Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why shuls eat their rabbis

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

One of my favorite aspects of rabbi-ing in the Lehigh Valley has been the absence of the Gotcha! game. You know the one I mean – where people watch the rabbi for a mis-step in the hope that they will catch him in an error, or, even better, in some personal shortcoming.

The resulting lashon hara, even if it never progresses to an actual firing, turns off rabbis (sitting as well as candidates), turns off other congregants, turns off potential congregants, and generally damages the community in broad and irreparable ways.

Thank Gd and thank the good people of my community, we don’t have that nonsense here (for the most part, anyway; there's always one or two), and I appreciate it. I think it’s helped me do a better job; people function at a higher level, especially in a position as personal as the rabbinate, when they don’t need to constantly look over their shoulders.

The Gotcha! game is the main reason I refused to contemplate the pulpit even as I was studying for semichah (ordination). As a teen I saw a significant number of communities where the game was played, where rabbis were treated harshly on the basis of events that did not reflect the majority of their work, or even as a result of simple mistakes. Shuls would eat their rabbis.

Example: I know a shul in which a group lobbied for the rabbi’s dismissal because he burped while teaching an evening class. We’re not talking about an egregious belch, or a pattern of dyspeptic behavior, or a burp followed by a satisfied, “Ahhhh!” – one discreet burp, in one class, and five instant enemies. Really.

Mind you, I know that there are positive reasons why people find flaws in their rabbis:

• They feel compelled to fulfill the biblical mitzvah of rebuke (cf Bava Metzia 31a on the mitzvah of rebuking your rabbi).

• They hold the rabbi to a higher standard because he is supposed to serve as a role model.

• Sometimes it’s because the rabbi is flat-out wrong. Yes, it does happen. (To other rabbis, anyway.)

• Sometimes it’s because people take their Judaism and their shul personally, and can’t stand to see anything that isn’t quite right.

• And sometimes it's because rabbis taste good, especially with ketchup.

But at other times it really just seems to be meanness.

• Someone once told me that he thinks the Gotcha! game comes from people who can take out their own work frustrations on their employee, the rabbi. It’s like people who abuse their hired help at home.

• Another rabbi once told me he thought it was latent aggression toward authority figures, perhaps even their parents.

• Others suggest it’s because the rabbi is up there telling people right and wrong, and so it’s easier for people to pick on him for his flaws than to listen to his words.

Thank Gd, it hasn’t been a significant factor for me; I hope many other rabbis can say the same.


  1. i think it is partially fueled by the popularity of daf yomi.
    now, everyone thinks he's a talmid chacham because he bought a shottenstein gemara

  2. I agree with the problem of the "Gotcha" game.

    I just heard about a Rabbi in a community where I used to live who was followed by a Private investigator until they found something to splash across the Loshan Horah Circuit.

    (Apparently it is still unknown who hired the Private Eye).

    I had certain differences of opinions with this Rabbi when I lived near his shul, and I expressed those differences of opinion by voting with my feet and davening elsewhere, however to be a member of a shul and have so little regard for the Rabbi as to actively work to smear his name in this way not only shows lackk of respect towards the Rabbi, but to the entire Jewish community.

  3. Nachum-
    Yes, I suppose that is a part of it, in some circles. Others learn daf and come to appreciate the vast amounts they don't know.

    Yes, I've heard about that one. (At least, I hope there aren't two such cases.) Way ugly.

  4. NOTHING tastes good with ketchup. hence, you are wrong. gotcha!

  5. Steg,

    ketchup is a great vegetable. I learned that when Reagan was in office.

  6. Steg-
    Is that what they're teaching you over there, not to trust the ketchup?

    Yes, along with salsa.

  7. no rav, i've never trusted the ketchup. although it took me until high school before i realized that if i don't like a certain food (ketchup, cream cheese, etc.) i don't have to eat it, even if it "obviously" "has" to accompany a different food that i will eat (fries, bagels, etc.)

  8. Until high school? My kids figured that out before their first birthday...

  9. what can i say? some of us are slower at the whole personal independence thing :-P

    i used to put the thinnest layer of cream cheese possible on my bagels because i couldn't conceive of eating bagels and lox without creamcheese between them... and i used to put the tiniest amount of ketchup on fries before i realized that it's possible to eat them without it.

  10. Another rabbi once told me he thought it was latent aggression toward authority figures, perhaps even their parents.

    This consistently holds true in the work setting; I've seen evidence of it many, many times.

    Somehow, those same people who love to kvetch loudly and clearly over every perceived wrongdoing they find in their boss / spiritual leader / etc, are the last people to volunteer to help improve things, although they might happily spend time and energy revolting, in one way or another.

    It's a form of jealousy ("I don't want it to be good for him, even if it would cause grief for me"), and from what I've seen, it can be among the most destructive forces in the workplace.

  11. ALN-
    Agreed, there is some jealousy involved... although if they knew what this position often brings, jealousy would be the last thing they felt...