Are Jewish Leaders Afraid of Their Constituents? Analyzing Rabbinic Self-Censorship
Many of us have been raised to view rabbis and Jewish leaders as strong and resolute figures, individuals charged with the sacred cause of conveying the message of God to his people without compromise, even in the face of adversity. But what if rabbis don’t always convey the message of the Torah, and at times experience a type of fear that exceeds even their fear of God...a fear of their constituents? In the following article I seek to address the issue of Rabbinic self-censorship and its implications for the Jewish community.
As an Orthodox reader, you have likely encountered rabbis and teachers who have taught you about the greatness and almost immaculate personages of both Biblical figures and gedolim of recent history. There is a tendency to present past leaders as faultless and of absolute perfection, even though our tradition teaches that “…there is not a righteous man upon earth, that does only good, and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
Allow me to shift my focus to the other side of the Jewish spectrum: A few months ago, I participated in a Jewish interdenominational program, in which a Reform rabbi presented on the topic of Judaism and homosexuality. On her PowerPoint slides she proudly displayed the verses “And you shall love your fellow as you love yourself” and “You shall love the stranger...” However, I couldn’t help but think that she was missing a very critical verse: “A man shall not lie with a man as he lies with a woman…” Regardless of one’s conclusions on how Judaism should address homosexuality, or any modern circumstance for that matter, to have an honest Torah discussion it seems non-productive to omit explicit verses in the Bible.
Why would an Orthodox rabbi omit opinions that critique Biblical heroes, and why would a Reform rabbi omit an explicit verse that is directly relevant to her topic? One possibility is that the rabbi is unaware of the existence of the “omitted” opinion/source. Alternatively, the rabbi is deliberately excluding it from his/her teachings.
I would like to assume that in both cases, each rabbi had the basic Jewish education to know about the dissenting viewpoints. That being the case, the only explanation is that for some reason they both chose to not present a particular idea. This is curious – why would a rabbi or teacher deliberately censor ideas that are found within the traditional Biblical and Rabbinic Jewish canon?
In most synagogues across the denominations, rabbis present a weekly sermon to their audience. Many rabbis whom I have spoken with claim that they already know the idea that they intend to convey, and they simply use the Bible and its commentaries as a means for substantiating their message to their audience. Essentially, they read the Bible with a confirmation bias to find their preconceived views within the Bible, as opposed to initially forming their viewpoints based on God’s word.
Often times sermons are about unambiguous virtues such as charity or prayer, and to simply find one of many Jewish sources that supports it for the purpose of a sermon can very well be acceptable. However, when it comes to discussing complicated topics, such as rabbinic authority or Judaism and homosexuality, it seems clear to me that one should not leave out material. For to censor material that challenges one’s viewpoint is not only lacking in honesty, but indicates weakness in the speaker’s very own convictions.
Sermons often serve as a means of conveying a previously decided policy as opposed to educating the congregants on a particular topic. However, the examples that I gave above were from classes, put together for educating the audience on a Jewish topic. It is in these contexts that I am disturbed to find a blatant omission and censorship of sources.
This leads us to a fundamental question – if a rabbi or religious figure’s goal is to teach the word of God to his constituents, then why would he ever censor a legitimate source? If the rabbi has an agenda, then it makes sense as to why he might choose to cherry-pick the sources that agree with his point of view. If he wants to idolize a biblical character or jewish leader, he will omit sources that don't support his depiction – and if he chooses to substantiate social practices that are questionably at odds with the Torah, he may be selective in the sources he chooses to provide.
To answer this question, it is imperative to introduce a second category of rabbis and Jewish leaders who omit and censor Torah knowledge, not because they have an agenda, but because their constituents have already made up their minds about it. I have seen in the Modern Orthodox community, rabbis and teachers of Judaism who will refrain from teaching or writing articles on certain topics because their audience has already decided that it does not approve of the content.
I once spoke at a synagogue on the Shabbos of Parshas Vayikra, and was instructed by a staff member not to speak about the Temple sacrifices, as the congregants did not approve of the Biblical practice. I was astounded. If our philosophy as Orthodox Jews is to submit our will to God, how can we possibly be told to refrain from teaching His laws?
Assuming at least in Orthodoxy we can all agree that we are meant to submit our will to God’s will – why would rabbis not present material, even if it is not to the liking of their audience?
Religious leaders play a dual role in which on the one hand they represent God to their flock, and at the same time they need to invigorate their people’s interest and commitment in serving God. If they intend to maintain their congregants, students, and adherents, they face excruciating pressure to earn social approval. Unfortunately, I think in the necessity, and even lust, for social approval, a leader can compromise his principles. Bribery, which can corrupt even the righteous, is not only in the form of money – it comes as compliments and accolades as well. In the quest for Jewish leaders to maintain their leadership approval, as well as to make sure their constituents are happy, they fall prey to the great risk of distorting and compromising the message of the Torah for the sake of placating their audience. Many rabbis outside of the charedi community are afraid to give mussar from their pulpit as it is a message that many congregants do not wish to hear. This is because the congregation decides both the financial and social outcomes of the rabbi, and to risk saying an idea that would invoke their ire is something that many will stay far away from provoking.
A rabbi has the sacred charge of bringing the word of God closer to his constituents, and his constituents closer to God. If he omits ideas from God’s Torah, he not only misrepresents the faith, but he does a major disservice to his constituents as well. From the rabbi’s end, if he censors an authentic topic/source because he is afraid of how his audience will react to it, he is in essence saying that he thinks that his constituents cannot handle the truth of God’s Torah. Likewise, it is incumbent upon the congregants and students to listen to the Torah’s teachings – and if that is not one’s goal, why choose to attend a Torah class to begin with? In a world where both teachers and students genuinely seek the teachings of God, there will be a perfected service of God.