RABBIS GONE WILD
RABBI STEWART WEISS
This has not been, to say the least, a banner year for the Rabbinic
profession. Almost every month - or is it week?! - some new scandal hits the
headlines, giving rabbis - and by extension, all of Judaism
- a black eye. And these are not just minor offenses, like getting a bit
tipsy at the Shabbat kiddush, or forgetting if the eulogy is for a man or a
woman, or even taking a few liberties with the Discretionary Fund. No, these
are actually culpable crimes we are talking about, peccadilloes that scrape
the bottom of the Cholent pot, from voyeurism to adultery to larceny for
stealing synagogue funds to pay off blackmailers ready to reveal an illicit
liaison with an underage boy congregant. With an occasional game of naked
squash thrown in for good measure.
The net effect of these incidents, while they certainly represent the vast
minority of the clergy, is to cast a shadow over the rabbinic profession
specifically, and create an air of cynicism regarding religion in general.
After all, if those who purport to be God's messengers have such failings
and foibles, how can they preach to others as to how to live their lives?
So I thought this would be a good opportunity to focus on the role of the
rabbi and to offer some thoughts on what, in my opinion, ought to constitute
the essential qualities and convictions we would hope to find in our
Now, many people would put the art of speaking at the top of their list. I
wouldn't. While it is, of course, important for the rabbi to be able to get
his point across and hold his congregant's attention at sermon time, I
consider this to be a minor qualification. Public speaking has become more
and more about theatrics than theology. The rabbi is often turned into an
entertainer rather than an enlightener, seeing his role as one who must
cheer his audience far more than challenge them.
Oratorical ability, then, is somewhat overrated. Let us remember that the
greatest of all rabbis in history, Moshe Rabbeinu, was, by his own
admission, among the poorest of speakers. And yet he remains the rabbinic
Next is the issue of scholarship. We expect our rabbis to be Talmidei
Chachamim, well-versed in both Torah and rabbinic literature, as well as
experts in philosophy, psychology, and history, adept in ancient texts as
well as the vernacular of the day. After all, we want to learn from them,
and so their classes must be clever, creative and contemporary, all at the
This is indeed a valuable attribute, and it certainly will assist the rabbi
in attracting a large flock and achieving an admirable reputation. But what
with so much information being available today on the Internet - with
literally hundreds of lessons on virtually every Jewish subject at our
fingertips - this is no longer THE crucial sine qua non of the pulpit that
it once was. Moreover, many cities boast institutions of higher Jewish
learning where gifted teachers and study sessions abound, often eclipsing
the rabbi in scope and substance.
And, I would sadly add, some of the most sordid stories now making the
rounds are being told about some of the most brilliant clergymen.
I therefore suggest that there are three areas that rank as the most
important qualities to look for in a rabbi:
1. PERSONAL EXAMPLE. The rabbi is first and foremost a spiritual role model.
He embodies the personality traits - "Midot," we call them in rabbinic
language - that one should seek to emulate, that we want to give over to our
children. He is human - not super-human - but he has worked hard to master
the moral, Godly behavior that defines what a good Jew represents. It's hard
to perfectly describe exactly what these traits are, but, like all intrinsic
values, we certainly know it when we see it. It's part stately bearing, part
affinity for the common man. It has a face of kindness and compassion, ever
ready to accept, but at the same time it projects a high standard and an
absolute confidence that we, too, can reach that level of excellence.
Joy is the principal emotion that should radiate from the rabbi, reflecting
an inner satisfaction with being a Jew. If there is any anger, it is
directed at injustice and corrupted behavior. If there is sadness, it is
focused on the plight of the less fortunate among us, empathizing with the
hardships that life often throws at us, and the suffering we have long
endured as a People at the hands of our enemies.
It is not even necessary to always interact directly with the rabbi.
Just appreciating what he stands for, that he is one of us and has our best
interests at heart, is enough to inspire and energize us. He is a kind of
Moses on the Mountain, that hero who represents the community, sometimes
from afar, personifying the best that we can be, if we apply ourselves. Just
knowing that he exists - and knowing that he knows that WE exist, as well -
is a singular source of strength that supports us in times of need. Every
Hasid now reading this is surely shaking his head in approval.
2. SURROGATE PARENT. The rabbi should be both a Father and Mother figure to
us. Though he cannot and should not actually replace a parent, he can often
do things which our parents are unable or reluctant to do. He can develop a
love of learning within us; he can allow us to get a glimpse of God when he
tutors, or even talks with us. He knows how to break the bonds of apathy
that often constrain us; he is adept at bringing us closer when we feel
alienated, uplifting us when we are out of spiritual sorts. We instinctively
trust him, because we know that, like a parent, he has our best interests at
heart, and so we "let him in" when we are hurting, and accept his advice
when we are confused and searching.
When Joseph was about to succumb to the illicit advances of Potiphar's wife
in Egypt, the Sages say he looked in the window and saw a vision of his
father Jacob's face. It was a face of love, and Joseph instinctively knew
what his father expected of him, and so he gathered up his moral courage and
refused to be seduced. Jacob became, in a sense, the "father of our nation,"
and leaders like him still nurture and train us. On a deeper level - since
Joseph was said to closely resemble his father - he saw his own reflection
in that window. The best of rabbis - or parents - opens a window to our
souls so that we can see ourselves for what we are - or should be.
3. LEADERS AS LADDERS.
Speaking of Jacob, one of the most evocative images in all of the Torah is
Jacob's Ladder. Commentaries abound as to the meaning of this marvelous and
mysterious dream. But I believe one interpretation is that Jacob himself is
the ladder! He is being shown his mission in life, to be the ultimate
"connector" between Heaven and Earth, to facilitate the ascension of
everyone with whom he comes into contact, so as to form a closer
relationship with God. After all, this is the "end game" - connecting to the
Creator - is it not? Otherwise, what the heck are we doing on this planet;
the goal cannot simply be to "break even."
Therefore, the principal task of the rabbi is to take each and every person,
wherever he or she may be at that moment on the spiritual ladder, and raise
him or her to a higher level. That means he must become involved with
people, get to know their family, their history, their unique personality.
In short, he has to care and care mightily about other human beings - no
less than he cares about himself - and truly want them to achieve their
spiritual equilibrium. Not for HIS sake, but for theirs. He has to be
motivated by the knowledge that he can make a difference in every person's
life. And his reward? In the process of changing others, HIS life will
change for the better, too.
Are there such rabbis out there? After all, the model I have outlined is a
very tall order. The answer, as many of you reading this, I am sure will
agree, is a resounding "Yes!" - there are indeed such gifted individuals. I
know, because I was blessed to have such rabbis in my life. I sincerely hope
you have them, too.