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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with details
Naftali Brawer is rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue