Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Corruption of the Rabbinate

[In truth, this post isn't only about the Rabbinate; it's about anyone who is in position to be flattered and honoured by others. Politicians, community leaders, and so on.]

This post is inspired by a passage studied in yesterday's Daf Yomi, Menachos 109b [see Rashi and Tosafot for more on an alternative edition]:

אמר ר' יהושע בן פרחיה בתחלה כל האומר עלה לה אני כופתו ונותנו לפני הארי עתה כל האומר לי לירד ממנה אני מטיל עליו קומקום של חמין
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah said: At first, had anyone told me, 'Ascend to authority,' I would have bound him up in front of a lion. Now [that I hold authority], if anyone would tell me to descend from authority, I would pour a pot of boiling water over him!

[There is much here, and quite a bit of it is subtle – note, for example, that to avoid holding authority the sage would have allowed someone to be harmed, but to avoid yielding authority he would have actively caused harm. ואכמ"ל.]

Why does the Rabbinate corrupt its holders?

1. Part of rabbinic corruption, certainly, is about wielding power, and power corrupting.

2. Part of it is that we come to believe the nice things people say about us. [Yes, people often do say nice things about rabbis...]

Last week I participated in a seminar at YU for incoming members of the Chicago and Toronto YU Torah miTzion kollelim. Rav Herschel Schachter addressed the avreichim regarding the responsibilities and pitfalls of Jewish communal service, and one of his topics was the issue of popular praise. Rav Schachter told a story in which Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg praised himself in front of a mirror; his own praise would feel empty, and he would become numb to praise from others as well.

Rav Schachter also told the story of a community rabbi who had become so convinced of his greatness that he once declared, "In my community, I am Reb Moshe [meaning, the equal of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein]!"

3. But even for those of us who don't enjoy power and who don't make the mistake of believing our own press clippings, the rabbinate is corrupting because praise is addictive.

I know that my learning, teaching, etc is highly overrated – and no, that's not humility, false or authentic – but I still feel good when flattered.

This is normal; we are hard-wired to be satisfied when people say nice things about us. But it's dangerous, because addictions need to be fed, and one who grows accustomed to praise can end up looking for more and greater things to do in order to attract people's positive reviews.

This happens to rabbis quite easily, and the results can include:

• Pushing ourselves to greater feats and heroics, which may well serve the community but which will carry a high price for one's self or one's family;

• Helping people who are more likely to offer praise, at the expense of others;

• On the other hand, going to excess to help people who don't offer praise, because their rare compliments bring greater satisfaction;

• Burning out when praise is not forthcoming, or is not commensurate with our efforts;

• Putting down others who are seen as competitors for the affections of the public, in order to build up one's self.

I don't think the solution is for rabbis to scowl at people who praise us; that's rude. And, as Pirkei Avos predicted, running away from praise just brings more of it. So how should a rabbi, or any community figure, deal with this?

Obviously, having a wise Rebbetzin/spouse is key. But I think a rabbi should take personal responsibility and remind himself that the satisfaction he receives from praise is only one of many positives in life, and should be viewed in a proper hierarchy of 'goods'. Yes, community praise is good. But so is time with your family. And so is giving honour to others. And so are anonymous acts of kindness. And so is taking a break every once in a while. And so on.

And now I turn to you: What else can a Rabbi, or any community figure, do to break the praise addiction?


  1. have an anonymous survey done - I'm no longer amazed at the distance between what I hear some people say to a Rabbi vs. what they say when he is not there (the more honest ones say nothing). Getting accurate feedback is difficult-I pushed for a feedback committee (didn't happen ttbomk)
    Joel Rich

  2. Joel-
    I don't know that criticism is really the opposite of praise. On the other hand, it might help the rabbi take the praise less seriously.

  3. And Moshe haya anav meod.....
    Where from is the ultimate praise?Who gave us our abilities and who can also withdraw them?

  4. A related question:

    We know of esteemed rabbinic "dynasties" devoted wholly to HaShem, Torah and public service, going back many years. How have the rabbinic parents been able to keep their sons, their heirs-apparent, from becoming vain and seduced by power?

  5. Bob,

    Here's two stories for you:

    1.) Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik realized his son, Shmuel, was having serious health problems ("nervous breakdowns"). He took him to a doctor in Switzerland, who correctly diagnosed the situation as living in a pressure-cooker with massive expectations to succeed as a world-class Talmudist. The doctor prescribed giving poor Shmuel some other outlet, and his father agreed; Dr. Shmuel Soloveichik was a chemistry professor @YU. (This says a lot of important things about the man known to many of us simply as RYBS' father.)

    2. At age 11, a young Moshe Feinstein had completed over a third of the Talmud. His uncle R' Elya Feinstein (RYBS' maternal grandfather) once came to visit, and stood up when Moshe entered the room. The host, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, hastily sent his son Moshe out of the room for something, whereupon he scolded his guest: "Elya, what are you doing?! You're going to kill my boy if he gets a big ego like that!"

  6. The gemara says that a mara deasra is loved because he doesn't rebuke the people re spiritual matters.

    Give the people mussar, even if it is tough. Then they won't like you so much and won't flatter you the same way.

    Speak the truth and encourage others to do so as well. Don't engage in flattery yourself and others will be less likely to.

  7. Make aliyah like you should!

    Then you will see what a grasshopper you really are compared to the Torah scholars here in Jerusalem. Most not in the "professional rabbinate."

    Right now you are the one eyed man in the valley of the blind.

    Should be sobering enough...

  8. daat y-
    But I argue that the problem isn't in believing the praise. It's in feeling good as a result of it, and therefore becoming addicted to that feeling.

    Very good question, especially in light of Nedarim 81a that HaShem avoids creating rabbinic dynasties, precisely because it can lead to arrogance and a sense that Torah and leadership are their personal property.

    Thanks. I hear what you are saying, but that gemara notwithstanding, it has been my observation that people also flatter baalei mussar and rabbis who speak honestly, so long as those baalei mussar/rabbis speak sincerely, without personal interest, and without intent to inflict harm.

    Anonymous 11:20 AM-
    See my response to daat y...

  9. I think a better title for your post would be "Ego & the Rabbinate."
    There certainly is no shortage of that today...

    There are other things that lead to corruption. Rabbis (speaking as one of the Young Israel variety), politicians, CEOs, etc. have a hunger for power and influence and a need for attention by their very nature. That same middah can be channeled to do incredible things. But there is also the danger of becoming corrupt in the pursuit of said things...

  10. Anonymous 1:37 PM-
    Actually, that would be a pretty good title for this blog...

    More seriously: I meant "corruption" as in the way that the rabbinate corrupts a person. But I understand what you are saying, and agree.

  11. There is a major difference about "feeling good " about praise,a normal,understandable feeling,and becoming addicted to it.My comments were related to prevention of dependence or addiction.

  12. Thanks for sharing this information. Knowledge is power.