Repairing The Rabbinic Relationship
There is a crisis of rabbinic leadership in our community.
Saying so is no longer sensationalism. We can probably all think of at least one man who holds the title of rabbi, but whose guidance, whether halachic or spiritual, lacks the expertise we would expect from someone who has been ordained. Even among rabbis whose scholarship is up to standard, some lack the skills and experience to share their insight with constituents. Most tragically, we recall too well the images of rabbis convicted of criminal activity, abusers of their title who embezzled funds or preyed on congregants’ most sensitive vulnerabilities.
On the other side, an increasing number of synagogue-goers are becoming synagogue-deffecters. Breakaway prayer groups whose sole distinction is the absence of a rabbi are more common than ever. Fewer halachic inquiries are brought before rabbis for decision, but not because fewer halachic questions arise.
The relationship between the rabbinate and the laity is too often mangled by disconnect, disillusionment, and distrust.
We students of Yeshiva University may soon, if we do not already, find ourselves on one side of the rift between pew and dias. We can and must heal this injured system with one small step: starting a conversation.
Our rabbinate and congregants need a conversation that takes place on two fundamental premises: one, that both parties share the common aspirations of serving God and living meaningful Orthodox Jewish lifestyles; two, that without each other, both parties are doomed to
fall catastrophically short of their goals.
As we prepare to assume our individual roles within our communities, we should recognize our distinct responsibilities.
The overwhelming majority of us, who will become lay members of our community, must communicate with our rabbis. We must guide their attention towards the questions in life that are important to us which present Halachic or philosophical uncertainty. We must be expressive not out of contempt or criticism, but out of sincere desire for partnership and counsel. We have to vocalize our expectations and hopes—not through rants on Facebook posts or via satirical songs on YouTube—but rather face-to-face and in person. We must also recognize that rabbis usually have greater Halachic expertise than we do and that they are entitled to their Halachic opinion, if it is valid and thought out, even if we would have hoped for a different decision.
The few of us who will become professional clergymen have to improve our communication, too. We must be open to hearing what our constituents tell us. If we are surprised by how important a certain issue is to our laity, we should not dismiss it as coming from ignorance. Rather, we must consider the topic until we understand and address the needs of our constituents. We will undoubtedly face communal questions that our teachers did not and we must prepare to answer them with both firm roots in our tradition and faithful eyes on the future. And, out of respect to our followers, we must communicate our decisions in clear, accessible rhetoric, along with rigorous, dispassionate Halachic or philosophic prose.
In a recent resolution, the Rabbinical Council of America’s reaffirmed its proscription of female ordination. Correctly or incorrectly, many felt the resolution struck a dissonant chord on two counts. First, it seemed as though this resolution came from those very rabbis with significant disconnect from their congregants. Second, Halachic considerations notwithstanding, the resolution appeared to be banning an exciting, new attempt at leaders who could be more attuned to their constituents.
Rabbis and their communities can and must be a team. Now is a good moment to call a timeout and have a team huddle.
Let us take this opportunity to start a conversation. Let us stop talking over each other and start talking to each other about how to create an effective, engaging partnership.
A more pertinent resolution would have been a call to resolve our community’s crisis in rabbinic leadership. Perhaps that resolution will come once we have initiated the dialogue that is so painfully absent.