[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]
One of my favorite aspects of rabbi-ing in the Lehigh Valley has been the absence of the Gotcha! game. You know the one I mean – where people watch the rabbi for a mis-step in the hope that they will catch him in an error, or, even better, in some personal shortcoming.
The resulting lashon hara, even if it never progresses to an actual firing, turns off rabbis (sitting as well as candidates), turns off other congregants, turns off potential congregants, and generally damages the community in broad and irreparable ways.
Thank Gd and thank the good people of my community, we don’t have that nonsense here (for the most part, anyway; there's always one or two), and I appreciate it. I think it’s helped me do a better job; people function at a higher level, especially in a position as personal as the rabbinate, when they don’t need to constantly look over their shoulders.
The Gotcha! game is the main reason I refused to contemplate the pulpit even as I was studying for semichah (ordination). As a teen I saw a significant number of communities where the game was played, where rabbis were treated harshly on the basis of events that did not reflect the majority of their work, or even as a result of simple mistakes. Shuls would eat their rabbis.
Example: I know a shul in which a group lobbied for the rabbi’s dismissal because he burped while teaching an evening class. We’re not talking about an egregious belch, or a pattern of dyspeptic behavior, or a burp followed by a satisfied, “Ahhhh!” – one discreet burp, in one class, and five instant enemies. Really.
Mind you, I know that there are positive reasons why people find flaws in their rabbis:
• They feel compelled to fulfill the biblical mitzvah of rebuke (cf Bava Metzia 31a on the mitzvah of rebuking your rabbi).
• They hold the rabbi to a higher standard because he is supposed to serve as a role model.
• Sometimes it’s because the rabbi is flat-out wrong. Yes, it does happen. (To other rabbis, anyway.)
• Sometimes it’s because people take their Judaism and their shul personally, and can’t stand to see anything that isn’t quite right.
• And sometimes it's because rabbis taste good, especially with ketchup.
But at other times it really just seems to be meanness.
• Someone once told me that he thinks the Gotcha! game comes from people who can take out their own work frustrations on their employee, the rabbi. It’s like people who abuse their hired help at home.
• Another rabbi once told me he thought it was latent aggression toward authority figures, perhaps even their parents.
• Others suggest it’s because the rabbi is up there telling people right and wrong, and so it’s easier for people to pick on him for his flaws than to listen to his words.
Thank Gd, it hasn’t been a significant factor for me; I hope many other rabbis can say the same.