how well or badly they use that schol­ar­ship to ful­fil their du­ties.

Ev­ery per­son read­ing this will know rab­bis who are help­ful or obstructive, sym­pa­thetic or dis­in­ter­ested, ar­tic­u­late or in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Rab­bis can ex­pect to start their job with ini­tial re­spect for the ti­tle that shows that they have gained semichah, but from that mo­ment on­wards they have to earn re­spect for the way in which they ap­ply them­selves to their po­si­tion.

More­over, this has to be con­tin­u­ous. The idea of hav­ing a job for life just en­cour­ages slop­pi­ness; it need­lessly shack­les a com­mu­nity to a poor rabbi, while a good rabbi will — ir­re­spec­tive of the con­tract — con­stantly seek to en­rich and ex­pand the Jewish life of the con­gre­ga­tion.

Re­spect can be en­hanced or lost, and if it is lost, then— as with any job — steps have to be made to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion through calm dis­cus­sion, anal­y­sis of the prob­lems, and prac­ti­cal ideas for change. If that is not pos­si­ble, then there is no rea­son why a con­gre­ga­tion should have to per­pet­u­ate a re­la­tion­ship that is not work­ing. Again, process is im­por­tant : rab­bis should not be hounded out, but they can be given no­tice and asked to leave.

Still, there is a big dif­fer­ence be­tween the con­gre­ga­tion as a whole want­ing to part with its rabbi, and a small mi­nor­ity mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for him or her. If this is not the will of the ma­jor­ity, they should ex­press con­fi­dence in the rabbi and give the dis­si­dents the op­tion of ef­fect­ing a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion or leav­ing.

This does not mean that rab­bis al­ways have to seek pop­u­lar­ity — some­times it is the rabbi’s task to rep­ri­mand in­di­vid­u­als or point out un­pleas­ant truths to the com­mu­nity as a whole — but whereas a poor rabbi will mis­han­dle it and an­tag­o­nise, a good rabbi will do it sen­si­tively and ef­fec­tively.

It is a won­der­ful job, but not ev­ery­one is up for it, and we should both ap­pre­ci­ate those who are able, and gen­tly move on those who are not.

If you have a prob­lem to put to our rab­bis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email edi­to­rial@thejc.com with de­tails

Naf­tali Brawer is rabbi of Bore­ham­wood and El­stree Syn­a­gogue

Jonathan Ro­main is rabbi at Maiden­head (Re­form) Syn­a­gogue

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