Monday, July 6, 2009

Rabbinic Term Limits?

I’ve been thinking about the issue of rabbinic turnover, and the effect it has on a community.

Certainly, there are many reasons why communities and rabbis prefer long-term relationships, among them:

• From the rabbi’s perspective, it’s satisfying and fulfilling to see the results of his labors. It’s incomparably wonderful to see a family evolve, a child grow up, a learning process bear fruit.

• From the rabbi’s perspective, as well, job security is important. Starting in a new community, with all of the potential mistrust and misunderstandings, is very difficult; working with people you know, people who know you, is far less stressful.

• Again from the rabbi’s perspective, making friends and becoming close with people is hard to do if your horizon is short-term.

• From the rabbi’s perspective as well as the community’s perspective: Seniority helps the rabbi deal with communal issues; no one can say to him, “We used to do it this way,” “We always did it that way.” And people feel less like, “Rabbis come and rabbis go, let’s do what we want.”

• From the community’s perspective, it’s important to retain institutional memory. Generally, the rabbi, who knows every congregant and is involved in many of the events and stories of shul administration, is the repository of that memory.

• Also from the community’s perspective, it’s better to have a rabbi who stays for many years, to enable long-term communal planning and development, as well as long-term relationships.

• From everyone’s point of view: In dealing with community-wide institutions, it’s good to have a rabbi who has seniority and can speak to history, as well as the present, from a position of knowledge and wisdom.

• And further for the community: If the rabbi is good at what he does, who would want to change that?

But I’ve been thinking lately about the advantages of rabbinic rotation. I’m not advocating term limits, but I do see benefits for a community when the rabbi is not there forever:

• Most rabbis have a certain style, whether in teaching or programming or speaking or running the davening, and after a while people can become numb to it;

• Every rabbi has certain flaws and faults, things he doesn’t notice or areas in which he does not function that well. Bringing in a new rabbi can compensate, as these new areas may be addressed;

• Rabbis, themselves, can stagnate when they do the same job for too long, once they have gotten everything under control and they are set in a routine;

• Most perilously, rabbis who are in place for a long time may end up running certain areas of communal life to such an extent that his ultimate departure leaves too great a vacuum.

Overall, in my mind, the balance is still in favor of long-term rabbinates, but it’s just something to think about.


  1. Probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway...

    Too bad Allentown couldn't keep you longer.

    Another rabbi I know, who was seeking a position as an associate (or assistant?) rabbi, was telling me about how some of the very large shuls keep their associate rabbis for just a year or two. Having two rabbis this way, they get the best of both worlds: a regular injection of fresh ideas & youthful enthusiasm/energy + the continuity and communal experience of the main rabbi. (The one drawback with that model was that it didn't leave room for my friend, a rabbi of moderate experience downsized from a defunct shul.

  2. Fruma,
    There are other reasons for the model ($, mentoring to next level, no perceived threat).

    imho the balance could be improved by a peer review system of lay and rabbinic reiewers to compensate for what you viewed as the negatives of longer term.

    Joel Rich

  3. Fruma-
    An interesting format, certainly. Good point.

    But can they inject creativity or educate the rabbi in new approaches? In truth, I think sabbaticals once did this, but those are not in vogue.

  4. that's the plan
    joel rich

  5. I think what it boils down to is the focus of the position of Rabbi of a shul. If the focus is on the social aspects then it pays to bring in fresh meat, I mean, fresh talent. If the focus is on being an authority figure then it is best if the Rabbi is there forever.

  6. as i've commented before, shuls sometimes hire a rabbi who is not really suited for the shul (for whatever reason). but once in the position, it is very difficult (for various reasons) to remove him.

    terms limits make it easier to get rid of such a rabbi.

  7. Marc-
    I think from an educational perspective the fresh talent also helps.

    There are easier (and more diplomatic) ways, I think and hope.

  8. Lion,

    Perhaps term limits aren't the answer to this problem (after all, some rabbis really are a good fit for a shul for 40+ years.)

    Perhaps what you're advocating is no lifetime contracts.

    Even so, I think of Rabbi Max Davidson who retired when I was still a child after being the much-beloved rabbi of that shul for over 50 years, I believe. The synagogue & the congregation did not suffer in the slightest from his longevity (and he was a really tough act for his successor to follow.)

  9. Can I redirect this a little bit - to the issue of day- & high- school principals? My point is, some schools hire a new princpal every 3 years, but the assistant principals (i.e., head of Limudei Kodesh & Head of Secular studies) remain the same. The identity of the schools do not change. Using another analogy, do officers run the army or do sergeants? Do doctors run hospitals or do nurses?

    Perhaps these schools don't need to hire principals, rather fall guys who get fired every couple years after enrollment doesn't increase or some other perceived goal is not attained (even if it is unattainable). In that sense, this discussion is not related to terms for rabbis.

    Most shuls I've been involved with do not have such a structure to be able to function properly without a rabbi. Unless I'm mistaken, there aren't long-serving gabbaim who know all the minhagim/rules with enough clout to decide who gets the amud when two former presidents have yahrzeit the same day.

  10. Talmid-
    Without addressing the school issue, since I don't know enough about it, I can say that shuls may well be able to function sans rabbi - if their need is only for a dvar torah and a mesader tefillah.