The Rabbi's Duties

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


The Plight of the Modern Rabbi

           A rabbi  is a human being who has for one reason or another chosen to be a cleric (Because of tradition and writing ease the masculine gender has here been used. There is still a large group, especially among synagogue attendees, especially the aging population, who prefer to think of a leader in a congregation to be of the masculine gender).

          The young divinity student is full of good intentions.  He wants to help solve human problems, to comfort the bereaved, to visit the sick, to be empathetic, knowledgeable, kind, an expert in religious practices, and appreciated by his congregation.  He assumes he will be loved and respected by his constituents and they will think of him as a special person who practices according to “the will of Hashem” (the Lord).

We will here discuss the evolution of a Conservative rabbi and his beginnings and in his pursuits, his arrival, and his experiences as the leader of  “his flock,” the temple also known as synagogue.

He will attend a conservative seminary (first attaining a bachelor's degree from a college).  In the conservative seminary he will learn academically what he has to know.  He will fashion himself after his teachers and their tenets.  He will know the theories,  and attempt to emulate the beliefs and behaviors of his favorite mentors and teachers.  He will try to ingest as much as possible of the knowledge that is presented to him.  He will fit in to the best of his ability and be enthusiastic in his pursuits.  After a minimum of a four year study in the seminary he will receive his degree and ultimately be ordained.  In the eastern United States is the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he will have attended and where there is a “job” register with the available positions.  As a beginner he will be offered small “Schuls” with unimpressive congregations, possibly those located in small towns, in places where the climate is not the most desirable or where difficulties are frequently found.  The large prestigious congregations are offered to experienced well known clergy who have made a name for themselves - the golden voiced orators, the masters of their profession.

The interviewing process is conducted by a search committee.  The young rabbi will be seen by a group of the committee and myriad questions, both of an objective and a personal nature, will be thrown at the potential candidate.  He will then be somewhat considered or deleted.  There will be much procrastination, many comparisons will be made with a previous clergyman, and criticisms after the interviews will be innumerable.  The qualities that are desired are almost endless: sympathetic, warm hearted, a brilliant orator, gets along with the aged, children, and all those in between.  He must not demand too large a salary but must dress well, have impeccable manners and know what his interviewers are thinking and decipher their very desires. 

The largest contributors, the biggest “Machers”, the elite board members, will have the most to say about who is and who is not suitable to be invited, to be tested, to give a sermon on a weekend in Schul.  The potential candidate is put through the proverbial ringer.  If one of the “Machers” does not like the way the candidate's Kipah (skullcap) sits on his head or the type of shoes that are on his feet he could easily be excluded.  After much haranguing, often months later, the “lucky” candidate is invited to accept the position.  There is always one member of the power hungry board who takes the newcomer under his wing and guides him in the ways of the important congregants or those with the greatest influence.  He is told how to conduct himself, what pleases, what does not, what is expected of him.  The disliked congregants and their foibles are also presented to the newcomer.  He is expected to be at every minyan (every service, large or small, where ten bodies are convened), is to visit the sick at home and in the hospital, is to be an eloquent speaker of past and present topics, must include them all and be brief, must with empathy give advice, but only when asked, must know the names of every member shortly after his arrival, must be respectful but be respected, and must not think of vacationing, since he is needed.  He must  preside at all weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, must have no personal life, and must have a wife who is benevolent and friendly, but is seen and not heard.

There are innumerable requests, differences, and conflicts regarding the clergyman who is chosen.  He is criticized at every turn.  He is whispered about and is the object of ridicule.  The smallest flaw is noticed and discussed:  He is not Rabbi Chaim Perfection, who was the biggest Talmud Chochem ever.  This former rabbi allegedly never asked for an increment, lived on “normal” wages (below a living wage), and invited each and every congregant to his home at one time or another.  This new person will never live up to the magnificent “Divrei Torah” he gave, the insights, the solace, the brilliance he expounded, the sage advice he offered, etc., etc. 

In brief:  a rabbi must be an outstanding politician, must know who is important and who is not, must be able to absorb criticism without being distressed, must be aware from the beginning that he will not be adulated (at least not for a long time), must carry an enormous load, is unlikely to become wealthy, and will constantly be judged.  His personal life is expected to be impeccable and he must never show any imperfections or flaws.  He is made in the image of Hashem; therefore must be above the ordinary human frailties, and must not stray an iota from the Ten Commandments. 

Any individual with the personality, credentials and attributes thus described is the nearly ideal candidate for the position and status of rabbi!    


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.

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