Thursday, March 18, 2010

How to lynch your rabbi

Warning: Bad mood ahead.

The following outrageous Q and A exchange on Kipa illustrates the danger of trusting an “Ask the Rabbi” website, and of asking a schoolteacher (you can see the writer's bio here; I don't want to mention his name) for advice about shul politics:

The Question:
My community’s rabbi has been here for many years. I have no personal connection with him, but he is, in sum, a pleasant person. The problem is that he does not really guide the community. He doesn’t really connect with community members, beyond a small kernel of “chasidim.” Almost no one goes to his classes, and in general he does not create any meaningful path for the community. They say he was more energetic in the beginning of his career.

I assume there are things I do not see, and that he maintains some connections with people in private, but my impression – and that of others – is as I have described.

How does one turn to a rabbi and ask him to do more, without damaging his honor? And in an extreme case, may one try to remove a rabbi from his position in order to appoint a rabbi who is more appropriate?

Note: The questioner is already polling other people about her discomfort.

Note: The questioner has not approached the rabbi directly, given her penultimate question.

In other words: "Basically, I'd like to know: What should I do if I and seventy of my closest and dearest friends, who I just happen to know by osmosis agree with me since I don't gossip at all, think the rabbi is a washed-out has-been failure?"

The answer includes the following paragraph:
At the start of any practical path, you must ascertain clearly that your assessment is that of most of the community, and that the rabbi really is not creating spiritual and personal progress among the community members.

Therefore, in practice, I recommend that you check – with great discretion – a representative sample of 20-30 percent of the community members, not in a clear way but in a roundabout way, in the course of conversation about some other matter. Check many cases: Do they have a relationship with the rabbi, do they value his accomplishments in the community, do they go to other rabbis with personal connections.

Many rabbis are far from perfect, and some should be replaced - but DUDE! What are you doing?!

No mention of approaching the rabbi directly, just, “Sure, ma’am, just go poll your friends about what they think of the rabbi. Ask them what they think of him. Twenty or thirty percent of the community – one out of every three or four. See if they have a connection with the rabbi. But do it discreetly.”

Discreetly? Have you never dealt with human beings??

Here are some good opening lines for that discreet conversation:

So... talk to the rabbi lately? No? Why not?

Hey, remember when you went in for surgery last year? Who did you go to for advice? Oh, not the rabbi?

That class the rabbi gave - what did you think of it? Not for repetition, of course; please ignore my pen and paper.

What do you think of the rabbi's suits? His conversational abilities? The food at his Shabbos table - or have you never been invited there, like 12.7% of the people I have randomly sampled in a discreet survey I'm pretending not to be taking?

How about we poll the parents of your high school students, "Not to start any trouble, but: Are you satisfied with your children's teacher?"

You could have titled this column, “Advice on Creating a Lynch Mob,” or, "How to make your rabbi's life a living gehennom."

I'm glad that in the responses, a sensible reader wrote in:
Why not try to speak to the rabbi before anything else? Why isn’t the first step to explain the situation and the reactions – personal or communal – and hear his side, and then, if the situation does not improve, turn to another rabbi to speak with him, or something like that? Why is the immediate reaction to jump to gatherings and meetings, at which it will be impossible to avoid lashon hara and degradation of a Torah scholar?

To which the author responds:
Certainly, certainly, the first and most fundamental step, from the Torah and from basic ethics, is this; this is also likely to be the most effective approach. My response is given that the questioner had already tried this and not received a response. Yasher koach.

Yasher koach indeed. What you should do, Rabbi Schoolteacher, is delete your entire answer, beginning to end, and just insert your reader’s suggestion.

For a more complete set of instructions:
1. Talk to the rabbi directly;
2. If that does not yield an explanation or corrective action, talk to the president.
3. It is then the president's job to evaluate the concern and take it to the board for discussion and action, or not.

The last one to discreetly poll the people was Korach, you know.



  1. I would suggest that the practical rabbinics course include how to continually seek feedback from the entire spectrum of congregants.
    Joel Rich

  2. Most peoples "representative sample" on these things is themselves and three people they had Kiddush with.

    Good luck to that Rabbi. He's going to need it.

  3. True, but the Rabbi must try to make sure that his representative sample is not the three people who are syncophants.
    Joel Rich

  4. Joel-
    Absolutely, and I think that mentors do focus on that.

    Anonymous 2:43 PM-
    Yes, I'd concur.

  5. I couldn't access the blog, but it seems to me that there are a lot of people who write columns advertising their ability to dispense practical advice about dealing with people even if they do not have the expertise. As in this case, such people often end up making things worse.

  6. Joseph-
    Thanks for letting me know about the link; it's fixed now. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

  7. maybe RenReb can weigh in on this.

  8. Anonymous 10:14 AM-
    Agreed; I think her take on this would be most entertaining. You could try asking, but I don't think she blogs there anymore.

  9. Haven't seen RenReb on the net in quite a long time. Too bad. Did they go through something like this?

    I miss RWAC, as well.

  10. I just want to point out that this is probably an Israeli shul, judging by the website. As such, there is no president, nor is there a board.

    It would seem that you have a different assumption in the situation than the responder; it seems he assumes that the questioner did speak to the Rabbi and that it did not lead to anything. The questioner wants to find a better way to approach the Rabbi.

    Given that, option 1. in your statement was performed, and 2. and 3. do not apply whatsoever as it's Israel. Just because it's not a great system in that there is no board/president to evaluate the Rabbi does not take away from the reality of the situation that they do not exist.

  11. Mordechai-
    Me, too. Maybe we should email him as well.

    Nice thought, but it ain't so. Look at his reply again; he explicitly mentions the board - ועד הקהילה.

  12. Thanks for the new link. I stand by my original critique. As you state, how does his being a high school teacher give him the qualifications to answer this question? It would have been better had he referred him to someone else who has HR/community experience.