Rabbi Avi Weinstein

When the Rabbi Lacks that “Je ne sais quoi”

In Uncategorized on May 8, 2012 at 10:59 am

Nothing is more divisive for a shul than when the congregation is split over its rabbinic leadership.  Somewhere between farce and Elizabethan (melo)drama accurately characterizes the intensity, the politics, the hubris and the silliness that inevitably emerge as part of what will certainly feel like a never-ending saga.

Lost in the discussion is any interest in what the Halacha might say that would maybe temper the discussion, and guide the way for more orderly, and dare I say, more civil proceedings.  Having witnessed, and unfortunately participated, in such a debacle, it at least aroused in me a need to review halachic literature on how one should go about dealing with a situation when the rabbi’s future is  in question.

As one may expect, the general tendency is to favor the standing rabbi unless he has done something so egregious that his moral authority lacks credibility.  If he has become merely unpopular, or out of touch, these alone are not automatically considered grounds for dismissal or non renewal of his contract. There are other remedies, compromises if you will, suggested in the literature that try to mollify the community such as bringing on an assistant rabbi, or a co-rabbi that would be more to the liking of the community.

There are other opinions that would side with the community if the vast majority were dissatisfied.  In most circumstances, where the community is split, if the rabbi finds such a reality acceptable, and is fulfilling his role responsibly, than he is on pretty firm ground virtually according to everyone. This is usually the backdrop for a breakaway minyan–a time honored tradition in all congregational life.

I was curious to know the textual justification for why the rabbi was afforded these protections–at least by the halacha. What I have found, fascinated me, and for whatever they are worth, I have some insights and comments to make on the sources and how they are understood.

In the Talmudic tractate Brachot 28a, there is the story of an ongoing dispute between Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi, the president of the rabbinic leadership and Rabbi Yehoshua who was known for his brilliance and his propensity to disagree with the president.  When it became known that Rabbi Yehoshua had once again contradicted one of Rabban Gamliel’s decisions, Rabban Gamliel publicly humiliated Rabbi Yeshoshua, and this was not the only time he had done so. The rabbis take umbrage and decide to depose Rabban Gamliel and appoint Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azaryah as the new Nasi.

In the meantime, Rabban Gamliel, realizing his future as the Nasi is in jeopardy, apologizes to Rabbi Yehoshua which puts the rabbis in a quandary. Now that Rabban Gamliel has apologized, the grounds for removing him are no longer valid, but once they offered the position to Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azaryah it cannot be rescinded. Why not? Because of a Talmudic principle that asserts “One can cause an ascent in holiness, but cannot be the cause of its decline.”

In all but one other instance, this principle applies to ritual objects. For instance, when selling a Torah, the proceeds could only be used for objects that were equally or more holy. You couldn’t  buy a Torah breastplate with the proceeds from the sale of a Torah. You could, however, buy a Torah with the proceeds from the sale of a breastplate. The Torah being considered an “upgrade” from the breastplate.

This principle is learned in two different places in the Torah from verses dealing with the Tabernacle in one place and the fringes of a prayer shawl in another. It is also applied when the High Priest, for reason of unexpected impurity, is unable to perform the rituals on Yom Kippur. An appointed  deputy replaces him, but once that has happened the deputy remains in the position of high priest and may not be returned to  his previous  position.

In the story of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, however, the principle is applied to rabbinic roles where character flaws are considered grounds for removing Rabban Gamliel, but barring such blatant behavior and this only after it happened repeatedly, Rabban Gamliel’s position as Nasi would have remained secure.

The interesting move of this story is to make the Rabbinic position on par with that of either the High Priest in the  Temple, or somehow on par with the sanctity of sacred objects. The study and teaching of Torah was being promoted as central to Jewish life as were the rituals in the Temple. It is this story that sets the stage for the sanctity of rabbinic authority after the destruction of the Temple. If this had not been established prior to the destruction, one can only wonder what might have transpired.

The story teaches that  the feelings, or the dignity of an individual rabbi is not only an offense against him, but  the Torah itself.  Unlike the Priest, this honor is not a birthright, but is merited by the hard work and recognition of peers that the individual in fact is one who embodies the acumen and qualities of a scholar and  thereby deserves to be objectified in the highest sense of the word. He is, for all intents and purposes, the Torah.

This begs the question of whether the modern rabbi nowadays is presumed to have these qualities, or as is often the case is mostly an officiant who primarily is there to serve the pastoral needs and experiences of the community.  This is particularly problematic in a modern Orthodox setting where prevailing opinions pay lip service to one quality but truly value the officiant who is perceived to be on the same wavelength as the community.

The conflict arises when said rabbi exemplifies the Torah of  Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel  but does not fulfill the expectations of what many in the  community have come to expect, that being, more the modern rabbi, and less the “Rav”.

Maybe if people looked at what the Talmud and poskim (legal decisors), considered criteria for who was considered to be a “Rav”, then  they would come to the conclusion that it is time for them to change and not change what it means to be the “Rav”.

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  1. Rav Avi,
    I have been thinking deeply on this for a while, because there is a similar trickle down for all Jewish professionals now; in Federations, Schools, congregations, all over. I wrote to someone this week that in the Jewish community, 50 is the new 65. I have seen numerous colleagues lately had their positions advertised out from under them in favor of the anthem of change, or innovation (or whatever the next shiny object is labeled), as if someone with experience and wisdom can’t also affect change and offer leadership in the proper supportive environment. There is an ageism afflicting out national community (I sit on a national board of educators, so I do see a larger-than-local wave) and it isn’t only directed at Rabbis.

    We have a lot of work to do, l’shem shamayim. Kol HaKavod.

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