Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why Rabbis Stop Believing

Following on the heels of last week’s Orthoprax Rabbi discussions, I thought I’d add a more general note on the problem of Emunah in the Rabbinate. Specifically: There are few professions which are worse for one’s belief in Gd and Judaism than the rabbinate.

Certainly, there are reasons why a pulpit rabbi should have greater faith than others do: Training, regular exposure to wonderful people in their congregations, chizuk [reinforcement] from colleagues, the ability to spend much of the day involved in Torah study.

Nonetheless, I reiterate: The pulpit rabbbinate is bad for Emunah.

It’s not [only] because of the practical joke that Gd played on rabbis by creating the month of Tishrei; it’s a deeper, and more serious, issue. Here are the problems I see:

• A rabbi who really engages a community lives his life under theological siege, constantly facing people’s questions and challenges against faith. It’s like water sitting on a roof; eventually, some will seep in;

• A rabbi sees all sorts of tragedy and pain, and no one comes along to reassure him as he reassures others;

• A rabbi has no time for emotional bounceback, let alone philosophical bounceback, from the pain he sees;

• A rabbi lacks the space to step back and work through his theological challenges; he gets no religious Time Out. Whether they are right or wrong, other people can and do drop out of minyan or shiur for a few days, but the rabbi has no such option;

• A rabbi normally devotes little time to read works of hashkafah that might reinforce his belief; all of his time goes into the community. Reading it in order to teach it doesn’t count!;

• A rabbi sees the weak reasons behind some people's belief;

• A rabbi sees how some people turn to Judaism not out of strength, but out of absence of anywhere else to turn;

• A rabbi sees the professed believers who act immorally and corruptly, and knows what others get away with.

[Interesting: I imagine these items apply equally to priests,ministers, imams, etc.]

Clearly, there are ways to deal with this. Many rabbis, like myself, have found ways to manage. A rabbi can and should deal with a lot of these problems by scheduling time to learn mussar and machshavah (ethical instruction and Jewish belief), as well as scheduling vacation. But this definitely requires a certain mindfulness, an awareness of what is happening to him, why it’s happening, and how to address it.

There are a lot of pitfalls in this business.


  1. Not saying that a shul rabbi does not see all the negative things you've listed, but he has an advantage that individuals in his congregation may not have: he also sees the opposite of all your points. He sees that people may struggle with faith and win. He sees those who have made the decision to stand firm despite provocation. In short, he sees both sides of the coin. He doesn't see his own questioning as being an isolated case, and can pick up pointers that have worked for others through his involvement with those others. He can gain chizuk from seeing that others have struggled and won. And the simcha that he sees and is involved with expands what he, as a private individual, might be able to have.

    It's the same glass. While it might seem half empty, it's also half full.

  2. Shalom RosenfeldJuly 6, 2010 at 9:22 AM

    "It’s not [only] because of the practical joke that Gd played on rabbis by creating the month of Tishrei"


    The Pnei Yehoshua's rabbinic contract in Berlin, c. 1730, specified double his monthly salary (in riksdaler) for Tishrei and Nisan:


    אמנם יש שכר בעמלה של תורה מה' ‫ומאתנו בני קהלתינו ק״ק בערלין יצ״ו יותן לו שכירות הקצוב סך ארבעה רייכש טאליר מעות מארקיש. ובחודש‬ ‫ניסן ובחודש תשרי שכירות הכפל כנהוג...

  3. ProfK-
    Yes, that's what I meant when I said, "regular exposure to wonderful people..." And it's true about picking up pointers, as well. But in my experience, the ratio isn't necessarily even.

    I wonder if that wasn't simply a bonus for Yom Tov expenditures... but it's still funny. [And thanks Anonymous for the reichsthaler.]

  4. Shalom RosenfeldJuly 6, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    Oh woops, right, "Reichsthaler" (German) not "Riksdaler" (Swedish). Bork bork bork!

  5. "A rabbi sees how some people turn to Judaism not out of strength, but out of absence of anywhere else to turn;"

    This one puzzles me. Isn't the rabbi then given the opportunity to share all the wonderful things he loves about Judaism with them, so that it BECOMES a strength for them? Or do you only want community members who arrive fully committed, involved, and secure in their identities?

  6. If the rabbi can't find a way to vent and take care of himself than I can't imagine how things won't eventually implode.

  7. Tzipporah-
    I'd think you would know me better than that by now!
    This certainly is an opportunity for him - but my point is that since he encounters a great deal of shallowness, the rabbi may lack the reinforcing feeling of being surrounded by deeply committed people.


  8. If only the hashkafically strongest talmidei chachamim, who can stand the heat, elected to become and remain pulpit rabbis, would that not be a good thing?

  9. RAM - if nothing else, it would create a major shortage of suitable pulpit rabbis.

  10. RAM-
    I'd agree that this is an important criterion, but they also need to be good at the job...