Saturday, May 4, 2013

Being a Mensch / The State of the Rabbininate

Being a Mensch, Becoming Human, Staying Alive

Last night about 25 men gathered for our inaugural men's discussion session.  The conversation was free-flowing and liberating.  It was truly intergenerational, allowing a real dialogue to take place about crucial topics, all revolving around what it means to be a mensch in this day and age.  I can't tell you much more, because what happens at the Hammermans' stays at the Hammermans'.  But we'll be doing this again, so stay tuned.

This week's double portion of Behar-Behukotai speaks of the choices we make in life, and the consequences of those choices.  Every decision we make can lead us toward a blessing or a curse.  It's a responsibility that we all have, but men seem to feel the weight of that burden, of choices made and chances missed, more than women.  At least, that is the message that comes from today's news story about the sharply rising suicide rates, especially among baby boom males.  That's a disturbing trend, and groups such as the one we started last night are a means of providing the emotional support that so many of us need -that we all need.

I commented last night that I often use the expression "He was a mensch" when eulogizing someone, but never, ever, have I said, "He was a billionaire."  There is something about "mensch" that transcends professional success and professional roles entirely.  Our jobs do not define us; neither do our homes, cars and stock portfolios.  What defines us, ultimately, are our relationships, our integrity, the love we give, the love we receive.  Last night we spoke about the need to be "centered" and focused in on how to do that; and how important it is to step back from the whirlwind of our day to day lives.  Prayer and Shabbat have roles to play.  We need to step back, constantly, from our professional roles, lest we become them.  

A colleague recently posted a searing statement about the state of my own profession.  I want to share some of it with you here (you can read the rest here).  Partly it is a reminder of the dangers of rabbis becoming intoxicated by our own power, but really  it is a stern warning to all of us, clergy and laity alike, that the key to living a fulfilling,menschlicht life is to avoid the pitfall of becoming wrapped up in superficial standards of success.   The key to being a mensch is, in a word, humility.  And humility comes from the word human.  Being a mensch means, literally, to be, above all, a human being.

The State of the Rabbinate

"So, when are the skeletons in your closet going to emerge? When is your scandal going to break, Rabbi?"

These were the questions I was asked by a friend after a week in which three major Rabbinic scandals came to light. Over just a few days, it was discovered that the Chief Rabbi of a European country had fabricated his PhD in addition to having plagiarized extensively in his writings. Then the rabbinic head of a kashrus organization was accused of participating in lewd and lascivious behavior and frequenting establishments of ill-repute.

Lastly, and most shockingly, a well-known scholar, author, rabbinic judge, professor, and former pulpit rabbi acknowledged having created at least one pseudonym under which he had been publishing, writing critical letters to journals, and promoting himself for close to 20 years. Most egregiously, he confirmed that he had used the alter ego to gain access to, and participate in, a rabbinic organization's private message board.

My friend simply articulated what undoubtedly many are thinking - are there any rabbis left whom we can respect? Do all rabbis have skeletons in their closet and scandals just waiting to break? What has become of the Rabbinate?

The combination of scandals, coupled with my friend's question, has weighed on me heavily. Much more than respect, for a rabbi to be effective and successful he needs the trust of those whom he serves. If people feel the rabbi is not trustworthy, faithful, confidential, or honorable, they will not turn to him for support, guidance or influence, all critical components of his job and calling. The question, then, is what can be done to earn trust, confidence, and support, besides simply staying out of trouble?

...It is very easy for rabbis to begin to take themselves too seriously and to believe somehow that they are more important, their opinions matter more, and they deserve more respect and honor than anyone else. There is an expression I hear regularly and I shudder each and every time it is said to me. "Rabbi, thank you for taking the time to call me back," or "thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I know how valuable your time is." I always respond the same way: "My time is no more valuable than yours and calling you back or meeting with you is exactly how I want to be spending it."

Many rabbis hear about how valuable their time is and they start to believe it. They therefore leave people waiting, stand them up.... People come to rabbis with their problems and the expectation that the rabbi can solve them. This phenomenon can leave the rabbi feeling like he has the answers and access to all of the solutions and he is all powerful. 

...People stand for him when he enters and wait for him until he is done for certain parts of davening. He has access to dignitaries and elected officials, he stands in front of the room each week sharing his sermon to an audience eager for his thoughts, and newspapers may call him for his opinion.

The bottom line is that it is extremely easy for all of this to go to a rabbi's head and for him to start believing the hype. One of the most disappointing parts of the rabbinate is meeting the other members of the rabbinate, many of whom are arrogant, egotistical, self-absorbed and self-important.

After a recent tragedy that occurred in our community, a number of people commented, "Being a rabbi is really difficult, I don't know how you do it." What is amazing is that I feel the exact opposite. Watching people go through pain or suffer a loss and not be in a position to help, support or make a difference must be really difficult. The rabbinate is the greatest gift for me, for it provides an outlet to try to make a difference in people's lives and absolutely nothing could be more fulfilling.

Despite the many rabbinic scandals that have broken lately, I implore you to continue to have faith in the rabbinate.  Though I am far from perfect, (some of you take the liberty to remind me from time to time) I hope you will continue to trust me. I am thankful each and every day that you allow me to have the greatest job in the world.

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