Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why Do Rabbis Crash?

In an article titled "Rabbis on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", Jay Michaelson contends that the special political/emotional/psychological pressures of the rabbinate, coupled with the workload, could be one reason behind the regular appearance of scandalously poor decision-making by people who are trained to be wise, selfless community leaders.

In the comments on his piece, the author is taken to task by readers who think he is exonerating misbehaving rabbis. But I don't think he's finding criminals innocent; I think he is trying to identify a flaw in the system, which is making their crimes more likely. And I think I have something to add to that useful endeavour: 

Many articles have documented the link between exhaustion and impulsivity and poor self-control. Perhaps one of the best is a 2002 piece by the incredibly well-published psychologist and professor Dr. Roy Baumeister in The Journal of Consumer Research, titled, "Yielding to Temptation: Self-Control Failure, Impulsive Purchasing, andConsumer Behavior". [It's certainly influential; according to Google, it's been cited in 625 separate publications.]

Per Dr. Baumeister, one of the key ingredients of self-control is "the capacity to alter the self." And he contends, citing studies, that someone who perpetually exercises self-control can actually deplete it, making it unlikely that he will be able to continue to apply self-control. In one study, "participants in various control conditions were exposed to similar stimuli but did not have to regulate their behavior. For example, they watched the same upsetting film without having to regulate their emotions, or they were permitted to eat the chocolates and cookies instead of the radishes. Afterward, we measured self-regulation in ostensibly unrelated other tasks, such as physical stamina on a handgrip exerciser, persistence in the face of failure on unsolvable anagrams, or refraining from laughing and smiling while watching a comedy video. The findings repeatedly showed that self-control was poorest among people who had already performed a prior act of self-control."

Now imagine a rabbi who is involved with congregants on many diverse levels – pastoral, administrative, ritual, social, organizational – for 90-100 hours per week, including Shabbat. And imagine that yes, he owns impulses for grossly inappropriate behaviour. But he doesn't have daily time to flee the situation and recharge. How long will it be before he yields to a grotesquely wrong impulse?

Of course, other jobs also involve long, intense hours – and we see these breakdowns of self-control among professionals in those fields, too. We see it among politicians and doctors, police officers and nurses. And we see it among mothers. [It may exist in the modern wave of stay at home dads, too; I don't know.]

The uncomfortable reality, which I observed in my own synagogue rabbinate days, is that the job we have created for synagogue rabbis is impossible. Not "impossible" in the sense of "boy, that's hard". "Impossible" in the sense that there are not enough hours for them to do the job demanded of them, and recharge.

Here's a breakdown of a sample rabbinic week, acknowledging it depends on the nature of the shul/community:
3 classes = 3 hours of class, 9 hours of preparation = 12 hours
Shabbat sermon = 4 hours of preparation (on a good week!)
Hospital visits = 6 visits = 4 hours
2 funerals = 4 hours for the funerals, 4 hours beforehand with the families, 3 hours of attending the shivah homes = 11 hours
Nursing home visit = 1 visit to see various patients = 2.5 hours
Shul bulletin responsibilities = 1 hour (will vary widely across shuls)
Pastoral counseling = 8 appointments (if he's lucky) = 6 hours (if he's even luckier)
Answering halachic questions = 45 minutes each non-Shabbat day = 4.5 hours
Answering email questions/comments from the community = 30 minutes per day, including Motzaei Shabbat = 3.5 hours (if he's absurdly lucky)
Community organization meetings (schools, UJA Federation, JCC, etc) = 2 per week, 2 hours each = 4 hours
Tzedakah disbursement = 1 hour (will vary widely)
Attend 2 weddings = 4 hours per wedding = 8 hours (seasonal, of course, and depends on community)
Attend 2 L'chaims = 30 minutes per L'Chaim = 1 hour (ditto)
Work with shul committees to plan programs = 3 meetings = 3 hours
Preparing divrei torah/articles for special events = 2 hours
Participate in three shul programs (Sisterhood, youth, social, etc) = 3 hours           

This list is already at 70 hours, and it does not include:
Shabbos responsibilities
Pre-Yom Tov responsibilities
Community dinners and fundraising events
Responsibilities to the Eruv, Vaad haKashrut, Chevra Kadisha – and, yes, mikvah
Daf Yomi, which is standard for rabbis in many communities
Responsibilities to community organizations beyond attending a meeting
Learning with conversion candidates
Other life-cycle events - Bris, Pidyon haBen, Unveiling, etc.
Teaching Bar Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah students
Meeting with couples to prepare for marriage
Mediating disputes within families or between people
Writing articles for local newspapers
Calling shut-ins to wish them Good Shabbos
Oversee Adult Education efforts
Legwork to help people find work, a shidduch, a chavruta or a pair of tefillin
Meet with potential donors for the shul

And contrary to popular belief, this is not subject to synagogue size. A smaller community will have fewer hours devoted to some of the items on this list, but that will be balanced by greater responsibilities in other areas. In a smaller synagogue, rabbis have greater administrative responsibilities, and greater roles in communal institutions. They also do the programming/promotional work which is managed by committees in larger synagogues.

So yes – I'm not exaggerating when I say this is an impossible job. There is no opportunity to recharge the resources of self-control.

Is there anything we can do? Maybe, but I think that the best shot comes not from the rabbis or their organizations, but from the communities. It's Reality, for at least these three reasons::

1. There are more rabbis than there are positions, and so a shul can create an unrealistic job description and find a dozen or more qualified applicants. There is no check on the Search Committee and its polls of the synagogue membership, and no one saying, "Does that actually work?"

2. Rabbis are poor time managers. I believe it's a product of the system of yeshiva education, in part, in which we just throw time at our learning without spending a lot of energy figuring out whether we are learning efficiently. All use of time for Torah is good, right? [I also suspect that the rabbinate self-selects people who fit this mold; anyone with a sane understanding of how time works would find a different life.]

3. Rabbis are heirs to a tradition that idolizes total dedication, as I discussed here.

So I'd like to see the communities take the lead on recognizing the problem posed by their job descriptions.

I once counseled a friend who was interviewed for a shul job that was advertised as 20 hours per week. I suggested that he ask the committee how they wanted the 20 hours used. As I sit here now, I think that would be a good exercise for search committees in general, before they ever see candidates – break down the hours of the week and see how they fit your job description.

I have much more to say on the topic, but the reason I post only infrequently is that I am also doing one of those ridiculous jobs. I think my self-control is saved by the time I spend locked in traffic on Bathurst; if I don't use the phone at those times, and I let go of the fantasy that switching lanes will get me to my destination sooner, then that becomes time for my recharging…

But I have written a lot on the Rabbinic Job Description over the years; click here for other posts on the topic.


  1. Wow. Bravo.

    Don't forget the places where the rabbi is also the baal kriah ...

  2. Isn't a close relationship with HaShem and His Torah supposed to fortify a Rav against these aggravations, to the point that we can expect proper behavior?

    Or are they just another kind of manager under pressure?

  3. There are a few responses I can think of.
    1) There is a tremendous misallocation of funds in the Orthodox world. How many multi-gajillionaires give donations so the social hall in the shul can be named after them? How many of them instead fund a position for a Rav at a decent salary for several years? How much do they spend on their kid's bar mitzvah? How much on ensuring the shul balances its budget?
    2) As a profession Rabbonim are a very disorganized lot. You cannot compare yourselves to doctors and lawyers. You have no national governing authority, no uniform set of standards, no practice guidelines and, most important, no disciplinary body. Barbers are more regulated.
    3) You have no union or similar protective body. Look at the Conservatives and Reform. Their so-called Rabbis have a union. What do you have to protect you from malicious shul board members? The halacha? Ha!
    Until those are addressed the situation will not change.

  4. Shalom-

    Why should that work, either religiously or medically?

    1. It's not about salary; it's about visibly limiting the job expectations.
    2. True.
    3. True.

    1. It won't work if he made a poor decision (or was misled) to take something on that is manifestly beyond his abilities. But is that the typical case?

    2. RAM-
      I am suggesting this scenario: Rabbi X is in a position to indulge his desires in any number of ways each day, just like all of us are. The first five, six, seven times, he restrains himself properly. But because he has depleted his resources of self-control, eventually he gives in. He has no opportunity, during a day of constant situations like this [counseling women, meeting socially with women, having mikvah access, etc.], to get out of the situation and recharge. I am NOT saying he is innocent - but I am saying that our communities create situations in which crashes will happen.

    3. I thought about the idea of a Rabbis' union or professional group. However, as long as there are many more rabbis than positions, the shul boards will be in the driver's seat. Just like Jewish school administrators vs. teachers. They will always be able to find someone willing to work outside union work rules or guidelines. Can you see a way a rabbi can create a "study time" daily when he is 100% incommunicado?

    4. RAM-
      I could see the community granting that 1-2 PM each day (for example) could be an hour of private study, so long as all of their needs were met... But in my experience, the rabbi's biggest problem would be in disciplining himself to use that time for pure study, and not to prepare for a shiur...

  5. Thanks - the description of a typical rabbi's week is very enlightening for those of us not in the rabbinate. Delegate! That's what my management constantly tells us. There is a yeshiva educated baal habos in the shul who would love to give the daf yomi, ditto for giving classes; there are high school kids who can visit the cholim, working professionals who can run the meetings, etc. There's even someone with semicha in the shul who can answer sheilos. The rabbi's job is to lead, which means making his people the best they can be. If he does everything himself where does that leave them room to grow? And if he does not involve people in the shul but does everything himself, why would the people feel connected to the shul? Then the shul becomes not the home we build together (cue Rabbi Sacks's book) but the home the rabbi built. And who's interested in that except for the rabbi?

    1. Anonymous-
      Two questions:
      1. Would your shul's leadership be happy if the rabbi delegated out the classes, the visits, the meetings and the shailos?
      2. Would your rabbi be a respected leader if people did not have the relationships that they form with him through these interactions?

      To my mind, the problem is not that the communities need these events to take place, it's that they have a need (real and imagined) for the rabbi to be the one to do them.

    2. Very interesting. I actually thought the problem was the opposite - that the rabbis think they need to be the ones to do it, and therefore don't make good use of the members of their shul who would love to get involved more.
      Let me answer #2 first.
      Yes, I think so. In your model the rabbi is the direct manager of the whole shul. In my model the rabbi is the CEO who delegates the work to all of the managers under him. Who gets more respect, the direct managers or the CEO?
      #1 - why would they not be happy if everything gets done well and the rabbi is the one making it all happen (as a good CEO would do)?

    3. Actually come to think of it Yisro beat me to the punch by a few thousand years. Moshe Rabbenu thought your model is right, but God thought Yisro's idea might be worth trying :)

    4. Anonymous (following your order of comments)-
      Re: #2 - The CEO may receive respect, but is delegating what makes him a "respected leader"? My sense is that rabbis are followed when they demonstrate chesed, scholarship, and dedication - not when they show themselves to be good managers and delegators.

      #1 - My sense is that they would not be happy because they want a relationship with the Rabbi. What you are describing is the state of things in many Israeli communities, and and from what I understand, many people there are unhappy, and seeking the chu"l model in which there is a hands-on Rabbi.

      Yisro - As I see it, Yisro doesn't adopt a model of lay leadership, he just hires lower-ranking rabbis.

  6. Impressed that you had time to write this.

    1. Indeed. I was sent the Jay Michaelson piece on the 14th, and I was so taken by it that I scribbled this in a series of notes while early for appointments over the course of a few days. (And although I often use 12:01 or 1:01 as a delayed-posting time, in this case it was the actual time I finished the post...)

  7. In your calculation of the hours spent on the job, you have neglected any travel time. Driving to a funeral or wedding can take you an hour there and back, necessitating more time of the week.

    1. Anonymous 10:18 PM-
      That's correct; I omitted it because it can be used as recharging time. If it becomes extended office time, though, then there is no recharging.

  8. You forgot the one hour per week during which the rabbi is told that he doesn't do anything...