Picking the Right Fights

By sheer coincidence, people from very different times and circumstances in my life have asked me this past week how it is that I have managed to stay the rabbi of the same synagogue for thirty years. It is more than a little unusual, I do admit. Most rabbis- and clergy in general- tend to move around at least once or twice in their career. Every time I speak about my rabbinic career in Forest Hills, I hasten to add how fortunate both I and my family have been to be so rooted in one place- one very fine community.

In attempting to answer those coincidentally parallel questions, I found myself coming back to the same fundamental reality. In the rabbinate- not unlike in other work situations, particularly in senior management- the wise person picks his/her fights. Not every issue is the kind of thing that you put your job on the line for, even if it really annoys you, or you think it’s wrong. When calmer heads prevail, we tend to see that most issues aren’t so important as to merit that kind of posturing. And besides, going to the mat for the inconsequential issues also dilutes your ability to be taken seriously when you actually do come across one that you would stake your job, livelihood, and religious integrity on.

The sad truth is that that’s not such an easy lesson to teach. I tried, through the years, to share that thought with the rabbinical and cantorial students that I taught, but they weren’t always prepared to hear it. The younger and less experienced we are as we come into positions of power- and clergy positions are certainly powerful- the more we tend to want to bring change about quickly, and fight the fights while we have the energy. It has something to do with the arrogance of youth, and simple lack of experience. Young people tend to believe that they can change the world, and thank God for them. But sometimes, the lesson is absorbed- painfully- with a wistful look in the rear view mirror at a job we didn’t have to lose. Not every issue has to become a cause.

One thing I have noticed with more than a little sadness over these thirty years is that our own Jewish community has never really internalized that lesson. To paraphrase Ethics of the Fathers, we are, too often, quick to anger and slow to appease. The non-Jewish world often accuses us of being “prickly,” and I don’t think they’re wrong. It’s a criticism we would do well to allow to penetrate our collective communal psyche.

We are a Jewish community blessed with an overpowering array of talented people in all fields of endeavor, from the arts to the sciences and everything inbetween. We have enormous political leverage as well. But humility would become us greatly, and it seems to me to be in short supply, both here in North America and also in Israel, where hubris abounds. Not every fight between Jews has to be fought- even if we disagree. Not every Israeli disagreement with America has to become a political incident, which Israel seems sometimes to have elevated to a specialty.

It’s just about picking your fights. You save your heavy artillery for the big issues, because they will come. Of that we can all be sure. Let’s not waste energy and capital on the smaller stuff…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.