Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The First Law of Synagogue Politics

To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton’s description of interacting bodies: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

That may have been the Third Law of Motion, but I believe it is the First Law of Synagogue Politics: For every action of the rabbi there will be an equal and opposite reaction from the congregation, and for every action of the congregation there will be an equal and opposite reaction from the rabbi.

Yes, that’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek; rabbis and congregations often – usually? – work hand-in-hand, their hearts in the same place and their eyes on the same goals. Everyone wants the minyan on time and the food kosher and the seats full of focussed daveners and the needy people pastorally counseled and the bills paid. Nonetheless, rabbis and their congregations often work unilaterally and even at odds with each other, whether directly opposite or at angles, and it may be helpful for each side to remember this law: Everything they do will induce an equal and opposite reaction on the other side.

This means that if the rabbi decides to radically change the shul’s rituals – say, by altering the Friday night schedule so that the shul davens minchah before Plag during the summer, just an example I picked out of a hat… - then he must expect that people within the shul will act to stake their proprietary claim over the shul’s rituals. Even if they won’t fight this point, the need to mark territory will emerge in some other way.

And vice versa – If the board sets policy unilaterally in a given area, they must expect that the rabbi will act unilaterally, in that area or in another, to make his mark and let it be known that he possesses a claim of his own.

If the shul pushes the rabbi on davening times, the rabbi might strike back by adding time to Shabbat.
If the rabbi pushes the shul on Adult Education spending, the shul might strike back by re-negotiating his health insurance premiums.
If the shul pushes the rabbi on being in the office during hours, the rabbi might strike back by using office hours to prepare classes rather than take calls.
If the rabbi pushes the shul on attending minyan, the shul might strike back by not attending classes.

I believe that all of this is healthy, normal, and, so long as both sides keep it in mind, quite manageable. Shul and board and rabbi can exist in a symbiotic balance, homeostasis if you will, and keep unilateral flare-ups and reactions to a minimum. The danger is when one side thinks the other’s reaction disproportionate. In reality, there is no such thing as a ‘disproportionate’ political reaction, because all offenses are gauged not by the offender and not by third-parties but by the victim. So when the board says, “What we did wasn’t so severe as to warrant that response,” the rabbi’s answer is likely to be, “But that’s the level of severity I felt when you did it.” And vice versa.

So where is all of this going? What dramatic current going-on is The Rebbetzin’s Husband about to share, more than 400 words into his exposition?

Sorry, no on-going cases to cite, now that I’m out of synagogue life. But I find this First Law a good one to keep in mind well beyond shul existence, so I thought I would share it.


  1. first law s/b the law of unintended consequences-e.g. the rabbi tells a story meant to increase bitachon and people take it as a snif of the opposite (e.g. someone went to work late because of slichot on 9/11 - so what of those who went to an earlier minyan to be yotzeh makom and adam?)
    Joel Rich

  2. Ah, yes - on both the unintended consequences and the bitachon story. Re: the latter, I am a huge non-fan of such stories.

  3. Shouldn't intention have a part in this first Law? We once davened in a shul that had just gotten a new Rabbi. He was intent on putting his stamp on the shul and changes were flying immediately. It would seem that his intentions were to make this "his" shul and not the previous Rabbi's shul any longer. Of course, the mispalalim thought of it as "their" shul. The tension was awful. The Rabbi lasted only as long as his contract did. Shouldn't common sense enter in there somewhere?

  4. ProfK-
    Ouch; there's a serious mistake (trying to make the shul your own). In my experience, the shul becomes your own when others view it that way, and there's little a rabbi can do, and nothing a rabbi should do, to rush that process. Rushing it just means taking the shul away from others, not a good thing.
    There are lots of worthy "First Laws" out there, of course. I shouldn't really have called my law "The First Law"; it was a bit of sensationalism, I guess.