Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Rabbis have no friends, Part 24

[Update: I noticed a burst of traffic coming to this page from Facebook today; my thanks to the linker! If anyone could tell me where the link is, I'd appreciate it.]

Picture the following opening from an actual conversation I once had with a friend, who also taught at the school my children attended:

Me: Hi!

Friend: Hi, how are you?

Me: Good, thank Gd. Do you have a minute to talk about X [a controversial communal issue]?

Friend: Sure. But I need to know: Are you calling me as my rabbi, as a board member, as a parent of my student or as Mordechai Torczyner?

And then you wonder why rabbis have no friends.

It’s a matter of Roles: The rabbi is expected to play all sorts of different roles in the community, relating to people on many levels depending on their personalities, their type of observance/affiliation, their communal involvements, their children, etc, and in consequence to pay attention to many different sets of boundaries, keeping them straight at all times. That’s hard work.

When we play Sunday morning football and I tackle you, is that because:
a) You were holding the ball,
b) You missed minyan Wednesday night,
c) You didn’t vocally support my proposal at the board meeting, or
d) All of the above?

When I call you just to say Good Shabbos on Friday, is that because:
a) I like you and want to be in touch,
b) I plan on soliciting a serious contribution for the Youth program,
c) I know something you don’t yet know about how your children are doing in school, or
d) All of the above?

And so on.

The potential mindgames, and the potential political landmines, are very real. The result is that having friends is very difficult, because there are no relationships that are only about friendship; all of them have multiple roles and associated overtones. Do you really want to go about your day talking to people, visiting them, teaching them, or interacting socially with them, while having to maintain in the back of your mind an awareness of what role you are filling at the moment, and what boundaries you need to observe?

I don’t, and I didn’t. In my rabbinate I dealt with everyone as friend, because that was the relationship I wanted, but I must admit that this was not always the wisest approach.

Other rabbis solve the problem by making no friends locally, and finding friendship outside the community, such as with rabbinic colleagues – or blog readers, I suppose.

And others never really figure out how to square the circle, and it can be tough on them.

So go be friendly to your rabbi – but make sure to clarify how and why you are doing so…


  1. We should definitely get Hallmark to start a 'Have Mercy On Your Rabbi' day. Maybe the first suggested theme could be 'transparency with your rabbi'. What other's can we add?

    Maybe we should suggest something at the convention in 10 days time?

  2. It is unfortunate that people perceive rabbis as needing to "play a role" because of their job. I would hope most rabbis truly feel that their interactions with the community is an essential part of who they are. Personally, if the rabbi appears aloof from me, then I might be offended - but if he actually seems to care, I'd appreciate it. I have experienced the other side though: some rabbis feel the need to create a barrier (e.g. they do not initiate greetings, ask how someone is, etc.) - whether it's because of a misplaced sense of professionalism or simply a personality quirk, or a psychological need to create their own personal space - I don't know. But the result from my perspective is a feeling of alienation. If I were the rabbi at the school in question, I would have been flattered by the question.

  3. R' Mordechai-
    There is a "Rabbi's Day," actually; I should post about it at some point. Or maybe I did already. Tzarich iyun.

    I don't see roles as a matter of artificiality, or certainly aloofness. It's more a question of defining the agenda - is the goal to schmooze, to get advice for his actions, to help his child, to direct the school, etc.