I’ve been in the rabbinate for 25 years, and I think it’s high time we had a conversation about what a rabbi should be.
A scandal too far-fetched for a screenplay has come to light. A Washington, D.C., rabbi allegedly used a hidden camera to take videos of female conversion candidates undressing in the mikvah. Nothing could be more abhorrent: a spiritual leader in a spiritual place violating the most spiritual moment in a convert’s life.
This scandal is shocking, yet commonplace. There are now so many rabbinic scandals exposed from rabbis of all stripes that there are special websites devoted to rabbinic scandals. This has shaken me to the core.
There was a time when I thought rabbis were special. Rabbis were supposed to be spiritual heroes, overcoming temptations others could not. Even in the worst moments, one could depend on rabbinic leadership. Elie Wiesel said that “in the [concentration] camps, there were kapos [who were]… former professors, industrialists, artists, merchants, workers, militants from the right and the left… but not one kapo had been a rabbi.” Shouldn’t years of careful spiritual training change us into giants?
Yes, rabbis must be special. We are role models, a living example of what a Torah life should be. The Talmud says one can learn profound lessons from a rabbi’s idle chatter and from sitting at the dust of his feet. Rabbis are meant to be like “an angel of the Lord above,” a man who is part prophet, part priest.
This image of the superhuman rabbi is one that remains dominant, even today. Chassidim have a theology of the tzaddik, a man born with an extraordinary soul. And even among non-chassidim, most biographies of great rabbis portray them as true angels. These are true hagiographies, meant to carefully preserve the rabbi’s image while airbrushing out all faults. Great rabbis are meant to carry otherworldly wisdom and able to tell us God’s will regarding electoral politics and real estate deals. When a book is written that speaks honestly about the imperfections of great rabbis, such as the The Making of a Godol, a controversy erupts. We want our rabbis to be perfect, to preach wisely, practise piety and produce miracles.
But sadly, that’s not what happens in real life. There are rabbis who are cruel to vulnerable converts, and rabbis who are weak, materialistic, hypocritical and dishonest. Perhaps Wiesel is right that rabbis rarely became kapos, but read the newspapers and you’ll see there are many other vices rabbis have fallen into. And even those rabbis who are good people are imperfect. But we refuse to accept this, and demand perfect role models. This desire is a universal phenomenon, one that extends well beyond the Jewish world. Even Abraham Lincoln subscribed to this view: “Let us believe… that [George] Washington was spotless…it makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect.” But when you expect perfection from imperfect people, something will go wrong.
To keep up with the demands of perfection, some rabbis become “religious politicians” who use their charm and wit to maintain popularity while losing sight of their ideals. Others, intoxicated with the power of the rabbinate, drink the Kool-Aid and imagine themselves to be God’s gift to humanity. Both forget who they are, their identity distorted by the funhouse mirror of religious authority.
Sadly, congregants drink the Kool-Aid as often as the rabbis. Pick up some of the popular rabbinic biographies, and you’ll even see faults being spun as virtues. One rabbi’s lack of involvement with his family is seen as the virtue of devotion to Torah study. Another rabbi’s short temper is considered to be a desire for high standards. A rebbetzin’s rejection of vaccinations and interest in homeopathic remedies is seen as wise rather than dangerous. And of course, if a rabbi is otherwise respected, his request for “practice dunks” is seen as meticulousness, rather than something bizarre and disturbing.
Rabbis are not God. Too often, rabbis and congregants confuse being a role model with being an angel. This attitude is incredibly unhealthy and gives license to corruption and superstition.
Actually, one thing I’ve learned in 25 years in the rabbinate is that I make mistakes – lots of them. There was the time early in my career when I was all set to give a rip-roaring speech one Shabbat about the beauty of marriage and had a painful fight with my wife the Friday night before. I learned that preaching is precarious and that it’s uncomfortable to talk about greatness while you are still mediocre yourself. I imagine virtually every rabbi, on their own level, struggles with similar issues.
But imperfection doesn’t stop someone from being a role model. On the contrary, it makes them easier to relate to. Jacob’s wrestling and Judah’s repentance make them two of the Bible’s most significant heroes. Akiva and Reish Lakish become the Talmud’s greatest rabbis, despite their shady backgrounds. The struggling man of repentance who overcomes his frailties is the one who achieves the highest level of human greatness.
The rabbis who have inspired me most are the ones who were willing to admit mistakes and humbly embraced everyone, no matter who they were. These rabbis greeted everyone warmly, including the neighbourhood nuns, and made sure the children from the poorest families were treated with the same respect as everyone else. They were “angels” not because they were perfect, but because they were sincerely devoted to God’s work.
In the wake of this awful scandal, we should reconsider what we want in a rabbi. Yes, brilliance, charisma and piety are wonderful, but only if grounded first in humility and compassion. Before looking for a spiritual leader who’s an angel, let’s just find one who is a mensch.