Every now and then a rabbi gets expelled from my professional organization. Sometimes it is because of criminal conduct, unfortunately. Sometimes it is because of a serious breach of ethics. And sometimes it is because the rabbi has broken the non-negotiable rules of our association which include a respect for certain administrative norms that make all of our members secure and a very few ritual commitments.
Most recently, a long-time colleague lost his standing in our organization because he breached one of those ritual commitments. I don’t want to litigate his decision here. It provokes me, however, to consider again the question of who or what a rabbi serves.
There are three possible answers and only one of them is wrong. The rabbi who holds the title and position in service of him- or herself is no rabbi. But the other two possibilities are sometimes in tension. The first is that the rabbi serves God’s will, a sort of manufacturer’s rep. The second is that the rabbi serves the (Jewish) people in some smaller or larger sense, more a concierge than an authority figure.
My colleagues with a more traditional theology most often put God’s will first. By “God’s will,” they mean the teachings of the Bible as understood and applied by a hundred generations of scholars. Some (including me) call it halakha, Jewish law. Though the literalists among us believe that God revealed every detail to Moses atop Mount Sinai, the less literal and more liberal subset of us believe that human experience and deliberation is part of the revelatory experience, something that God actually factored into the process of divine decision-making.
Others – including those who wonder if attributing the notion of “will” to God is anything other than anthropomorphism – put people first. As recognized experts in the Jewish endeavor, they see their task as escorts into the meaningfulness of belonging to this diverse community with common concerns. Every encounter is a teachable moment and an opportunity to share the wisdom that has sustained this evolving civilization in its various iterations. The people who embrace Jewish life will sustain it, and therefore they see their sacred work as strengthening the ties that bind.
Of course, most of the time these two perspectives are entirely compatible. From the Passover seder to activism on behalf of social causes to interfaith engagement (my own current work), rabbis have found multiple avenues to promote contemporary expressions of ancient practices while welcoming individuals seeking a place in the jigsaw of Jewish life.
But sometimes, a rabbi has to choose. Sometimes, the answer to a question asked in one context is completely different when asked in the other context.
Here is an example that has nothing to do with the colleague mentioned above. Jewish law prescribes that a minyan, a quorum of ten, must be present for the recitation of Mourners’ Kaddish, a liturgical declaration that the bereaved recite during the initial mourning period and then on the anniversary of the death of a near relative. But what happens when less than ten are present when the time comes to recite? The law-centered rabbi omits the prayer, perhaps disappointing the grieving worshipper. The people-centered rabbi recites the prayer, perhaps disappointing the “traditionalist” worshippers. There is no way to uphold the legal requirement and to allow the individual to practice the personally meaningful ritual.
Believe me, I know that first-hand. In my earliest days in my congregation of many years, I discovered that the practice at daily worship was to recite Kaddish even in the absence of the quorum by opening the doors of the ark containing the Torah scroll and “counting the Torah” in place of the missing people – sometimes four or five of them. Not having a poker face, my discomfort with the practice was immediately noticed by an older (and not very diplomatic) member who summarily announced one morning that, per the rabbi, we were no longer observing that custom. A dear woman who had arrived on the first anniversary of her mother’s death burst into tears and ran out the door as I stood flabbergasted that a “solution” had been invoked in my name.
Those whose commitment to the obligations of Jewish law is unbreakable understand the painful decisions that are sometimes necessary when you can’t give people what they want. Those whose love for the people is primary understand that they may indeed be fraying some of the strands that (we assume) have been holding together our sacred tradition. If this sounds to you like the plot of “Fiddler on the Roof,” then you understand the soundtrack that plays in every rabbi’s heart.
As I said, I do not want to weigh in on the decisions made by my (former?) colleague. He was not the first and he will not be the last to make the choice in question. And the consequence of his actions was no surprise; it was not innovated on the spot the way my congregant proclaimed. This tension will always exist, even if/when the fierce disagreement that provoked this incident has been resolved. There will always be another frontier.
Congregations, communities and individuals choose a rabbi whom they believe will give dominant weight to the side of this fulcrum they favor – sometimes for philosophical reasons and sometimes for self-satisfaction. But the rabbi, unless she or he wrongly serves a personal agenda, will always struggle to consider the side of lesser weight. And sometimes, despite the consequence, will disappoint those on the other side.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession