Answers to Rabbinic Critics: More on “The Disappearing Pulpit”

Some rabbinic readers have rightly objected that the weight and breadth of their ongoing responsibilities leave little time for regularized pulpit messages that address issues in the depth that I am demanding. They are right, of course – the way things stand. But my point precisely is that we need to make things “stand” some other way. The issue is not the rabbis: it is the system. But the system can change.

Let’s first dissect the objection: the many rabbinic roles that readers have elucidated. Rabbis must be:

  1. pastoral (hospital visits, counseling people, and the like);
  2. managerial (keeping the place going, supervising staff, and so forth);
  3. relational (the endless meetings, usually one on one, that establish loving and lasting relationships with and among members). In addition, they spend endless time with
  4. life-cycle events, which have virtually hijacked the synagogue – bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, and the like. They also must be
  5. liturgical (not just show up for services and go through the motions); and
  6. educational (the primary rabbinic task of teaching Torah – to adults and to children); for which, of course, they need, themselves, to practice
  7. regularized study of Jewish tradition – not just the weekly sedra, but (ideally) a daf yomi (a page of Talmud daily) or its equivalent in some other Jewish discipline (the latest book on Jewish history or theology, perhaps), Then too there is a role we can call
  8. communal, meaning the important task of being a Jewish voice to the public, appearing on panels, and the like – not to mention
  9. the purely symbolic (but time consuming) task of going to communal dinners just to put in an appearance. And they need, these days, to have a sense of
  10. the programmatic (organizing programs that are not just frontal presentations and that engage people interactively — something their predecessors didn’t worry about).

I could cite other things as well – I limit my breakdown to ten (a Decalogue was enough for the “commandments” so ought to suffice for me). It all varies, of course, depending on congregational size (for example).

The point is, I do understand the way the rabbinic role has grown through time and the impossibilities built into it.

But over and above all of this, there is the task of leadership, something that  transcends mere management. It has aspects that are political, relational, organizational, symbolic, and visionary. “Leadership” is a relative newcomer to rabbinic-school curricula, so most rabbis in the field have never encountered it formally. If rabbis lack anything, it is probably leadership.

Rabbis, however, are not altogether different from corporate CEOs, who also have a ton of tasks but must exercise leadership anyway. Without leadership, we end up drowning in the endless barrage of demands; we run from task to task, without ever setting our own long-term agenda and charting a sustained path to its accomplishment.

Of course there are differences between corporations and synagogues. Synagogues are dependent on volunteers with varying degrees of expertise; synagogue boards encroach on management in ways that corporate boards do not; also synagogues are regularly starved – both for funds and for competent professional personnel; and incompetent personnel cannot easily be fired — we exercise compassion in ways that corporations don’t because our bottom line is not primarily the quarterly financials. I get all of that.

And yet, and yet…

Corporate leaders manage to set aside time to do the visioning, thinking, and imagining that situates the corporation on a course toward a future. Rabbis need to do that too, but for that to happen, both rabbis and their boards have to set priorities among the items that rabbis are expected to do.

I believe some things take priority. Pastoral work may be first: people in crisis, congregants facing pain or even death, grieving families – these need attention. But not necessarily from the senior rabbi all the time! A megachurch pastor tells me that he regularly ponders his church’s mission, but almost never (!) does funerals. His congregants (parishioners) do not expect it. They prefer being eulogized by another pastor whom they know personally. The entire system there is geared to building relationships with other pastors so as to alter expectations of the pastor who leads the entire enterprise.

Second on my list of priorities is a tie between building relationships and managing competently. But there again, rabbis should not have to do it all, even though they have to lead it and inspire it.

My original point, however, is that rabbis also need to think and to speak their minds with gravitas.

To do that, I maintain, they have to renegotiate the implicit contract with the synagogue about what a rabbi is – a matter that almost never even gets discussed. Rabbis are simply held responsible for everything, and they then scurry to do it all – and wonder why they are run down and burned out. Rabbis and lay leaders need conversation about the ultimate nature of the rabbinic role, not for the rabbis’ sakes but for the good of the Jewish People who are shortchanged without serious and ongoing rabbinic attention to the matters that matter.

It’s “the matters that matter” that matter!

Please note also: when I described the pulpit as important, I did not mean  addressing only (!)  the ethical dilemmas of our time, although I surely include them in my prescription. I meant thought in general: conversation on the quality of life and the dignity of the individual; theological issues like the difficulties of believing in God, the purpose behind being Jewish, the reality of the soul (in a way that is consistent with science); and so forth. I mean larger perspectival issues from a Jewish point of view, ways of thinking differently that people can carry with them as  touchstones to finding meaning amid life’s complications.



One response to “Answers to Rabbinic Critics: More on “The Disappearing Pulpit”

  1. I think you’ve pretty much captured the job description and expectations for this calling. The only one I know that is similar is that of parent with a bit of a twist on the spiritual pieces and leading services. The ability to prioritize and talk (and listen) to lay leaders (and friends and colleagues) is the only magic besides totally redoing curriculum and skill development. Thanks for taking on this subject.

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