Commentary Magazine


Rabbis

To the Editor:

Howard Singer’s devastating account of the state of the rabbinate [“Rabbis & Their Discontents,” May] raises this question: what can the education of rabbis in the seminaries do to prepare young women and men for careers of worth and of service? My sense is that the problems at hand derive not only from structural but also from intellectual sources. Since, it is clear, rabbis do not enjoy preparation for the careers they actually lead, we must now so reform rabbinical education as to produce a generation of people prepared for the job they actually do.

Jacob Neusner
Program in Judaic Studies
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

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To the Editor:

Must articles about rabbis always sound so plaintive? Howard Singer’s “Rabbis & Their Discontents,” in which some of my own views on the subject are cited, ought to have been called “Rabbis As Victims.” I resent this portrait, not because of its emphasis on the problems of rabbis, which do call for serious attention, but because of its tone. Bemoaning the change in status of the rabbi and blaming consumerism because congregants are evaluating and passing judgments on rabbis are really not the problems. The democratization of the synagogue in which lay people have greater responsibilities and authority to express their own viewpoints simply calls for more skillful leadership techniques rather than a return to the good old days. . . .

The role of rabbi today requires a rabbi to be an effective leader. Simply being knowledgeable in Jewish law and lore is not sufficient grounds to warrant respect. Being a rabbi today means being an effective communicator, being a role model, being a powerful representative of a religious value system, and, as is true in every major leadership role, being lonely. The job of the seminaries is to train rabbis to be effective leaders in addition to being knowledgeable professionals. It is not to prepare rabbis to become passive and obsequious, hoping for kindness at the hands of their congregants. Leadership must be earned and earned constantly. We need to train better rabbis, and, quite frankly, tougher rabbis.

Mr. Singer’s portrait, therefore, rubs me the wrong way in implying that congregants are not respectful of their rabbis. Congregations around the country are made up of a cross-section of the best and worst in all of us, and are no different from any other volunteer organization. . . . Marshaling these forces and making an effective system out of the available talent require a special skill, one which our semiinaries rarely pay attention to. Speaking skills are emphasized and taught in all seminaries, counseling skills are taught to a modest degree, but organizational skills are completely ignored.

Mr. Singer has done us a service in identifying the problem. But his conclusion, using the story of the New England rabbi who was forced to set up an artificial Simhat Torah celebration for the sake of TV cameras, should have ended with the rabbi standing firm in the face of his congregant who insisted on the rabbi dancing in front of the cameras. Would that congregant have used this incident as a means of getting rid of this rabbi and getting a more pliable one in his place? Probably. On the other hand, judging from the story, the rabbi in this congregation was already in deep trouble. He might just as well have stood firm for his principles, possibly gaining respect from other members of the congregation when the time came for renewal of his contract. If the rabbi is treated as a nebbish, certainly the congregation is at fault; but the rabbi is not necessarily simply a victim. He may be a participant in his own victimization.

Just as Mr. Singer ended with an example to make his point, I will conclude this letter with what I consider to be a more telling example. A congregation recently fired an outstanding rabbi who had done a superb job. The reasons used by the congregation included a number of examples where the new board of the synagogue felt that the rabbi had not sufficiently complied with its requests in certain matters. The rabbi on those occasions had stood firm on matters of principle and refused to cater to the congregation’s wishes, gaining for himself the respect of some and the enmity of others. The congregation, being made up of sophisticated people, many in the professions and of high standing in business, led by a new president seeking personal glory, behaved abominably and railroaded the rabbi out of town.

The rabbi was filled with anger and bitterness. He and his wife reviewed the circumstances and understood that the problem really lay in the passivity of his friends and supporters, who were no match for the virulent clique that had just taken over the administration of the synagogue. He held a meeting with the board and met with his supporters. He consulted a lawyer. . . . He handled himself with strength and dignity, gaining a tremendous amount of respect from a congregation which began to realize what it was losing. In the end, the rabbi wrested a respectable severance agreement out of the board.

The rabbi was quickly invited to head another major congregation in another part of the country. At this very moment, he has moved into a powerful, intelligent, and respectful congregation, feeling strong and enthusiastic. Of course, the story demonstrates an awful congregation, an example of unfairness at work; but the story also exemplifies a solid rabbi who took a bad blow to the body and came out swinging intelligently and effectively rather than bemoaning his fate, holding out his hand and looking for alms. That’s my kind of rabbi.

Samuel C. Klagsbrun, M.D.
Four Winds Hospital
Katonah, New York

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To the Editor:

Howard Singer’s welcome article takes my ongoing research on role-related psychological distress among American rabbis as its point of departure. (My findings and conclusions will be published in book form by the Free Press in 1986.) In his article, Mr. Singer inadvertently minimizes the very malaise he seeks to identify by describing my work as having to do with “stress” and my findings as revealing levels of “anxiety.”

I have in fact measured “nonspecific psychological distress,” known technically as demoralization, whose components are helplessness-hopelessness, low self-esteem, anxiety, sadness, and associated somatic complaints. The prevalence of chronic, elevated levels of demoralization among rabbis is reason for grave concern. Mr. Singer’s important article reintroduces this matter to a place of priority on the communal agenda.

Leslie R. Freedman
New York City

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To the Editor:

Howard Singer laments a new anti-clericalism which has moved into American synagogues and the concomitant increase of stress and discontent among rabbis. He is especially cutting in his criticism of the new generation, dubbed synagogue “inheritors,” who, it would appear, lack the knowledge, desire, and gratitude to respond meaningfully to traditional religious institutions and Jewish spiritual leaders. His contempt for the “anti-intellectual and anti-authority” generation of the late 60’s and for rabbis who fail to confront these people is evident, and, in my opinion, misplaced. To begin with, tension accompanying changing relationships between clergy and laity is also found in Catholic and Protestant communities. This is not a distinctly Jewish problem. More importantly, Mr. Singer has failed to observe accurately the changing Jewish landscape or assess the spiritual needs (for there are many) of the next generation.

The adage, what the father wants to forget the grandson may wish to remember, is lost on Mr. Singer. Just as Jews of Mr. Singer’s vintage fled from their parents’ way of life on the Lower East Side or the Fairfax district of Los Angeles and erected impersonal and bureaucratic synagogue and federation structures in gilded suburban enclaves throughout America (and in so doing addressed “their” communal and spiritual needs), the next generation, too, will identify and define a distinctive form of Jewishness. . . . Perhaps the next generation of congregants and rabbis desires a simpler or more personal identification with its Jewishness. . . .

Jewish institutions, communal structures, and religious leaders (with the exception of the Orthodox) must, of necessity, reflect traditional values in contemporary modes, and, even more importantly, address the religious and spiritual needs of their congregants who are asked to support these institutions. When young Jewish adults with small children (and mortgage rates of 13 percent) seek admission to High Holy Day services and are promptly informed by the very officious office secretary that tickets cost $150 each—yes, something is wrong. The fact that rabbis do labor in stressful environments is an indication of their difficulty in bridging the distance between the spiritual and communal needs of varying generations. But the specter of anti-clericalism is a very premature assessment of the problem. And, to Mr. Singer, from one synagogue “inheritor” who grew up in Great Neck, reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated.

Daniel J. Julius
San Francisco, California

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To the Editor:

I found Howard Singer’s “Rabbis & Their Discontents” to be a thoughtful airing of the subject of the stresses and tensions within the American rabbinate. . . . I should like to add, however, that such tensions within the rabbinate are neither new nor have they suddenly emerged. . . . Similar concerns over “ambivalent and disrespectful feelings toward rabbis on the part of their own communities” have been voiced among the Conservative rabbinate since its Rabbincal Assembly first began publishing the proceedings of its annual conventions.

In 1929 Rabbi Philip Alstat (1894-1976) delivered “Observations on the Status of the Rabbinate” before his colleagues at the annual convention of the Rabbincal Assembly of America. Rabbi Alstat noted:

The rabbi’s advice is rarely listened to in the councils of the congregation . . . his views are not sought by the lay leaders of Jewish education and philanthropy, and his opinion is not reckoned with by the Zionist officialdom. His prestige and authority have been usurped by aspiring politicians, ambitious judges and lawyers, and rich “kovod”-seeking laymen.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the decades Mr. Singer terms the era of the synagogue “builders,” similar complaints were aired. An apocryphal story, attributed to Rabbi Max Arzt (1897-1975), who later became Vice Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was widely circulated. As president of the Rabbinical Assembly during its convention in 1940, Rabbi Arzt asked all rabbis who were happy with their jobs to meet him—in the hotel lobby’s phone booth! . . .

Perhaps Rabbi Max Davidson best summed up the sentiments of many Conservative rabbis in his presidential address to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1952: “We minister to people most of whom fully believe that they are wiser than we, better than we, certainly richer than we.” Rabbi Davidson went on to note that rabbis suffered a loss of self-esteem because their congregants refused to support their efforts. . . . Furthermore, rabbis in the 1950’s, no less than rabbis in the 1980’s, knew that in incurring the displeasure of their congregants, they ran the risk of termination of their contracts.

While no one measured stress levels among the Conservative rabbinate in the era of the synagogue “builders,” these statements suggest that it was as high then as that described by Mr. Singer for the rabbinate of today.

Pamela S. Nadell
American University
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

Howard Singer notes several factors which may contribute to his perceived sense of malaise in the American rabbinate. I would like to address one in particular that comes under special attack in his article, namely, the concept of democracy as applied to the synagogue. . . .

The concept of democracy as applied to Jewish life in general and synagogue life in particular is a hallmark of the Reconstructionist movement. Our experience with participatory democracy in our rabbinical college, our congregations, and our rabbinical association has been that empowerment of the laity yields refreshing and invigorating results. Mordecai M. Kaplan correctly noted that, as Americans, American Jews would justifiably reject a system (i.e., the synagogue) that denied them a voice in the determination of policy, standards, values, and practices. After all, we have been raised to believe that while not all opinions are equally valid, all opinions deserve the right to be heard.

Furthermore, Reconstructionism has demonstrated that it is precisely the retaining of authority (which translates as power) by the rabbinate which accounts for the disaffection so many laymen feel for Judaism. Reconstructionist rabbis find repeatedly that if one wants to involve the laity in the dynamic process of Judaism, the best way is to assign them responsibility for determining communal policy. This requires them to study traditional and contemporary texts, to argue and discuss with one another the relative merits of viewpoints, and to act responsibly in setting policy for themselves and their institutions. Rather than finding this a source of malaise, Reconstructionist rabbis take delight in the commitments which develop out of precisely such democratic movement.

No one denies that power-plays under the rubric of “participatory democracy” plague the synagogue and the rabbinate. No one denies that in a time which is characterized by a distrust of leaders and authority, the rabbi may be subject to abuse. But what, after all, is the goal? Do we want loyalty and deference to the rabbi or to Judaism? If we seek to revitalize Judaism and make it central for our people, then we must make them see that it is theirs; theirs to study, theirs to experiment with, theirs to struggle with. Empowering the laity to participate with the rabbinate in the conscious fashioning of an authentic American Judaism seems to be the way to bring the disaffected back into Jewish life. Disparaging the right of laymen to be involved in creating Judaism while insisting on the authority of the rabbinate to define for them what Judaism is and ought to be has not yielded the results we desire.

I would thus argue that, despite the inherent problems in applying the democratic model to synagogue life, it still offers that best hope for an American Jewish community characterized by commitment, understanding, and vision.

[Rabbi] Richard Hirsh
Executive Director
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Wyncote, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Howard Singer’s description and analysis of rabbinic malaise is important because it places on the public agenda what has heretofore been of concern primarily to rabbis and their families. Dr. Leslie Freedman’s study of rabbinic stress, undertaken for the Rabbinical Assembly and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, confirms empirically the level of anxiety and tension which rabbis face on a daily basis. A similar study, now being conducted for the Rabbinical Council of America, will probably arrive at similar conclusions. . . .

Mr. Singer correctly contends that an anti-clerical, anti-authoritarian spirit plays a role in fostering a loss of respect for rabbis and, consequently, engendering rabbinic discontent. However, by emphasizing this line of argument, Mr. Singer slights many other causes.

The conflict between religious and lay leaders is not new, nor is it confined to the borders of the United States. The prophets of ancient Israel did not have an easy go of it. The exilarchs and rabbis of Babylonia—both during the period of the Sassanians and later in what we refer to as the Gaonic era—vied for control of that community. During the 18th century, a letter from a rabbi in Bordeaux to the non-Jewish representative of the king, the Intendant, features a complaint “about the lack of respect and deference that [the Jews] have for their rabbi.” The Yiddish novelist Chaim Grade writes with great sensitivity of the Eastern European rabbi of this century who did not have anything approaching universal authority. The contemporary Israeli rabbinate has, relatively speaking, a great deal of discretionary power but very little public respect. Perhaps the presumed power and prestige of the rabbinate have been more image than reality?

In our own day, surveys of social attitudes indicate that rabbis and other religious leaders still command a great deal of respect. If so, how should the lack of power of the American rabbi be explained? Perhaps recognition, respect, and trust should not be confused with actual authority, which is no longer automatically awarded with the title of rabbi. Perhaps the limited rabbinic power of the past has been more severely circumscribed by the development of secular society. In a culture which places so much emphasis on the individual, religious leaders may have to acquire the influence which will enable them to carry out their responsibilities. But the careful cultivation and sustained maintenance of power are often seen by rabbis as crass rather than creative. . . .

None of my comments is intended to deny the obvious fact that many rabbis “burn out” because their ideals have been corroded, . . . or because of their discouragement over the quality of Jewish life, or because of their lack of personal time, or for any of a myriad of reasons. But much rabbinic distress stems from unrealistic expectations of themselves and their congregants. Rabbis are, after all, messianists and, as Gershom Scholem has noted, failed messianism can easily turn to despair. The critical concern, which is not new to our generation, is to maintain hope and encourage Jewish development within a reasonable frame of reference. My teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, used to remind us that Jews are “optimists against our better judgment.” . . .

[Rabbi] Baruch Frydman-kohl
Congregation Ohav Shalom
Albany, New York

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To the Editor:

I am one of those rabbis Howard Singer seems to disparage for being “contented.” . . . Why shouldn’t I be? Doesn’t our tradition state, “Who is rich? He who is content with his portion”? Instead of bemoaning our fate in choosing a stressful profession, we should set as our goals learning to live with stress and doing what we can to reduce it. Why shouldn’t I join the “spirit of the age”? I, too, am a product of what Mr. Singer refers to as “the great tidal wave of defiance of the 1960’s” and a member of the younger generation of synagogue “inheritors” as well.

Consequently, I am forced to disagree with much of what Mr. Singer says. . . . While it may be true that many of the generation he calls “builders” viewed the position and person of the rabbi with respect, it is also true that they often substituted respect for financial remuneration. . . . These “builders” set up a system in which the rabbi was seen as a dependent. A major portion of the rabbi’s income came from tips (gifts or fees) collected for officiating at private ceremonies like funerals and weddings rather than from his salary. This created a situation where rabbis had to go along with things they might otherwise have objected to. . . . Rabbis lived in parsonages, increasing their dependence on the congregation and giving the “builders” the right to determine the style and condition of the rabbi’s living quarters. This often produced stress and family difficulty when, for example, the rabbi had to explain to his family that the reason the roof was still leaking was that the House Committee hadn’t met yet, or hadn’t collected the three estimates, or that the board had yet to allocate the money, or whatever else it was that was holding up a vital repair. That is not the sort of respect that I value. I prefer my own home and greater financial remuneration from the congregation. If evaluation is the price I have to pay to get it, that seems a reasonable trade-off.

The statements made about the “inheritors” are true, but Mr. Singer ignores the fact that the strains between pluralism and tradition are especially great within the Conservative movement. . . . If the job description of a rabbi is vague, and members of a congregation are unsure of what to expect or how to evaluate the rabbi, is that the fault of the congregants or of the rabbi?

When I attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, I participated for a year in a program conducted in Washington, D.C. by the Interfaith Metropolitan Theological Foundation (Inter/Met). As part of that program I served as a rabbinic intern at Tifereth Israel Congregation while attending school at Inter/Met. The heart of the program was the “lay training committee” composed of members of the congregation, the rabbi, myself, and a member of the Inter/Met staff. The function of this committee was to evaluate my performance on a monthly basis, provide input and feedback, and receive the same from me. With the help of this committee I learned that input and feedback are not dirty words, and that criticism can often be constructive.

I would like to suggest that every congregation form a “lay training committee” with its rabbi and with a staff person from United Synagogue of America or the Rabbinical Assembly trained in group dynamics available for its meetings. In this way a rabbi could be evaluated in an ongoing way with continuous opportunity for response and growth on the part of both the rabbi and his congregation. . . .

Rabbis are in a stressful profession; but so are firemen, policemen, social workers, and teachers. . . . Every profession has stresses associated with it. It’s time for rabbis to stop bemoaning their lot and do something to change it.

[Rabbi] Louis Zivic
Congregation Beth Israel
Lebanon, Pennsylvania

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Howard Singer writes:

Jacob Neusner would shift the focus from the congregations to the seminaries. Should seminaries respond to the present situation by changing curricula? I don’t see how they could.

True, most congregants do not look to a rabbi for the intellectual stimulation or religious depth he can offer them. Most congregants don’t care whether the rabbi knows Talmud or medieval Jewish literature or, for that matter, secular philosophy. Congregants now expect the rabbi to give personal service; to visit the hospitals, the bereaved, their elderly parents; to take a deep personal interest in the religious gropings of their eleven-year-old children. True, the rabbinate today leaves too little room for the rabbi as interpreter of the tradition, scholar, and teacher (of adults, not children).

But we can hardly expect the seminaries to “be practical,” stop teaching Talmud, Bible, and Ethics, and limit rabbinical students to courses in pastoral counseling, adolescent psychology, synagogue administration, and the like. The seminaries are not manufacturers, obliged to survey the market regularly and then redesign their product to please the public. The seminaries quite properly see themselves as centers of Jewish religious learning, successors to the great academies of former times. Their function is to convey the tradition to young rabbis, who, in theory, will then go out and teach it to the laity. But what can the seminaries do if the laity tends to think of rabbis not as teachers but as employees? Perhaps the seminaries can’t solve that problem, but neither should they adjust to it. They can only go on being seminaries.

Samuel C. Klagsbrun, a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wants the seminaries to train “tougher rabbis” who will provide stronger leadership. He cites with approval the case of an outstanding rabbi who “stood firm” on matters of principle. But the rabbi, whom he describes as “my kind of rabbi,” is, by Dr. Klagsbrun’s own evidence, the kind that gets fired.

Friendly congregants (like Dr. Klagsbrun) may encourage a rabbi to stand up for his principles, but when the rabbi is attacked, his friends always expect him to maintain his dignity and leave quietly, “with his head held high.” Should he try to organize them and fight for his job, his friends will perceive him as engaging in cheap politics, lose their respect for him, and withdraw their support. Such is the scenario Dr. Klagsbrun himself gives us in his story of a rabbi who “understood that the problem really lay in the passivity of his friends and supporters” who were “no match for the virulent clique that had taken over the administration of the synagogue.” The “strong” rabbi always discovers that his enemies are implacable, his allies unreliable.

Dr. Klagsbrun recommends that rabbis play the pulpit hero rather than the nebbish, but he takes much too lightly the enormous emotional damage to the rabbi who follows his advice, and to his family. It is the rabbi’s wife and children who will suffer the consequences. Today’s congregations want docile employees, not forceful leaders, and so Dr. Klagsbrun’s kind of rabbi and his family can expect to be uprooted time and again. Dr. Klagsbrun, a psychiatrist, ought to ask himself how much strain a rabbi’s family can take before its members will require his professional services.

Dr. Klagsbrun is a warm friend of the rabbinate, but in the context of today’s congregational dynamics, his alluring advice may actually be harmful. Rabbis should think twice before taking it—unless they enjoy constant strife, are independently wealthy, unburdened by a family, and fond of travel.

I am grateful for Leslie R. Freedman’s letter. I was afraid to burden an article meant for the general reader with too many statistics or technical terms. Some were indispensable, but wherever possible I used a familiar non-technical equivalent. I am delighted with Mr. Freedman’s observation that, if anything, the effect was to understate my case.

Daniel J. Julius, on the other hand, thinks I overstate my case. He argues that it is “premature” to characterize what is taking place in synagogues today as a new form of anti-clericalism. But I am convinced that anti-clericalism is a precise description of the current mood. I find an undercurrent of hostility toward rabbis constantly surfacing in the jokes and anecdotes circulating even among the unaffiliated. That congregants have hypercritical attitudes toward the rabbi, and even the rabbi’s family, needs no additional documentation. The significant fact is that the malice appears directed not only at individual rabbis but at the very idea of the rabbinate. Some years ago, while doing research on the radical Yiddish literature of the early 20’s, I found the same attitude, then even cruder in tone.

I know of a city where rabbis are excluded from full voting membership on the board of directors of the local Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The board is large. It has many women members. It has people of modest means, who contribute little but are “good workers.” It has at least one token teenager, with a vote. It has members whose ethical and even sexual standards are so notorious that the Jewish population feels itself disgraced in the eyes of the wider community; yet their notoriety has not deprived them of full membership on the board. The only members of the community who are not eligible to take part in its decision-making are the few whose professional lives are dedicated to the Jewish people and faith.

If “anti-clericalism” isn’t the perfect one-word description of such social phenomena, it will do very nicely until an even more precise one comes along.

Pamela S. Nadell is certainly right in pointing out that the rabbi’s lot has never been an easy one. Rabbis have complained, and individual horror stories can be found, in all periods. But I maintain that things have gotten perceptibly worse since the 60’s.

In a survey of the Conservative rabbinate twenty-five years ago, Eli Ginzberg of Columbia University found that at the time only 6 percent of the rabbis had left the pulpit. And he noted in the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, I960: “That is a very low figure. I know of no other profession, save medicine, where the losses to other fields are so low.” Today the loss to other fields is somewhere between 20 and 40 percent, giving rise to the recent expression, “the turnstile rabbinate.” I think this points to increased discontent, though I suppose one might argue that opportunities are more plentiful today.

However, some recent developments in congregational life, such as the distribution of questionnaires surveying members’ attitudes on rabbinical “performance,” permit only one interpretation. Certainly they can have only one effect: they humiliate the rabbi and leave him feeling insecure. This is also true for trends in the Jewish community as a whole. The recent increase in intermarriages, for instance, has led to more congregants becoming critical of rabbis who cannot, in good conscience, officiate at such wedding ceremonies. The cumulative effect is demoralizing.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the evidence I presented in my article is persuasive.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh believes a majority vote can solve most of our religious problems; I think it merely gives false confidence to someone wielding a gavel. I agree that democracy is a good thing, but the assumption that it has curative powers outside the political sphere is unwarranted. The faith that it can win Jews back to Judaism might have seemed reasonable during the Enlightenment. Two hundred years later it is a kind of mysticism: the only kind, I might add, that the Reconstructionist movement has ever found congenial.

Rabbi Hirsh wants to give laymen the feeling that the tradition is “theirs” to study, which is splendid. But in his view, study entitles them to feel themselves masters in the house of tradition, with the right to move the furniture about. His theory is that lasting commitment follows. I don’t see it working out that way in practice.

Mastery (in the sense of a skill acquired) does not arrive all that quickly, not even to rabbis who devote their entire lives to study. But the feeling that we are masters (in the sense of dominion) produces a state of mind closer to arrogance than reverence. Yet reverence is preliminary to, and an attribute of, religious commitment. I have noticed that the few who feel deeply about Judaism don’t think the tradition belongs to them; they feel themselves possessed by the tradition.

I am pleased that Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl agrees with me on the substance of my article, but I must reject his suggestion that unrealistic expectations are partly responsible for “much rabbinic distress.” That strikes me as another instance of the victim being asked to accept the blame for being victimized.

Nor do I see value in the broader perspectives he offers. Babylonia sheds no light on suburbia, and the political struggles of the ancient prophets tell us nothing about the modern rabbi. Even the contemporary Israeli rabbinate functions under conditions too different from ours to provide a useful parallel. We must narrow and sharpen the focus rather than diffuse it when we study the specifics of contemporary rabbinic discontent.

Actually, the situation is not all that hard to understand. The rabbi usually comes from outside the community, must represent an outlook noticeably different from the norm there, and does not “fit in” socially. It is not surprising that members of the community see the rabbi as the “outsider,” and treat him as one.

Rabbi Louis Zivic defends the spirit of the age, and even accepts the notion that the modern rabbi’s “job description” is vague. My position, of course, is that it is vague only in the eyes of religiously disinherited congregants. All Jews ought to know that the role of the rabbinate was set down ages ago, for all time. Rabbis must teach what is of permanent value in the Jewish tradition, and inculcate their own love of that tradition in their congregants. I am uncomfortable with the term “spiritual leader” because it sounds pretentious, but it does point to the rabbi’s function. A spiritual leader must provide a timeless perspective on the follies of the hour.

But now trendy congregants, who no longer understand what even the most gifted rabbis could give them, fall back on the vocabulary of corporate life, which they do understand. They create their own rabbinic job descriptions, which tend to dwell on the easily quantifiable (such as the number of hospital visits made), and they insist on periodic “evaluations” to check on the rabbi’s “performance.” That vocabulary, or rather the attitude behind it, makes spiritual leadership seem grotesquely irrevelant.

But since Rabbi Zivic, who describes the new pattern as desirable, also informs us that the salary he receives fulfills his vocational aspirations, I can only wish him many more happy evaluations.

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