Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rule for Rabbis: Official, not Officious

[Post I read this morning: Bin Laden captured in Jerusalem]

I’ve been compiling a list of “best practices” for Shul Rabbis. It’s not hard to come up with pithy sayings and simple advice (ie “Be a mentsch”), but I’m trying to create a coherent picture that includes a Rabbi’s various roles, and offers pragmatic counsel.

One rule I’ve been contemplating is: Be Official, not Officious.

In a sense, it’s just a variant on “Be a mentsch,” but in the rabbi’s job – as in the job of any manager - this can be harder than it sounds.

The rabbi, often in tandem with gabbaim, sets up the schedule for minyanim – which rooms will be used, and beginning when and ending when, for the davening.

Depending upon the shul’s staffing situation, he may be in charge of figuring out when the timers will turn on the lights and air conditioning.

The rabbi has kashrut oversight of use of the shul kitchen (other than where the shul has a caterer who is supervised by an outside kashrut organization).

The rabbi coordinates the Adult Education in most synagogues, and has Yea/Nay authority to decide whether films may be shown and entertainers hired for events.

And so on.

Bottom line: The rabbi is in charge of making sure “the trains run on time” in many aspects of the shul’s institutional life.

In the course of this work, the rabbi is the official timekeeper, official arbiter of disputes, official administrator.

So what happens when the rabbi needs to enforce his official decision – when he needs to tell people, “No, we’re davening at this time,” “we’re using this room,” “that food must be presented in this way at the kiddush,” “Y cannot receive that aliyah,” or even, “this mailing needs to go out on that day”?

This happens daily, and so it invites careless error and disaster; it's easy to offend with an unintentionally harsh tone, a raised eyebrow, an unintended scowl, even folded arms.

If the rabbi does it “right”, he comes off fine, just doing his job, nothing personal or arrogant involved - Official. But if he isn’t very careful, he can appear meddlesome, imposing his will on others, even self-aggrandizing – Officious.

Sounds simple, but it takes work. Any advice?


  1. 1. When feasible every decision should have an explanation. "We are davening at this time because..."

    2. Perhaps if things are laid out in advance (listings of all the kashrut symbols accepted, how each type of vegetable should be checked, the algorithms for davening times) there would be less friction?

  2. A Rabbi new to a shul has to deal with its customary practices, including the types discussed in this article.

    1. He should learn ASAP what all these customary practices are.

    2. If he needs to change any, he should respectfully put forward his reasons to the board and congregation, and not simply make changes abruptly and/or without comment.

  3. Admittedly, we are so small that I can get away with my natural informal approach. Only twice that I can remember in the last three years have I actually said, 'this is a question of halachic propriety, and I have to be the one to decide it.' Both times were when two other people were arguing (in front of me at a meeting) what the halacha should be.

    Typically, on any matter which is not halachic, I respond with 'it isn't a matter of halacha and my voice is only worth the same as anyone else's'. On matters of halacha, I am happy to be questioned, but the buck stops on my shtender. On all other matters I will make my case, but I am happy to defer to others. I claim no more authority than any other ostensibly intelligent and responsible person.

    I think distinguishing between halacha and policy, and delineating where the rav must have authority and where he doesn't have to have it is important not only as a social dynamic; but important education as well.

  4. Sounds similar to the advice your friend my local mara de’atra passed on to me -- "take your job seriously, but don't take your self seriously"

  5. A parenting expert once told me that it takes at least 10 positive interactions to cancel out one negative.

    If the congregation is big and busy, or if the person involved is marginal in their involvement, the one negative can take years of positives to go away, if ever.

    Therefore, if a Rabbi does need to give unwelcome news to a congregant ,(such as refusing permission to redecorate the sanctuary in a Hawaiian theme for her son's bar mitzva, or whatever), he should attempt to include as many positives as possible. He should also, where possible, seek out that person for further positive attention. Better yet, if he sees this kind of thing coming, give positive attention first.

    Also, tone of voice matters tremendously. There is a whole world of communication that does not come across in email, which is why I think Rabbis should be careful using it. Even a phone call is much more personal, though you miss the opportunity to see the person's reactions.

  6. Marc-
    Agreed on both points.

    Again, agreed on both points.

    R' Mordechai-
    But is it really so easy to draw the halachah-policy dividing line?

    In my foolish youth, I rebuked a bully with, "Don't take yourself so seriously; no one else does." Not an appropriate comment to make to someone else, but sometimes worthwhile to make to ourselves.

    All very true. Another of the "rules" on my list is: Say Yes and you'll be able to say No.

  7. 2 points-
    My father sometimes talks about how, no a visit to anotehr frum community, the rav of this shul said "our shul is a democracy." My father said, "don't you mean a theocracy?" "No. A democracy." My father then asked "what if the board votes to take out the michitza?" The rabbi said "That won't happen."

    Second, a respected professor told us that at his shul there were so many problems, "If Korach would be alive, he would be the Chairman of the ritual committee." Within 2 months, this man became the chairman of the ritual committee.

    The balance between what a rabbi can allow & should allow is very tenuous, and a rav needs siyata d'shmaya (and a large dose of Chachmas Shlomo would help too)!

  8. Lao Tzu wrote:
    He is the best official, who is not officious
    He makes the best warrior, who does not become enraged
    He truly conquers his enemies, who avoids conflict with them
    He is the true master of men, who behaves as their servant