The Biggest Shul in the World

     Is there a shul in the world where the Rabbi has absolutely no detractors? Not that I know of. Is there a shul in the world where every single person loves the Rabbi? Again, I plead ignorance; never heard of one. On some level, it is to be expected. Sometimes, the rabbi is at fault, but rarely so. Sometimes it comes as a result of a clash of personalities and philosophies, and even more frequently because the rabbi is cast as an authority figure and represents – in the eyes of the disgruntled – every authority figure he has ever reviled – teacher, parent, even G-d. It is as Moshe (who certainly had his share of detractors) and Aharon said to the Jews in the wilderness during one of their periods of discontent: “Your complaint is not against us but against G-d” (Shemot 16:8).

     Perhaps that will help explain the relentless assault underway against the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, from many quarters – usual suspects, those with complaints against the Torah and even some of my distinguished colleagues.

     Think of the State of Israel as the largest shul in the world. It is not so far-fetched; after all, its Parliament is called the Knesset. It has approximately six million members, and of all stripes in Jewish life, from one end of the spectrum to the other. Many people join together in common acts of devotion but otherwise have little to do with each other. They have their circle of friends, and people (some, they don’t even know) whom they cannot abide. And they have a Rabbi – in this case, two – and they treat them pretty much the way an average, decent shul treats its rabbi.

Many people love the Rabbi, and here as well. They revere the institution as well as the holder of the position. The Chief Rabbi is the national symbol of the religious establishment. He preaches the message of Torah – and Rav David Lau is indefatigable in his outreach, visiting several different communities almost on a daily basis. The rabbi brings the wisdom of Torah to current events, and ideally is consulted for the Torah’s perspective on a variety of national issues.

For sure, the Chief Rabbi is a posek as well, and decides questions of Jewish law relating to ritual matters (Kashrut, Shabbat, burial, etc.). He is responsible for the application of Jewish law in family matters, such as marriage, divorce and conversion. And, ceremonially, the Chief Rabbis are available during moments of national mourning and rejoicing, setting the tone, offering encouragement to the afflicted and assistance to the disadvantaged. He is a symbol, and of course, a person as well.

Most people appreciate the need for a Chief Rabbinate, even if they will only encounter it very infrequently, and usually for some ritual requirement or by attending a shiur.

And then there are the detractors, like in any shul, and there are just many more such people in a big shul of six million souls, even if the percentages are probably the same. And they are loud and frequently run to the media (sometimes, they own the media). They don’t like the Rabbi’s stance on issues (he is too Haredi or too modern). He is too stringent. He represents only a small segment of the population. It’s all about money. It’s all about politics and protekzia. It’s jealousy. Occasionally it is even the other rabbis who think they could be doing a better job. I could go on.

Personally, I think this “Israelis hate the Rabbinate” or “the Rabbinate is forcing people to hate Torah” trope is enormously overblown, and many people – rabbis included – unwittingly contribute to the perception by continuing to cite it as if it were verifiably true and beyond intelligent discussion (like global warming, as we suffer through this unbearable Northeastern winter). Do some secular Israelis hate the Rabbinate? Yes. Do some religious Jews hate the Rabbinate? Yes. Sure, any bureaucracy is a problem when it clashes with people’s desires and when it displays inefficiency.  But people also hate the Motor Vehicle Bureau, yet they don’t swear off driving as a result.

News flash: Do some American Jews also hate rabbis? Yes. They are called “clergy killers.” And the United States does not even have a formal rabbinate. Hmmm…there seems to be a pattern here.

To my way of thinking, estrangement from Torah causes hatred of rabbis rather than hatred of rabbis causes estrangement from Torah. And some people are estranged from Torah for reasons having nothing to do with rabbis, and everything to do with background, upbringing and secularism. Sure, there is an occasional exception – the mean rabbi who permanently turns people off from Torah, the abuser – although for some odd reason we never read about the mean doctor (or abusive doctor) who permanently turns off people from seeking medical care. Perhaps the doctors are not as quick to cannibalize their own as rabbis sometimes are?

Of course, we all know the polls and the anecdotes. We all have heard such stories. So what? The drumbeat in the secular press for years – with which some rabbis now compete very ably – is that ” the Chief Rabbinate is bad, bad, irredeemably bad! And they turn people away from a Torah, except for good rabbis who hate the Chief Rabbinate and whom the people love!”

With that incessant chorus, no wonder the polls report what they do. These days, it is counter-cultural and a sign of mean-spiritedness (if not lunacy) to support the Rabbinate. But the critics, assuming they are sincere, should recognize the inherent limitations of the system.  Even Rav David Stav said last week that you can’t accommodate every demand that people have. There is a halachic system. Not every desire that Jews have can be satisfied, not every wedding can be performed, not every person can marry whom he/she or both wishes to marry. Some of the unpopularity, such as it is, is built into the system. It is unavoidable.  Few rabbis have won friends (I know the exceptions!) by insisting on decorum during the davening  – but should a self-respecting rabbi abandon the quest for a dignified tefila because some people will be disenchanted? If so, then his semicha is not worth the klaf it is written on.

The truth is that we should stop beating  ourselves over the head and thinking that some panacea will bring secular Israelis back to Torah. The suggestions abound: ending Shabbat work prohibitions will bring Jews back to Torah, having public transportation on Shabbat will bring Jews back to Torah, stopping mandatory Kashrut in public institutions will bring Jews back to Torah, or allowing civil marriage will bring Jews back to Torah. Sure. But exactly what Torah will they be brought back to?

It has been astonishing to read otherwise intelligent people (even rabbis) write that “Israel is the only democracy in the world in which a person cannot marry the spouse of his/her choice.” Well, yes. That is because Israel is the only “Jewish State” in the world. What part of “Jewish State” is difficult to understand, and for how long could Israel credibly claim to be a “Jewish State” (and it says it right in Israel’s founding document, its Declaration of Independence, “Medina Yehudit” – a “Jewish State,” and several times, not a “Medina shel Yehudim,” a State of Jews) if Israel abolishes religious control over matters of personal status? It would certainly behoove Israel to convince its citizens (and some of its rabbis) that Israel is a “Jewish State” before it compels the “Palestinians” to do so.

What is even more astonishing is the yearning for American-style freedoms and liberties to be exported to the Jewish state. Is the American-Jewish product that vibrant, secure and untroubled that it is ready for export – or is it collapsing under the weight of Jewish ignorance, intermarriage and assimilation?

The Chief Rabbinate unfortunately suffers from another malady without a near-term cure. People in democracies generally hate government – same in Israel – and the Chief Rabbinate, as part of the government apparatus, suffers the same fate. Like any government entity, they could always improve on the delivery of services. Great. That is exactly what they are doing. So why should we continue to parrot the attacks of the past? Why don’t we join the chorus of supporters and encourage more reforms in terms of delivery of services? Why the constant demands for dismantling the system, the unremitting attacks on the holders of the office – like a shul Board meeting that never ends?

I do not doubt that part of it comes from people who simply are unhappy with the Torah as written and interpreted, but their real adversary is Above, and they will not be content until the State of Israel is de-Judaized and becomes a secular democracy.

Frequently,  people love the shul even if they have complaints about this or that aspect of the shul, and so it is in the biggest shul in the world. There are people that despise the “Chief Rabbinate” much more than they do the Chief Rabbis themselves. But the condemnations are beyond all reasonable bounds and reflect the multiple and even conflicting agendas of the critics.

Granted, rabbis under indictment or in disrepute (it happens) are not good for our business or our reputation, but a little perspective is in order. There is the occasional miscreant in every field and it is especially troubling in holy work – but such is life.  The stakes on this level should be clear: universal civil marriage will undo Israel’s claim to being a Jewish state, as much as abandonment of Shabbat.

We should stop blaming the Chief Rabbinate for the discontent with Torah in some quarters in Israel, like we should blaming rabbis for the fact that not every Jew is shomer mitzvot. Most people make their choices in life; in some rare cases, choices are made for them. Israeli society, to its credit, gave a lifeline to Soviet Jewry with all the blessings and challenges that brought, but its Socialist establishment also (mis-)educated an entire generation by robbing them of their Torah heritage. To lift the heavy weight of secularism off the back of a secular Israeli or Oleh from the FSU is arduous. It can take decades and even then might not succeed.

But to think we will succeed by diluting the Torah, by ending Hesder, by civil marriage, etc. is a fantasy that will become a nightmare.

All good Jews, and especially my rabbinical colleagues, have an important role to play. We can begin to undo the damage of the persistent negativity against the Rabbinate by becoming more supportive, not less so, and encouraging more Jewishness in the state, not less. For when Jews are habituated, even programmed, to speak negatively about the Rabbinate, they mean us as well.

Yes, even the good guys like us.

6 responses to “The Biggest Shul in the World

  1. I don’t believe that the comparison between an individual rabbi and his detractors and the Rabbanut and its detractors is particularly cogent. That said, the divide that exists between the Rabbanut and the population it is intended to serve is very real, and all the wishful thinking in the world won’t change that. Organizations such as Tzohar and ITIM did not arise in a vacuum, but grew out of the negative experiences that both religious and non-religious people have encountered in dealing with the Rabbanut bureaucracy, a bureaucracy indeed comprised of…rabbis.

    It is true that for some attacking the Rabbanut is part of an overall campaign to undermine the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. Needless to say, nothing short of destroying the Rabbanut will satisfy this coterie. Then there are some for whom the Rabbanut is a necessary symbol but ultimately ought to be little more than a rubber stamp for any and all breaches of halacha. For others, the Rabbanut holds no religious authority and is at best a vehicle for power or money or both. But what about those of us, religious and non-religious alike, who actually see the Rabbanut as a wonderful ideal and a critical service? Should we pretend that the Rabbanut is honky dory just because it has detractors with more sinister motives in mind?

    In discussing the issue of the Rabbanut with some of my non-religious relatives, I did not find any of them claiming that the reason they aren’t fully shomrei mitzvot is because of the Rabbanut, but by the same token their experiences with the Rabbanut did leave them feeling more alienated from Yiddishkeit than before (funny how a disdainful, dismissive attitude from the first rabbis they’ve ever directly encountered can do that). At a minimum, the Rabbanut needs to become less of a Dept. of Motor Vehicles and more oriented towards the goal of bringing our people closer to our Father in Heaven.

  2. I think Tzohar and ITIM arose for similar reasons that multiple rabbinical organizations exist wherever there is already one rabbinical organization. Each fills a niche, but they were created because of discontent and feed off the discontent. But they do serve an important role in ensuring that the bureaucracy serves the people and not itself, which is the way of bureaucracies.
    – RSP

  3. R. Pruzansky, I agree with your overall point about the Israeli Rabbinate, but along the way you seem to minimize the difficulties people have with individual shul Rabbis. You say sometimes complaints are actually the fault of the rabbi, “but rarely so.” You seem to think all complaints come from eternally dissatisfied people, or are just complaints for the sake of complaining.

    Like many talented people, you seem to forget that not everyone has the same ability as you. You had a career outside of the rabbinate; most rabbis do not. You have a broad education, in both religious subjects and out; most rabbis do not. You can communicate effectively; most rabbis cannot.

    I’ve been part of rabbinic search committees, and I can tell you, the lack of talent is appalling. Nor is that limited to the new generation. The complaints people have of rabbis is real. It is unfair of rabbis to take advantage of the Jewish sense of compassion – no one want to fire a Rabbi – by ignoring the complaints of the membership. To dismiss such complaints as mere “griping” is an easy way for rabbis to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their actions or inactions. We already have a problem in the rabbinate in that, unlike the working world, there are no evaluations, there is no oversight, and essentially no one to report to. It doesn’t speak well of rabbis if they are so dismissive of “their” ballebatiim’s concerns this way.

    Just like lawyers, I know that Rabbis, among themselves and in their own vaadim, tell each other “war stories” about this meshuganeh ballebos, and that amharetz, etc. Gossip (and chemdas mammon) has always been an Achilles heel of the rabbinate. And no doubt there are many fools out there. But many of the Complaints are real. A good rabbi would take an Ed Koch “How’m I doing?” approach to the kehillah, and genuinely try to be responsive, rather than dismissive.

    • Thank you for the compliment, I think. Any profession will have a bell curve of talent. I recognize that. But I also recognize that, with the occasional exception (as I noted), most of the difficulties that some rabbis encounter come from hostility – sometimes even innate hostility – of certain congregants who likely tormented that rabbi’s predecessor and will torment his successor. It is the “clergy killer” phenomenon that transcends religions and exists in our world as well.
      Is that always the case? Certainly not. But it is more often that people would like to believe.

  4. DF said:
    “We already have a problem in the rabbinate in that,
    unlike the working world, there are no evaluations,
    there is no oversight, and essentially no one to report to.”

    my response:
    Good comment, I agree.
    Not every Rabbi is equal in wisdom to Rabbi Pruzansky.

  5. You said most of a rabbi’s difficulties come from the hostility of certain congregants who torment everyone. But most of all problems in the world come from a small group of people. Because everyone else adapts. It doesn’t mean the complainers are wrong, it just means everyone else is resigned to the problems. All of progress riding on the unreasonable man, you know, and all that. Bernard Shaw, I think.

    In any event, I was addressing a different issue. ” A man cannot see his own flaws.” Because there is no system or evaluation of feedback, Rabbis assume that complaints about them must be groundless. Sadly, that’s not the case. To the extent we differ, I very respectfully disagree, but also respectfully suggest that as a Rabbi yourself, you are too close to the issue to judge.