Monday, August 18, 2014

Pesach Night at the Windsor Arms

At Purim time, many months ago, attendees of a weekly shiur [class] of mine got together and purchased a gift certificate for two, for my Rebbetzin and me to enjoy dinner at the Windsor Arms Hotel, here in Toronto. It's a fancy establishment, and they provide kosher dinners by reservation on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. You order an appetizer, a main and a dessert, and that's $75 (before taxes), and there is a wine list as well.

The generous idea of the shiur was to offer a night's break before Pesach, but that wasn’t entirely realistic. As a result of the less-than-sane schedules we kept this past year, we couldn't take advantage of the generous and gracious gift. It was not until last week that we were able to use it.

I must say, I enjoyed the experience immensely; as some of you know, I admire and enjoy well-prepared food. [The menu is available here; the picture isn't great, and you'll need to magnify it in order to see anything above the wine list.] But more, it gave me an insight into what a Pesach Seder should be.

The room was luxuriously appointed. The server was congenial. The pace was leisurely; we could talk and take our time. And so, days after Tishah b'Av, I felt like I was enjoying what a Seder was meant to be: A slow-paced discussion, in beautiful surroundings adding to one's feeling of well-being if not royalty. We don't get to Shulchan Aruch for hours not because the Haggadah has placed page after page of text in our way, but because we aren't in any rush, we've broken from the hurly-burly haste of our lives and we are free to discuss and debate and reflect, and the food will be there when we are ready for it.

Of course, that doesn't happen at our sedarim, in general.
First, because the stress of preparing for Pesach leaves people frazzled.
Second, because the more luxury you create with fine dishes and cutlery, the more you need to clean up afterward and have piled up in your kitchen until the end of Yom Tov, ruining the atmosphere considerably.
Third, because the people who are supposed to be enjoying the seder are the same people who need to prepare the food in the kitchen.
And fourth, because the leisurely discussion is enforced by the pages of text, and isn't necessarily good for small children and elderly relatives and people who aren't familiar with the nature of Torah study and debate and don't understand what's going on.

Still, I feel that this is the answer to the age-old question of why we hold the meal at the Seder until after page after page of discussion. It's not meant to be torture; it's meant to show that we are taking our time, we are not rushed, we are enjoying a beautiful table, wonderful company, and the luxury of being able to proceed at our own pace.

[And yes, this is a direct contrast with the chipazon haste of Egypt, but that's a topic for another time.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Rabbinic Autonomy

A while back, I was speaking to a young rabbi who was entering his first pulpit, and he mentioned that in a shul he would have the freedom and flexibility to do that which he thought was most important for the community, and to do at the time that he felt would work best for thim and for the community. That reminded me of an important lesson regarding the synagogue rabbinate, as well as life in general: Don't confuse limited autonomy for total freedom.

It is true that shuls tend to trust their rabbis to make their own schedules; the rabbi decides when to visit people in the hospital and when to prepare shiurim, how much time to spend on counseling and administration and teaching and tzedakah distribution, and whether the shul needs another shiur or another chesed program. However, the rabbi who mistakes this brand of autonomy for total freedom is, in my opinion, making a significant error.

The shul rabbi's autonomy is like that of any contractor – the board wants a healthy community, and trusts the rabbi to decide how best to do that. However, the shul has a vision of what a healthy community looks like, and the rabbi who ignores their vision in favour of his own does so at his own peril. [Note: the wise rabbi will openly and honestly share his vision of "healthy community" when interviewed, and the search committee should vote for a rabbi whose vision matches that of the shul.]

If the shul wants a community in which members regularly consult with the rabbi about their personal troubles or schmooze with the rabbi at the kiddush, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

If the shul wants a community in which the rabbi teaches a shiur for every group of three Jews who want it, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

If the shul wants a community in which the rabbi is a regular contributor to the Op-Ed columns of the local newspaper and a bridge-builder to other sectors of society, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

Of course, there is ample opportunity for the rabbi to sell his vision, and if the community responds well, then that may come to be the community's vision. And the sensitive rabbi is open to learning and evolving, and adapting his vision to the lessons he picks up in the community. The "healthy community" vison may well be a moving target, and both parties can/should shift and grow.

My point is only what I said at the outset: The rabbi dare not confuse limited autonomy for total freedom. Keep an eye on your job description, my friend.