Piercing the mountain: For a consumer-friendly rabbinate

The car salesman and I had something unexpected in common. Just for fun, I had wandered into the upscale dealership next door to the one selling the balebatish sedan I was actually shopping for. Although his cars were fancy, the salesman was something of a shlump, sporting a checked shirt and slacks.

For some reason he started talking about his father. “Dad was a minister in various towns in New Hampshire and Vermont,” he said. “We relocated a lot.

“He did get a pulpit in a rather large church at one point,” he went on. “But Dad had pretty liberal political views, and he managed to offend one of the church’s wealthy members. So soon we were on the move again.”

I could, as they say, relate. “Preachers’ kids,” as we call ourselves, share childhood experiences that cross religious lines: At shul or school, seeing other kids looking slightly uncomfortable when you enter a room. Noticing that they avoid off-color jokes, or apologize if one slips out. Hearing them interrupt sports talk with, “Well, you wouldn’t be interested in things like that.” (As opposed to the Higher Things, about which religious people and their families presumably meditate all day.) And of course at home, hearing what preachers talk about, which is often balebatim, (ba’alei bayit, householders). They’re the ones being preached to; also the ones who engage the preacher and pay his salary.

Because Catholic and Episcopal churches own their buildings and grounds, they and their clergy can lock the congregation out if balebatim give them too much guff. Rabbis and ministers in congregational denominations, who serve at the pleasure of the people who hire them, can only dream of being able to do that. And dream they do.

Although the pulpit rabbinate may be no job for a nice Jewish boy, it has a positive side: someone beholden to his constituents not only wants to empathize with them but needs to.

“All professions,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “are conspiracies against the laity.” That he put this line in ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma” tells you what profession he had in mind. If physicians in the US have grown less paternalistic and more consumer-oriented, this has less to do with sudden enlightenment than with competition, reimbursement, and the need to sustain income and market share. Nobody gives up power and privilege they don’t have to.

Students of professions distinguish between theorists and practitioners. Theorists portray the world that should be; practitioners experience the world that is. Theories are neat, but the world is messy. Theorists look down their noses at practitioners, whose struggles with everyday reality they see as “compromise.” In classical yeshivot, a student who took the semikha exam to get a communal job was considered a kind of dropout.

I can recall one of my own rebbes who, when presented with a practical question, would say, “Go ask your local Rabbi,” in tones of lofty disdain suitable for a mentor of eighth-graders. Hey, that’s my daddy you’re talking about.

Local rabbis — halakhic practitioners — don’t have the luxury of avoiding untidy questions and situations. The balebatim they counsel do messy things. Laws don’t always apply without leading to paradox or pain. Accommodations must be sought, but are not always available. Down on the ground, when law collides with life, something may have to give. But what?

According to the Talmud, Moses was cool and objective. He rejected compromise with the motto, yikov hadin et hahar — let the Law pierce the mountain. This means, roughly, “let the chips fall where they may,” which is easier to do if you are have no personal acquaintance with the chips.

Contrasted with Moses is Aaron, ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, lover and pursuer of peace; law and peace — not opposites, perhaps, but not the same either.

One hears of efforts to replicate in Israel American-style kehillot, with Rabbis tied to their communities rather than dispatched by the official Rabbanut. There are some nice things about American communities, which act as extended families and offer social and moral support in good times and bad.

Of course, families have drawbacks too. People say that Israel is like one big family, where strangers yell at you for not dressing your kid warmly enough. A Rabbi to a kehilla can feel like the only adult in a very big and noisy room.

Institutional Rabbis and Rabbinic institutions — like the Israeli Chief Rabbinate — can maintain a gratifying objectivity, undiluted by empathy for their constituents. They can, for instance, make getting married very painful, or altogether impossible. Or they can threaten to retroactively annul 15,000 conversions, and thus bring misery and confusion unto three generations. This is the halakhic equivalent of carpet bombing, a tactic that leaves a lot of anonymous carnage down below. Easier to be bloodless when you don’t see the blood.

Rabbis devoted — and beholden — to their congregants can’t do this. They are empathic both by inclination — they picked this line of work — and because they have to be. As a practitioner in a different profession, I can report that few things are more bracing than sitting across from someone who relies on you for advice while you rely on him for revenue.

Some day the Israeli Rabbanut may become more sensitive to the concerns of the hamon am, but they aren’t likely to do this voluntarily. Few professions ever do. Balebatim, or their agents, will have to force the issue. Perhaps Eliyahu HaNavi will weigh in on this. But lo, he tarries.

Despite my affinity with the salesman, by the way, I didn’t buy one of his cars. Too fancy for me–it would just get scratched up in a week. I may be a Preacher’s Kid (and a Preacher’s Dad too, by the way), but my own tastes, automotive and otherwise, remain strictly balebatish.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts