The Rabbi-Community Relationship


A rabbi with whom no one disagrees is not a rabbi; a rabbi with whom everyone disagrees is not a mensch.”

These are the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter, father of the Mussar (ethical character development) movement of the 19th century. I see it as a rabbinic art form and an act of devotion to simultaneously challenge and embrace. On the one hand, I believe that it is my role as a rabbi to stir, agitate, and hold out a vision for our community and for Judaism as a whole that takes us beyond where we currently are at any given moment. It is my role as a rabbi to teach Jewish living and Jewish learning, alive with specificity, depth, and challenge – not watered down, abstracted, sentimentalized, or made superficially hip or convenient. Put another way, it is often said that the role of clergy is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (a statement borrowed from humorist Finley Peter Dunne [1867-1936] to describe the role of newspapers).

At the same time, I see it as my profound honour and role as a rabbi to meet people where they are, loving them and respecting them for exactly who they are, and offering Jewish resources for them to discover and build what is meaningful to them individually and collectively, encouraging their leadership, intelligence, and passion. This is not an art form I have perfected, but it is my life’s work.

When I was ordained as a rabbi, I was invested with the title and responsibility of being rav be’Yisrael, a Rabbi of Israel, which is to say a rabbi of the Jewish people. No rabbi is ever only the rabbi of the community in which they serve. I am keenly aware of standing on the shoulders of Judaism’s great sages and philosophers, creative interpreters and makers of law and practice, community builders, activists, mystics, and devotees. I stand in relation to the ordinary Jews who have lived before me, the devout and committed, the rebels and radicals, the ones who faced death for being Jews and the ones who survived and thrived. I owe more to them than I can name or thank them for. When I engage my role as a rabbi, it is always in relationship with this rich past and with the wider Jewish people we are part of in the present. I dance with one foot on the soil of a rich and varied tradition, and one foot on the earth of thoughtful evolution and bold innovation.

When I raise challenging issues, it comes from this commitment to the past and a commitment to a vision of a Jewish future and a future Judaism that is robust, committed, informed, and awakening. I continually ask, “What is generative and important to examine, to learn, to practice today both for our own growth and planting seeds for our grandchildren to engage with Jewish life as meaningful, moving, and in need of them, celebrating the distinct contributions Judaism makes to society and to the world?” I don’t relate to my role as offering guidance or tools only for the carved out moments in life when we ‘do Jewish’. I see my role as engaging Jewish teachings and practices as tools for living the whole of our lives – growing our capacity for loving, wise action, and courage – living with deep purpose, responsibility, and building and growing together. It is a path of tikkun ha’nefesh and tikkun olam – repair of the soul of our inner beings and character and repair of the world; the two always working in tandem.

The menschlechkeit (practice of being a mensch) of a rabbi’s role equally directs and invigorates how I understand my work and it is specific to you. I continue to be moved and inspired by the sincerity, investment, and openness of this community. It is stunning how many volunteer hours, forms of expertise, Jewish commitment, and depth of reflection so many of you pour into this community and its growth. While no rabbi is ever only the rabbi of the community in which they serve, every rabbi is called to work in partnership with the specific people they are blessed to serve. It is the Jewish communal version of thinking globally and acting locally. I feel blessed to be in this project with you and to learn from you and with you. And it is a complicated partnership to define and navigate.

I have been discovering too that the Rabbi-Community relationship is far more complicated in contexts where members have had negative, infantilizing, or alienating experiences with rabbis, authority figures, Jews, Judaism, Torah, Jewish learning, or organized religion. And our community seems to be a magnet for some form of all of the above. In his article Rabbi as Vessel: Journeys of Holiness, Rabbi Richard Hirsh insightfully states, “… this generation of Jews is mistrustful if not disdainful of rabbis and the authority they presumably represent. There is a profound ambivalence about needing and wanting rabbinic presence, especially at life cycle moments. Paradoxically, the very rabbis whose advice, positions, and opinions are often routinely disregarded (if invited at all) are the same rabbis without whose presence an event, ceremony, or ritual is somehow incomplete or inauthentic – one might even say, lacking in ‘holiness’.” The extend to which this statement holds truth for DJC members calls on us to bring awareness and healing of old wounds into all present conversations.

In our most recent Community Conversation about the rabbi-community relationship, the group generated a set of rabbinic roles that sit in creative tension with one another. The group proposed that it is the role of the DJC’s rabbi to be a torch, set the tone, inspire and agitate, to be a resource, a teacher, a spiritual guide, a pastoral comfort, a visionary and leader. At the same time, the group stated that it is the role of a rabbi to lead from behind, to shepherd rather than dictate, and to educate and empower the leadership of the community members. So a rabbi should lead and support leadership, challenge without alienating, accept while stretching, have a big vision without getting ahead of the community, nurture the vision of the community, listen with humility, speak with clarity and conviction, and be deeply invested and open to the unfolding outcome. It is quite a dance!

What was so beautiful in this last Wrestling Together conversation was the group generating a set of community roles that also lives in creative tension. The group proposed that it is the role of DJC members to challenge the rabbi and speak with conviction and honesty while listening, extending the benefit of the doubt, engaging with an open mind, and committing to addressing tensions directly, lovingly, and staying engaged in relationship. It is the role of DJC members to take on strong, active leadership and shape vision while committing to Jewish learning and curiosity, respecting the rabbi’s expertise and commitments, and supporting the rabbi’s leadership. This too is quite a dance!

This is the dance of our brit/covenant with one another. Some Jewish communities are transactional communities. Members pay money and receive services – a funeral, a bat mitzvah, a High Holyday service. In these communities, the rabbi is a hired hand, no different from your mechanic or optometrist. In this framing, the community members are consumers, largely passive and either satisfied or dissatisfied with the services provided. Other communities, however, are covenantal communities. They are defined by the brit of mutual relationship and shared sacred responsibility. They understand that people take on different roles at various moments, that people bring different expertise, skills and experiences to the conversation while all are committed to acting as partners in the community’s evolving Jewish mission and its joyous implementation. This is the powerful project we are working on together.

NOTE: I continue to invite one-on-one conversation with any DJC member interested in talking about any aspect of our Community Conversations.

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