Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rabbis' Speeches

When I first moved to New York my family lived in Far Rockaway.  Our main shul was the White Shul.  And certainly one of the draws for that shul was its rabbi, Rabbi Rafael Pelcovitz.  One thing that stands out about Rabbi Pelcovitz was his speaking ability.  Congregants actually looked forward to his speeches on Shabbos, and they weren't short ones.   Yes, he had all the personal qualifications that make up an excellent speaker, but it was more then that.  The subject matter he chose for his speeches was such that people really thought about and talked about that subject matter.

Obviously, his speeches were "learned" in their presentation of elements of Tanach and the commentaries.  Obviously he spoke of the parsha of the week or about Shabbos or about elements of a particular yom tov, but he went much further than that.  He related what he was speaking about to the everyday lives of his congregants.  He made a clear connection between then and now.  And yes, he was not afraid to tackle community issues that had come up.  He was not afraid to take a stand on a problem facing our community in particular or the greater community of Klal.  He didn't dance around these issues but clearly put forth an opinion.  He called for change, and not just in a philosophical sense.  He was activist in all the finest senses of that term.

And that is what I find missing in so many of the rabbanim who head up shuls or head up our multitude of Jewish organizations.  They sing a philosophical tune, but they aren't there calling a spade a spade about the issues and problems we face in Klal.  They  give us all kinds of new p'sukim about the parsha to deepen our understanding of the parsha, but they wimp out when it comes to taking a stand on the real life issues.  It seems that so many of them have a "don't rock the boat" attitude, and clearly don't see that the boat is sinking in so many cases.

Our rabbanim are called our leaders, and I wish they would act the part when it comes to the practical issues of Jewish life.  Plenty of people in Klal who can give you a proper "taitch" for what a posuk means.  Shul rabbis and organization heads need to go beyond that.  I certainly hope and pray that in this new year that is coming up for us that our so called "leaders" actually and finally prove that they understand the problems and issues facing us, and that they are willing to publicly raise their voices in calling for change and for repairs to a system that needs them.  I live in hope.


JS said...

Local community rabbis aren't going to take a stand when they know it can very well mean their job. They rely on the community for their salary and job security. Contracts are often for very short periods of time and come up for renewal frequently. Rarely does a rabbi have "tenure."

Further, losing a rabbinical position isn't like get fired from a company. You live in that community, your children have friends there, your children go to school there, your house is there. Losing a job is a major upheaval for a rabbi's family.

So, why rock the boat? What's to be gained? I hate to say it, but it's not like many people (any people?) will listen anyways. Even a speech on being quiet during davening rarely goes over well or engenders any last change.

Allen said...

Yes and no JS. Giving mussar is part of a rabbi's job. It's how he gives that mussar rather than the mussar itself that might cause unhappiness in his congregation.

And it's also that the rabbi has to know his congregation. If his shul is composed mostly of yeshiva teachers and principals then a speech calling for lowered tuitions and opening the books for the parents might get him in trouble. But for a congregation that has parents who are struggling to pay tuition or who really don't understand what the yeshivas are doing with the money given in and would like to see where it goes, a speech recognizing their concerns would not get him fired.

As to your statement "Further, losing a rabbinical position isn't like get fired from a company. You live in that community, your children have friends there, your children go to school there, your house is there. Losing a job is a major upheaval for a rabbi's family," just how is this limited to rabbis alone? Plenty of people who have to move living locations when they change jobs. We have lived in three different cities over the course of our marriage because of job changes, and I'm not unusual--hundreds of thousands of people who have to contend with this.

Even in the NYC area, plenty of people who change jobs and find that a commute in each direction of a couple of hours is too stressful and puts too much of a burden on the family, so they up and move closer to the job. My bil was shifted from the Queens office of his company to a central Jersey office. The commute was too time consuming so the family moved to Jersey. Nothing all that unusual.

JS said...

Addressing the last point first, if I were fired (God forbid) or needed to find a new job, I would not necessarily need to sell my house, move my kids to a new school, and relocate to a new community. There are plenty of job opportunities within a reasonable commute of where I live. If I did decide to move, it would be my decision based on a careful consideration of available options.

But, what choice does a shul rabbi have? By definition, a shul rabbi must live within walking distance of his shul. That means if you get fired, you have no choice but to move. That's the fundamental difference - I can choose to move, a rabbi is forced to move.

This also has implications financially as I can time my move to when people are buying houses (e.g., before the school year) whereas the rabbi may have no choice.

Another difference is that when I move it's on good terms with my neighbors and friends in the community. A rabbi getting fired is usually very acrimonious and the rabbi leaves on very bad terms with possibly tens or hundreds of people not shedding one tear as he leaves.

But, to address your first point, I don't think it's so simple. With nearly every issue you're bound to upset some people. Give a speech about making aliyah and you upset the people who never wish to leave America. A speech about Israel's security and attacking Iran? You upset the people who don't want another war. Schools need to lower tuition and open the books? You upset all the yeshiva teachers and admins in the community. Mention one yeshiva's accomplishments? Upset the parents at the other schools. Deride the kiddush club? Upset the members who imbibe and those who think the rabbi needs to take a chill pill. Too much fire and brimstone? Upset the people who like calm and thoughtful discussion. Too calm? Upset those that want a rabbi with more passion.

It's endless! After every speech in the community's I've lived in or visited you hear people afterwards complaining about the speech - either its content or its length. There's no winning. Better to make safe points on the parsha with simple messages like "be a good person" and not get into specifics.

JS said...

I'll also add that more often than not the community has no idea what the heck it wants from a rabbi. Whenever a search committee starts suggestions come in like: we need a dynamic speaker, a true Torah scholar, a real leader, someone who's not afraid to tell it like it is, someone who can give lots of shiurim!

Meanwhile, they're firing the current rabbi because he talks too long, he's too aloof and spends all his time with his nose in seforim, he fights with the board because he disagrees with their positions, he insults the community by daring to tell them to be quieter during davening, and he gives lots of shiurim that very few ever attend.

Anonymous said...

I'm no rabbi, but to give some practical mussar..."publicly" is spelled incorrectly in the last paragraph.
Thanks for the interesting post.

ProfK said...

See Anon, mussar is not always that hard to take--correction made and thanks.

Abba said...

i really miss the rabbi where i davened before i moved. it was the first time in my life i actually looked forward to the speech. his speeches had everything a good speech should have. otherwise my experience with rabbis' speeches has been almost entirely negative. very negative.

i'll note that i don't necessarily mind long, boring and irrelevant sermons. gives me more time to nap.

the truth is that most shuls get the rabbi they deserve.