Thursday, December 3, 2009

What should be on the Rabbi's agenda?

[This is a quasi-rant. I apologize in advance. For other material, see this week's Toronto Torah.]

Ever since my first rabbinic interview, people have wanted to know my agenda.

On proba visits, I was asked a range of interview questions on this topic, including:
• Will you speak about Current Events?
• Will you promote Aliyah?
• What do you see as the major challenges facing Modern Orthodoxy today?
• What do you see as the major challenges facing the Jewish community today?
And so on…

These are significant items, but I believe – and I believed this when I was a shul rabbi as well – that none of these items belong near the top of a rabbi’s agenda. Rather, the rabbi's agenda should be about helping us become better Jews, better people, on a day-to-day basis.

This includes speaking out regularly about:
• Our awareness of Gd;
• Our sensitivity to each other’s needs;
• Our sincerity;
• The depth of our thoughts and our lives.

I want a shul rabbi to speak regularly about emotions, and less-regularly about elections.
I want a shul rabbi to teach more classes about davening and about honesty, and fewer classes about the ethical issues in separating Siamese Twins.
I want a shul rabbi to spend more time on his shul’s youth, and less time on newspaper columns.

I wouldn’t claim that I was perfect in any of these areas in my rabbinic years.

Further, I know that we also need the speeches about the elections, the classes on conjoined twins and the public stands on issues of the day. But these areas are, in many ways, low-hanging fruit bringing easy if superficial returns. If this is the rabbi’s agenda, he may well be popular as a public figure, but I believe he will have failed as a spiritual leader.

And I would add one more note: I believe that the same should be the agenda for all of us “private citizen” Jews.


  1. If a Rabbi insists on presenting his personal preferences as an agenda he will only be hired by a synagogue consisting of Rabbis (or perhaps a Rabbi in a place like Monsey).

    I am reminded of a story Rav Pesach Krohn writes in one of his Maggid books. He says that someone once complained to Rav Sholom Schwadron that back in his day a magid would give the Jewish equivalent of a fire and brimstone speech, while in more modern times a magid would use jokes and parables. He answered with a parable.

    Two sons became extremely ill. One was around 15, the other around 5. The doctor prescribed the same extremely unpleasant medication for them. The father told his 15 year old that the medication does not taste good, but is needed to save his life. The kid understood and took the medication. The 5 year old was not capable of understanding, so the father played and jokes with him until the kid was laughing, at which time the father snuck the medication into his mouth.

    Once upon a time when a magid spoke the people had the maturity to take his words to heart. Later on people did not have that maturity, so the maggidim had to come up with jokes and parables.

    There are perhaps synagogues that can appreciate an agenda you would prefer. Most of us, however, do not belong to such synagogues. A Rabbi who wants to increase awareness of G-d, sensitivity to others, etc., will have to sneak such things in with current events, promotion of Aliyah, etc.

  2. You hit the nail right on the head.

  3. Marc-
    Indeed, that's part of what I meant when I said I recognize that these are necessities - but this post was about what I want, personally.


  4. Good post, Rav T.!

    The heter horaah says something to the effect that he will point out the path they will follow.

    The rav should model a path of learning and davening, of yearning and seeking Hashem, and show others how they can find their particular paths in Torah to do the same.

    I think the rav should also be a bit of a visionary. He should see the greater potential in the community, bring it to their attention, assess the present short term need, and then take the first instructive steps in the desired direction.

    But the individual and communal guidance all goes back to showing how we become Ovdei Hashem.

    Thanks, as always, for giving us a little insight into your 'world'. ;-)

  5. It's what I want in a rabbi, too. As far as I'm concerned, what you've stated here is mostly what I've received from you during your time in Allentown. Thank you.

  6. Fruma-

    R' Mordechai-
    Thanks, and thanks for adding your own 'world'

  7. Very much agreed. I've complained for a long time that--based on the sermons and other public statements I've heard from the pulpit--it's hard to know whether or not the majority of our Rabbinate actually believes in God, or at least any spiritual aspects beyond lip-service to God's basic existence.

    I'm happy to hear that you've not taken that approach

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  9. could you post on the question related to what dver.marc discussed - How much of a difference does a particular Rabbi make(i.e. most communities are defined by who is there and only move marginally if at all by the difference in rabbis)?

    Should then it only be the exceptional rabbi who uses his "work" as a reason not to make aliyah ?

    Joel Rich

  10. Joel-
    I think not. Although communal vision is a must, and leadership of institutions is a must, the bottom line is the Rav is there for the personal, the teaching and chesed he does for the individual.