A friend of mine, a Rabbi, once received an anonymous letter complaining about an element of his wardrobe. Other Rabbis have other stories of such communications. I presented my view on anonymous letters a while back, but I'd like to discuss the content of such letters, instead.
Rabbis are under observation all of the time, on anything and everything, but that's not unique to clergy. Having people notice your style of dress – or diet, or exercise, or sense of humor – is normal for human beings. Clergy are not the only ones who live in a fishbowl; all of us are constantly under observation by the people around us. The difference is that many people – not one, but many - often feel free to comment aloud, and rudely, when it comes to the Rabbi.
If I go to a restaurant and sit beside a loud talker, I might move to another table. If I sit next to a person with bad body odor on a train, I might change seats. If I see someone wearing a hideous tie, I may make a mental note to check my own ties for such a lack of taste. And then I move on. Only if something is particularly egregious, and apparently intentional, will a normal human being engage the offender – and then politely and positively, not with an anonymous screed.
But if it’s the Rabbi, then plenty of polite and positive people will tell the Rabbi – nicely or otherwise - that he should really keep his voice down, or that his tie is a problem. They might even find a way to hint at the body odor. And that's in the best circumstance; in another universe they might resign from the shul, and/or broadcast their complaint to their 100 closest friends.
That's what creates the fishbowl – not the fact that a few people are looking, but the fact that everyone is looking, everyone is commenting, and often without sensitivity.
I believe that many people genuinely intend to be helpful, and their comments can be very beneficial. But for a dangerous minority, it comes from a sense of ownership, as though my dues, or even my presence at minyan, means that I have a form of baalus [gemara terminology, translating roughly and inaccurately to 'mastery'] over the Rabbi. There's a sign across his back, "Property of Congregation _____________". [Shades of Rav Yaakov Emden and שלא עשני עבד-אב"ד.] To me, this is not healthy.
We want members to feel invested in the institution, and we want the Rabbi to be sensitive to their needs and wants, so I can't say that members should ignore the Rabbi's conduct. It's also true – as explained in various gemara passages – that the Rabbi should make sure his clothing is clean, his manner reputable and his comport respectable, so I can't say that the Rabbi should do as he pleases.
But maybe we shouldn't comment for every thing; there should be a threshold of significance.
And maybe it shouldn't be all of us making these comments.
And maybe it shouldn't be an anonymous letter.
What do you think?