Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Displaced Rabbis

 One of my fondest friends sent me this Dvar Torah in advance of shabbos.  It had an author but despite my skill navigating cyberspace, I've not been able to find a source that allows direct response so I'll bite on the otherwise unfulfilled desire to comment by making remarks of a more serious nature than my usual irreverent blog laytzanos would create.  My congregation recently conducted a special meeting with one of the agenda items being the renewal of our Rabbi's contract.  The majority voted for renewal, though not unanimously and with no outpouring of enthusiasm by those who used that forum to make a personal statement.  And now the text of the salient paragraphs of an insightful but at times limited Dvar Torah.   The comments in green are mine.

by Rabbi Jack Riemer 

One thing I must say before I begin my sermon this morning.

It is that my sermon today is not about this synagogue or about this rabbi. 

It is more likely about my synagogue and my rabbi 

 I am talking about the state of the American synagogue in general, and about the state of the American rabbinate in general, 


I want to talk to you today about two newspaper articles that crossed my desk by coincidence on the very same day. I was so struck by the difference between these two news stories that I put them together into one file, and I saved them to talk to you about today.

The first was an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, a couple of days before Thanksgiving. It was written by Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, who is one of the brightest rabbis within Orthodoxy today. Everyone who reads what he writes is impressed, and everyone who knows him predicts that he will be one of the major thinkers of his generation.  

He came to our shul as a men's club featured guest, leaving the kind of impression that would lead to prominence some fifteen years later

Rabbi Soloveitchik was recently appointed the rabbi of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York. That in itself is interesting, because the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue is Sephardic, and Rabbi Soloveitchik is a 
descendent of one of the noble dynasties of Lithuanian Jewry---but that is another matter.


 Rabbi Soloveitchik said something that surprised me, and that I think will probably surprise you too. He said: "On Sunday, November 24th mine will be the honor of being formally installed as THE TENTH RABBI of Shearith Israel since the American Revolution. And therefore, when I held my illustrious predecessor's words in my hand, I felt that the barriers between the past and the present disappearing, and I felt what it means to be a link in a chain stretching backward, and hopefully stretching forward, across the centuries."

Did you hear what I just said? That from Gershom Mendes Seixas to Meir Soloveitchik, that from the year 1768 when Rabbi Seixas became the first rabbi of this synagogue to the year 2013 when Rabbi Soloveitchik became the current rabbi of this synagogue, during a period of almost two hundred and fifty years, Congregation Shearith Israel has had a grand total of ten rabbis!

undoubtedly they never had to contend with the RA Placement Service

Isn't that an incredible statement? Can you think of any other synagogue in America that can say that? Can you think of any other synagogue in America that has had a total of only ten rabbis in two hundred and fifty years? I don't think so.

Now let me tell you about the second news story that I read on the same day. I subscribe to a number of synagogue bulletins all around the country, and, by coincidence, on the same day when I read the story of Rabbi Soloveitchik's installation, I read a news story about another rabbi's installation. I won't tell you the name of the congregation---and if you guess which one it is, I will deny it---but I read a news story about a certain congregation in the Midwestern part of the United States which, on the very same day as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York, also installed its new rabbi.

What was the main difference between these two events?
The main difference was this: This new rabbi is the seventh rabbi that this congregation has installed in the last seventeen years! 

They most likely did have to deal with the RA Placement Service

Some of these rabbis were better: some of these rabbis were worse, but if you divide seven into seventeen years, you can see that none of them stayed very long. Most of them were 'sentaways''; some of them were 'wentaways', but none of them lasted very long. Seven into seventeen----you do the math, and you will see how long the average rabbi stayed in this congregation.

And so my question today is very simply this: How come the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue has had only ten rabbis in two hundred and fifty years and this congregation has had seven rabbis in only seventeen years?

Because the venerable Shearith Israel has maintained its independence, has accumulated ample resources and takes people whose stars are on the rise as their Rabbis at an age when they can stay for a long tenure.  The generally imposed Rabbinical search process manipulated from a central place often has union rules that exclude a congregation from acquiring who they really want and misrepresents candidates to congregations resulting in turnover, or at least that has been my distinct impression from being on one of the Conservative search committees some years back and then trying to undo a major mistake on our congregation's part.

I raise this question today for several reasons:

One is that this congregation in the Midwestern part of the United States is not an exception. If it were, I would not take your time to talk about it. I think its record is probably much closer to the national average than the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue's is. And that is why I want to explore with you, if I can, why this is so.

It is certainly common.  Yet in my community, the Orthodox Rabbi served over forty years, the Conservative Rabbi not quite forty, interrupted by the War, the senior Reform Rabbi about thirty, and the recently retired Reform Rabbi thirty-two.  My former Rabbi retired from this second career at fifteen years.  It is only the Conservatives that have had relentless turnover since a macher swoop of three individuals got together and used their resources to make a deal that the relatively young rabbi could not refuse in exchange for voluntary departure "to avoid divided congregational opinion on his renewal" as the machers stated.  And then they have the RA Merry-Go-Round.

I raise this question with you for a second reason. Surely all of us agree that a synagogue which has a revolving door for its spiritual leaders is not a healthy place. Surely all of us agree that a rabbi becomes more effective the longer he or she stays. 

Or the Peter Principle emerges

When he or she can officiate at the bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies of children that he or she has named, when he or she can officiate at the weddings of children at whose bar or bat mitsvahs he or she has been, when he or she can share in the sacred occasions in the lives of people for a whole generation, that rabbi obviously becomes more beloved and more effective than if the congregation has had a dozen different rabbis over the years.

And so my question is: Why this turnover in so many of our congregations? What causes it? And what, if anything, can be done to control it?

If you've ever been leveraged by one of these people or watched a synagogue's membership hemorrhage, both a reality for me, you would understand the question of why.

There are several possible answers that come to my mind.
One is that the Sephardic part of the Jewish people is more traditional, and more respectful of authority, than Ashkenazic Jews are. That may explain why they keep their rabbis longer than we do.

I do not know if the data supports this. The yichus of the Rabbi Soleveitchik's synagogue may be Sephardic but its members are very much mainstream Manhattan Jews with an ideological and practicing cross section.  I also do not know if they have kingmakers who can impose their will and blunt opposition.

Another possible answer is that our lives and our neighborhoods and our institutions have become very unstable in our time. There was a time when you joined your parents' synagogue, and sat next to them when you came to services, and you felt a sense of kinship with all the people in the room whom you knew from childhood on. But nowadays, it is not like that anymore. It really has not been like that for about fifty years. 

 On the other hand, our teachers and doctors and dentists maintain a loyal following for decades.  So do our Chabad shelechim.

 Neighborhoods don't last for a generation. Synagogue buildings don't last as long as the mortgage does. People no longer live in the same state, or in the same state of mind, as their parents or their children. There was a time when young people flew the nest. They went off to college and never came back to the city where they grew up. But now, for the first time in human history, parents fly the nest too. Parents retire to the Sunbelt, and leave their children behind. And so, even if a synagogue lasts a generation, and even if a rabbi lasts a generation in the same synagogue, it is not really the same synagogue anymore, except in name.

That, of course, is not accurate either.  Judaism survives in large part because it has been geographically portable for the last 2000 years.  Synagogues have always been in flux, subject to demographic shifts.  Some, such as mine, endure a hundred years.  But the edifices on the Lower East Side, once filled to capacity every shabbat, are now museums to be replaced for a while by children who relocated to places near and far, which are now being vacated.  It does not really matter whether the population depletion occurs because the previous generation dies out or because the previous generation relocates.  In either case, they are not where they were.

This may be the reason for the turnover in the rabbinate that we are seeing nowadays.

Not  at all where my vote goes on this.  I think it is more of a form of scapegoating to identify a focus for either leadership generated institutional attrition or a legitimate public response to adverse personal experience.

And there is a third, possible answer to this question of the instability and the turnover that we are seeing in our community nowadays. I hope that I am wrong in what I am going to say----I really do----but one of the reasons for the turnover in the rabbinate that we are seeing in so many synagogues nowadays may be because the Sixties have not yet ended. The Sixties were the time when a great revolution took place in America---a revolution that brought much good, but that also caused much harm. The slogan of that revolution was "Never trust anyone over thirty", and the claim of that revolution was that the young knew as much--and were entitled to as much power---as their elders.

I think this is non-sense.  My generation, which is probably Rabbi Riemer's as well, set measures of performance for our leaders and schected many of the sacred cows.  We have voted out three Presidents who the electorate judged not to be up to the task and brought a forth to the edge of impeachment for misconduct.  We have marginalized racism, though not entirely eliminated it, with the help of some very revered Rabbis.  We have afforded ourselves the benefit of voting with our feet from synagogue or Federation experience that falls below standard.  Yet we accept an odious RA Placement monopoly where their Executive Director came down to our Board Meeting to threaten to close us for our High Holy Days if we continued to try to extricate ourselves from an regrettable choice of Rabbis and abrupt congregational dissatisfaction.  That sacred cow is still pooping on the floors where the Search Committees meet.

That revolution took place in every corner of American life. The authority of teachers in the schools, the authority of the government, the authority of every institution in the country, were challenged---sometimes for good, and sometimes for bad. And this challenge to authority, which took place in every part of American life, took place in American Jewish life as well. Young Jews demanded a say in how services were run, in how charitable dollars were distributed, and in every other aspect of Jewish life. Many of these demands were proper, and healthy, and justified and overdue. But one of the results of that era was the breakdown in rabbinic authority.

Part of this problem was self-inflicted by the people in authority, from Presidents and other public officials, to Conservative Rabbis who put up pastel oaktag posters inviting people to their presentations on intermarriage, vowing to excommunicate deviants whose children intermarried and deem them inferior in some way.

Which brings me to the question that is found in our sedra. Moses, the prince of Egypt, goes out and sees the suffering of the Israelites. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, and he is moved by what he sees. And so he risks his life and his position, and comes to the rescue of the Israelite. The next day, he goes out again, and this time, he sees two Israelites fighting with each other. He intervenes again, and tries to break up the fight. And one of the Israelites turns on him, and says: 
"Mi samcha?" "Mi samcha l'ish sar vishofet aleynu?" Who made you a ruler over us?
And Moses is broken hearted by that question. Here he has risked everything he has to help these people, and they turn on him and say: Who made you a ruler over us?

Moshe's emotional response is never really recorded.  Which now opens up the other question of congregational manipulation of Torah to meet Rabbinical agenda.

At that point, Moses leaves Egypt and goes off to the land of Midian. Most people think that he leaves because he is afraid that Pharaoh will find out what he has done, and will arrest him. But I read that line to mean that Moses left Egypt and went off to Midian out of shock, and out of disappointment that his people, the people whom he had tried to help, the people that he risked so much to rescue, asked him: "Who do you think you are? And what do you think gives you the right to be our leader?"

A real leader expects a certain amount of opposition and is up to the task.  He does not put his tail between his legs and slither off.  The traditional interpretation is probably the more accurate one.  As true leader, Moshe dealt with opposition, both from Pharaoh and after Exodus from kvetching constituents who wanted more than they had.

At the very beginning of the story of Moses, our leader, we find that Moses nearly gives up on being a leader because of the rude and crude question that he is asked. The whole story of the Exodus from Egypt nearly ended before it began because of that question: "Who made you a ruler over us?"

That is the question that every rabbi and every Jewish leader faces all too often in our time: "Mi samcha?" By what authority do you claim to be in charge? Why is your opinion worth any more than mine?

It depends what the opinion is.

I don't mean to exaggerate. We Jews have never had a pope. We Jews have seldom had a Sanhedrin or a central authority. I know that. And we Jews know that no leader can impose his authority upon his followers unless they accept it. You cannot be a leader if you get too far ahead of your troops. I know that. But we Jews have had until modern times a respect for learning and a respect for leadership that are no longer present in many places.

I would again challenge the accuracy  of this.  There is a great desire for leaders of public affairs, religion, science and commerce who are up to the task.  It takes more than a title or a course of study to really be up to the task.  Furthermore, perhaps as a holdover to the 1960's, people resent unfair manipulation and for the last fifty years have tried to make their dissatisfaction with this known, though with mixed results.  Big donors to political campaigns know that public expression can be manipulated up to a point, though not entirely without limit.

If everything is a matter of opinion, and if every opinion is of equal stature, then we are in big trouble, for ours is a faith that is based on knowledge, and if every opinion is of equal stature, regardless of the knowledge that backs it up, how can we avoid chaos?

Do you know the story of the teacher who brings a rabbit into her kindergarten class, and asks the children if it is a boy rabbit or a girl rabbit? One of the children says: "I don't know, but let's vote on it".

Some things are not vote-able. Whether it is a boy rabbit or a girl rabbit is decided by knowledge, not by voting. And so it is with Judaism. Some things are not a matter of opinion. Some things are either right or wrong. And some things can only be voted on by those who know. And if that principle is not accepted, what we have is anarchy.

We certainly accept this.  To write prescriptions one has to show evidence of training and pass exams.  Who may charge money for legal advice is regulated along with who may sell real estate or securities.  Our teachers need diplomas.  I do not think anyone really challenges the Rabbi's authority to rule over his or her domain any more than we challenge an office holder to fulfill the tasks that the voters want.  But we reserve the right to walk away, much as we can change doctors or schools or Senators.  Too many Rabbis I have encountered function as control freaks, often imparting the illusion of knowledge and depending more on their title or authority than the need to convey to their constituents that their professional judgments are not arbitrary ones.  Alas, too often they are.

So let me wish the new rabbi of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue well as he begins his ministry there. May he find much fulfillment there, and may he find many students there who welcome the opportunity and the privilege of studying with him, and of working with him. <snip>
And let me wish the new rabbi of this congregation in the Midwest that I have been talking about well too, when he begins his ministry there. <snip>

Epilogue:  In some ways the Rabbis may have taken on the reverse role of Congress.  Polls consistently show that Americans hold Congress as an institution with disdain but are sufficiently satisfied with their own representatives to keep turnover low.  The Rabbinate, on the other hand, remains a respected institution but there is often a sense of deficient performance or experience with the incumbent to justify popular demand for replacement.  And so we have problems with tenure, made worse by external manipulation of the selection process by the Rabbi's own professional organization, at least for the Conservative movement.

The writer, as a Rabbi himself, and I presume either of Conservative or Reform origin, has a set of lenses that he seems to peer through, as we all do.  He's probably never had this cohort of Rabbis be less than collegial with him because of his position, just as physicians tend to be more cordial to me as one of them than we are to patients, at least from their perspective, though for the most part professionals mean well when functioning in their professional capacity.

Just like doctors can sometimes be abrupt with patients, less knowledgeable on some things than they should be  and on occasion use their authority to victimize them, so the case with Rabbis.  I can honestly assess that I have been victimized twice though never to the extent that we read about in the media these days with tales of molestation and defense of the misconduct by Rabbinical colleagues in the Orthodox community.  Yet those two occasions remain indelible.  But misuse of authority, punishable by revocation of that authority, takes a more subtle path, both historically and now.  The instances of abrupt treatment or more commonly arbitrary treatment without entitlement to justification has happened to me enough times that it would exceed my supply of digits to count the incidents, many quite petty in fact, though I can probably identify all the responsible individual Rabbis by a finger count.  Some guys are just control freaks who judge themselves accountable to no one.  In Jewish history we read of saintly guys in the 19th and 20th century who coerced butchers to compliance with their agenda by threatening economic ruin by declaring meat that otherwise satisfies Halachic Kashrut standards unkosher.  Yes, there is a need to promote Kehillah with communal good but honesty remains a core Jewish principle, at least from American lenses where people can walk away if they wish.  They could and did walk away in Europe too.  Immigrants to America, Bolsheviks and Hasidim often derived as a response to misused authority either by the local rabbis or in the case of Hasidim, by the Gedolim B'dor.

So as the D'var Torah bemoans the loss of authority, if not the loss of credibility, perhaps the rebuke should not be to the congregants who resisted or concluded that Aseh L'Cha Rav really meant somebody else.  Rav Pogo met the enemy and he is us.  If they really want the authority that they feel is rightly theirs restored, the RA and other professional organizations of that type can start by expanding the recourse that legitimately disgruntled participants from the Rabbinical side and from the congregant side might have, other than forcibly extricating themselves from circumstances that fail to enhance the Jewish experience.

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