Sunday, November 9, 2014
Special To The Jewish Week
In light of the Barry Freundel “Watergate,” scandal, I commend Erica Brown’s suggestion that rabbis should be held to the same standards that apply to those in other professions (“Mikveh Scandal Underscores Need To Regulate Rabbinate,” Oct. 31). Regular performance reviews can be healthy when done right, as they almost always have been for me. Other safeguards can be built in, like the independent audit my synagogue undergoes annually, enabling congregants to feel confidence in the integrity of their contributions to clergy discretionary funds.
What Rabbi Freundel has allegedly done sickens me. When I heard about it, I first thought it was a joke — and no doubt there will be a plethora of “Porky’s on the Potomac” Purim parodies based on it this year. We’ve seen the litany of recent rabbinic abuses, including the D.C. rabbi who starred in “To Catch a Predator,” the Boston area rabbi who allegedly sexually exploited a teenager and stole hundreds of thousands of congregation dollars to cover it up. And the mother of them all, Fred Neulander, the Cherry Hill rabbi who was convicted of hiring a hit man to murder his wife.
But I take exception to Brown’s suggestion that a rabbi needs to be professionally uncomfortable in order to be responsible, or that someone with a life contract has lost the capacity to accept feedback and to grow. I say this as someone who has never had a life contract, but who has served the same congregation for a generation.
Am I truly going to give a better Yom Kippur sermon because it’s a contract year? Am I going to decide not to seduce a congregant because I have a performance review coming up? There is no straight line to be drawn between a rabbi’s length of service and his proclivity for perversity. Brown writes, “Be wary the board that claims its rabbi has been in place for ages and is, therefore, trustworthy.” The insinuation that a long-term rabbi, life contract or not, is somehow less trustworthy is supremely insulting, not only to that rabbi, but to the congregation that, in fact, is continually evaluating that rabbi every day and has been over the course of many years.
Anyone you have known intimately for ages is likely someone who has earned that trust again and again, with or without performance reviews, be it your mailman, your hairdresser or the school crossing guard. Relationships built up over long periods of time tend to be more stable for a reason: they have stood the test of time, which means they have withstood untold other tests, both large and small. True, even long term spouses can wake up one morning and discover that their lover has a secret dark side, but why use the exception to disprove the rule?
E.M. Forster wrote, “One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life.” Think for a moment how low our society has fallen where, according to Brown, the very fact that I am expressing this concern puts me in the “dost protest too much” category, therefore supremely suspect.
The Jewish Watergate, like its namesake, has opened a floodgate of mistrust, and the trust deficit we face is potentially more dangerous than any other deficit currently coming out of Washington. People like Rabbi Freundel are part of the problem, to be sure, but so is a culture featuring 24-hour cable news arsonists and films, TV shows and literature romanticizing the art of betrayal, whether sexual, political or financial. Anyone seen “Gone Girl” or “The Affair” lately? Echoing the X-Files’ paranormal paranoia, our national motto has become, “Trust No One.”
I know the immense trust that has been placed in me. Every lifecycle event that I perform is my Super Bowl. I know that for each family, that wedding, funeral or bat mitzvah is possibly the most important event in their lives. Every High Holiday sermon has the potential to change hundreds of lives, and maybe even save a few. Every hospital visit, every phone call, every nod and wink can be significant. There are no real objective standards that can fairly regulate or monitor such work.
With rabbinic performance reviews, core partnership issues are often pushed aside, allowing petty gripes to become central. Given the horror stories I hear from colleagues, this appears to happen much more with rabbis than with your typical employee in the corporate world. Since it is virtually impossible to apply objective metrics to rabbinic performance, subconscious biases invariably creep into the process. Abusive power relationships can go both ways, and rabbis and their families often find themselves in the crosshairs of vindictive board members when contract time rolls around.
While I still advocate those reviews, the solution is not more regulation but less deification. It’s time to pull your rabbi down from the pedestal. The rabbinate will become a healthier profession when we smash the pedestals like Terach’s idols and rabbis are able to become full-fledged human beings once again.
People are endlessly curious about rabbis, and as society has become increasingly secular, this one particular profession has maintained its sense of mystery. Compounding the problem is that some of us begin to believe our press clippings and forget the reasons we got into the rabbinate in the first place. While it drives very few of us to a life of crime, it drives many more to lives of isolation and misery. And when we fail, we begin to believe that an admission of fallibility will compromise our ability to lead. We get caught up in a whirlwind of inflated expectation and denial. We need to become human beings once again.
For Erica Brown and all who have become so despondent over the failings of their spiritual mentors, all I can do is echo Shakespeare: “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” Don’t be reticent to place your trust in human beings of faith and integrity, however fallible — especially if you’ve known them for a long, long time.
Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.