“So, when are the skeletons in your closet going to emerge? When is your scandal going to break, Rabbi?” These were the questions I was asked by a friend after a week in which three major Rabbinic scandals came to light. Over just a few days, it was discovered that the Chief Rabbi of a European country had fabricated his PhD in addition to having plagiarized extensively in his writings. Then the rabbinic head of a kashrus organization was accused of participating in lewd and lascivious behavior and frequenting establishments of ill-repute.
Lastly, and most shockingly, a well-known scholar, author, rabbinic judge, professor, and former pulpit rabbi acknowledged having created at least one pseudonym under which he had been publishing, writing critical letters to journals, and promoting himself for close to 20 years. Most egregiously, he confirmed that he had used the alter ego to gain access to, and participate in, a rabbinic organization’s private message board.
My friend simply articulated what undoubtedly many are thinking – are there any rabbis left whom we can respect? Do all rabbis have skeletons in their closet and scandals just waiting to break? What has become of the Rabbinate?
The combination of scandals, coupled with my friend’s question, has weighed on me heavily. Much more than respect, for a rabbi to be effective and successful he needs the trust of those whom he serves. If people feel the rabbi is not trustworthy, faithful, confidential, or honorable, they will not turn to him for support, guidance or influence, all critical components of his job and calling. The question, then, is what can be done to earn trust, confidence, and support, besides simply staying out of trouble?
I recently had the privilege of addressing the members of Yeshiva University’s prestigious Kollel Elyon at Dr. Lamm’s monthly lunch with them. I shared with them a message I have shared with every young rabbi I have interacted with: take what you do seriously, but never take yourself too seriously.
It is very easy for rabbis to begin to take themselves too seriously and to believe somehow that they are more important, their opinions matter more, and they deserve more respect and honor than anyone else. There is an expression I hear regularly and I shudder each and every time it is said to me. “Rabbi, thank you for taking the time to call me back,” or “thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I know how valuable your time is.” I always respond the same way: “My time is no more valuable than yours and calling you back or meeting with you is exactly how I want to be spending it.”
Many rabbis hear about how valuable their time is and they start to believe it. They therefore leave people waiting, stand them up, and fail to call them or email them back in a timely fashion. People come to rabbis with their problems and the expectation that the rabbi can solve them. This phenomenon can leave the rabbi feeling like he has the answers and access to all of the solutions and he is all powerful.
With all the heartache, complaints, and gossip about him and his family, the truth is that the rabbi also gets a lot of kavod (honor). People stand for him when he enters and wait for him until he is done for certain parts of davening. He has access to dignitaries and elected officials, he stands in front of the room each week sharing his sermon to an audience eager for his thoughts, and newspapers may call him for his opinion.
The bottom line is that it is extremely easy for all of this to go to a rabbi’s head and for him to start believing the hype. One of the most disappointing parts of the Rabbinate, I told the young group of rabbis at YU, is meeting the other members of the rabbinate, many of whom are arrogant, egotistical, self-absorbed and self-important.
Our job as Rabbis is to understand and accept the awesome responsibility of answering halachik questions, providing guidance and advice regarding issues ranging from life and death to mundane, and showing up when people need us most such as during life cycle events, times of illness, struggle, or loneliness. Our mission as leaders is to articulate a vision for our community and to implement the necessary steps to achieving it.
My message to those young rabbis was one that I try to remind myself of every single day – Take what you do seriously and not yourself too seriously. Your time is no more valuable than anyone else’s. You are not perfect, you have faults, you make mistakes, and you don’t have all of the answers and solutions to any given problem.
Make sure to have a Rebbe, a mentor and teacher to bounce ideas off of and to push back if you are pushing the envelope too far. I once asked a prominent rabbi who regularly expresses ideas, and authors articles and books that push the boundaries of tradition, “who is your Rebbe, your teacher that you rely on to give you feedback?” He had a blank look on his face and said, “I have never really thought about that.”
If you are blessed to be married, make sure that your Rebbetzin understands that part of her role is to keep you grounded. Walking out of the White House last year from the meeting I was privileged to participate in with the President, my phone rang and it was my wife. She asked how it went and after I filled her in, she said, “That’s nice. Listen, don’t forget tomorrow is garbage day and when you get home from meeting the President, you need to take out the garbage.”
Some rabbis think that as events unfold the world is waiting for their interpretation, their opinion, or elucidation. This phenomenon expresses itself in sermons on politics or current events, but even more disturbingly by rabbis with online profiles who post things such as “I’ll have a post about X soon. Stay tuned,” or “You should really read my blog. I have a post about that,” or “Jews of the Internet, this is a *huge* story. I will read carefully over Shabbat and write up my thoughts after.”
There are an ever-increasing number of rabbis on the web who write opinion pieces on everything occurring in the Jewish and non-Jewish world before it is even done happening or the facts are clear. They measure their effectiveness by the amount of comments, likes, or followers they receive, rather than the offline personal relationships they are building or the lives they are influencing in a meaningful, substantive way. The real role of a rabbi is empathy, compassion, and showing up in person, not online.
After the recent tragedy that occurred in our community, a number of people commented, “Being a rabbi is really difficult, I don’t know how you do it.” What is amazing is that I feel the exact opposite. Watching people go through pain or suffer a loss and not be in a position to help, support or make a difference must be really difficult. The rabbinate is the greatest gift for me, for it provides an outlet to try to make a difference in people’s lives and absolutely nothing could be more fulfilling.
Despite the many rabbinic scandals that have broken lately, I implore you to continue to have faith in the rabbinate. I am proud of my colleagues that are l’shem Shomayim (for the sake of Heaven) and dedicate their lives to being caring, concerned, honest, honorable and of service. Though I am far from perfect, (some of you take the liberty to remind me from time to time) I hope you will continue to trust me. I am thankful each and every day that you allow me to have the greatest job in the world.