We’ve all been troubled by news of recent scandals relating to rabbinic misbehavior. Rabbis who had served as “spiritual leaders” turned out to be very imperfect human beings, betraying the trust of their congregants and the community at large. Fortunately, the vast majority of rabbis are fine, upstanding people who serve with honesty and integrity.
In many cases, rabbis are the victims—not the perpetrators—of a different sort of “scandal.” Rabbis, along with entire congregations, are often subject to the whims of a small clique of wealthy or influential individuals. Rabbis are expected to dance to the tune of the “machers” or risk losing their jobs. Or, the “machers” decide that they want a certain type of rabbi, and then foist their candidate on the congregation without due consideration to the feelings of synagogue members. In such cases, the rabbi gains a sense of invulnerability that can lead to very negative consequences
Mr. Andrew Apostolou, a member of our Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, recently wrote a blog for the Times of Israel (June 10, 2015). He lamented the pitiful situation in many communities, where decisions are imposed by a small group, and where proper forms of synagogue governance have been compromised. He wrote: “American Jews should apply the civic spirit that motivates their professional and political lives to their religious lives. American Jews would never vote in uncontested elections. Yet they accept pre-approved slates and sole candidates in their synagogues and other communal bodies. They would never invest in a company or organization that had a board packed with the CEO’s cronies. Yet they donate to a synagogue that operates as the rabbi’s checking account, overseen by the rabbi’s friends. They would laugh at the notion of any sector of the economy regulating itself. Yet they accept religious institutions that put themselves and their members first, and the victims last. None of this will happen until American Jews act like adults in their religious lives. If they keep behaving like children, there will be rabbis who take advantage.”
If congregants allow unlimited power to their rabbi, they are inviting trouble. If congregants grant unlimited power to a small group of “machers,” they are undermining the spiritual foundations of the synagogue. This truly is a “scandal” that needs to be confronted. In order for congregations to have responsible rabbinic and lay leadership, the congregants themselves must take their own personal responsibility seriously.
Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz has written a powerful article, “When Leaders Fail,” (Jewish Action Magazine, summer 2015). He describes the grievous consequences of religious leadership that falls short of the Torah ideals. Rabbi Breitowitz notes the destructive nature of pride and overconfidence and the dangers of charisma and the personality cult. When religious leaders—whether rabbinic or lay—become smug, they may come to feel immune to communal sanction. They lose sight of proper moral boundaries, thinking that they are not accountable to anyone. They seek power and prestige; they seek to control; they do not function as humble servants of God or as loyal servants of the public.
Rabbi Breitowitz writes: “Erudition, scholarship and personal magnetism are no guarantee of spirituality and inner goodness….If one is imbued with compassion, kindness and humility, then Torah study will make him more so. If one is competitive, arrogant and self-aggrandizing, Torah scholarship will simply create another battlefield in which those qualities can be expressed….. All of this suggests that communities must pay much closer attention to the moral qualities and personality traits of the leaders and role models that they choose. That certain flashy qualities might be overvalued in the selection process while other qualities—gentleness, modesty—are undervalued or even disparaged will only hurt the community in the long run.”
In striving to maintain and enhance the synagogue’s role as a spiritual center for the community, the congregation must seek rabbinic leadership that reflects the highest moral ideals of Torah Judaism. It is a “scandal” when rabbinic search committees prioritize candidates who can get their names in the newspapers or who are supposed to be successful fundraisers.
I had posted a blog on jewishideas.org on April 24, 2013. Here are a few paragraphs of that essay.
My dear and respected friend, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, recently wrote an article about the "relocation" of God. Here is an excerpt from that article.
"Synagogues – whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – are no longer His primary residence. Surely some of the worshippers are pious people who try to communicate with their Creator, but overall, the majority of these places have become religiously sterile and spiritually empty. So God is moving to unconventional minyanim and places such as Israeli cafes, debating clubs, community centers, unaffiliated religious gatherings, and atypical batei midrash. The reason is obvious. In some of those places people are actually looking for Him. And that is what He loves; not those who have already found Him and take Him for granted. He is moving in with the young people who have a sense that He is there but cannot yet find Him."
While I believe that mainstream synagogues continue to be "God's residence" and continue to play a vital role in contemporary religious life, I think Rabbi Cardozo touches on an important reality.
Why have growing numbers of thoughtful and spiritual people turned away from "establishment" synagogues?
Here are some possible reasons.
Mainstream synagogues are often perceived as being run by a small clique of wealthy "machers", more interested in promoting their egotistical aims than in worrying about the spiritual needs of the community. Synagogues seem, to many, to have turned into businesses--mainly concerned with meeting budgets, increasing memberships, and fundraising. While these are certainly important concerns, what about the synagogue's soul? Why does the synagogue exist in the first place? What is the spiritual agenda? While budgetary goals are spelled out, spiritual goals are generally neglected. So why would spiritually sensitive people want to be swallowed up in this "business"?
Mainstream synagogues often measure success or failure in terms of quantity rather than quality. A synagogue is deemed "successful" if it fills seats at services and events, even if these services and events are religiously sterile. Yet, spiritual souls are often most comfortable in services and classes that allow them to transcend themselves, to learn, to grow. Why would thoughtful, spiritual people be attracted to an institution that focuses so much energy on quantity, and so little energy on real quality?
Mainstream synagogues often want rabbis who can raise money and get new members. The rabbis are, in effect, salesmen--whose success or failure is measured by how many dollars they produce and how many seats they can fill. What spiritually sensitive person wants such a rabbi? What self-respecting rabbi would allow himself to be marketed in this way?
Vaclav Havel wisely advised: "Seek the company of those who are searching for the truth, and avoid those who have found it." The "establishment" seems to be composed of those who have found the truth, or who don't really care much about the truth. The synagogues run services like clockwork, sometimes more meaningfully conducted, sometimes less so. People who are spiritually alive are looking for religious vitality, for a sense of striving. In many synagogues, though, they get services by hazzanim interested in showing off their voices; or by laymen whose mastery and understanding of the liturgy is less than scintillating.
I had been a rabbi in a mainstream Orthodox synagogue for nearly 40 years. I can testify to the tremendous impact of such synagogues on the lives of so many people. I can testify to the beautiful souls who really pray, who really study Torah with purity. I can testify to the sense of communal solidarity that is formed among religiously-alive congregants.
But I can also testify, based on my years of interaction with many rabbis and synagogues, that the "establishment" is indeed at risk of losing its soul, its raison d'etre. Rabbi Cardozo is not wrong when he points to synagogues as being religiously sterile and spiritually empty.
So these are the “scandals” that our communities surely need to address promptly and intelligently: How can we ensure proper governance of our congregations? How can each member’s voice be heard? How can we keep the spiritual agenda of our congregations as our priority? How can we seek and maintain rabbinic and lay leadership that is idealistic, honest and truly religious? How can we ensure that God feels “at home” in our synagogues?
Our communities are blessed with highly intelligent, educated and thoughtful people who are quite successful in their personal and professional lives. We need to draw on this amazing repository of talent and experience to re-focus and re-energize our synagogues. If we allow the status quo to persist, the scandals will persist and worsen. If we rise to the challenges, we can accomplish great things for our communities and create a genuine kiddush Hashem.