Leadership & Followership: Support Your Local Rabbi….

I continue to be struck that the Jewish community spends a lot of time talking about “leadership” and almost none teaching about what we ought to call “followership.”

Part of my understanding of this derives from my reading of a famous line in Pirkei Avot, one of the oldest and most famous parts of the Mishnah:

“aseh l’cha rav” – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב – make someone your rabbi;

“u’knei l’cha chaver” – וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר – and acquire a friend;

“v’hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zechut” –  וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת – and give every person the benefit of the doubt.

Some damage has been done to Jewish life by simply gluing Jewish teachings to contemporary liberalism. I’m less interested in where Jewish teachings coincide with what I know already than where they dissent. This teaching is for me one of the most striking, one of the most interesting and one of the most useful such instances.

The heart of how I read this verbal triptych starts with thinking about the curious use of the verb “k’nei” – קְנֵה – acquire. We would not normally say to someone, “go out and buy yourself a friend:” that would be both grammatically strange and morally problematical.

So starting to disentangle this Mishnah begins with analyzing this verb’s understanding of the nature of friendship. If I am only giving, or only taking, sooner or later the relationship will wither. A friendship, to be sustained, must be reciprocal. It is thus analogous to the reciprocity between offer and consideration in contract law; to purchase I both give something and receive something. We “acquire” a friend, in this context, because the nature of friendship is necessarily reciprocal.

If we thus understand the verb in the second clause in this way, that helps us to understand the first verb “la’asot” – לַעֲשׂוֹת – to do or to make, in its clear contradistinction. What is striking is that here reciprocity is not implied. “Aseh l’cha rav” implies no reciprocity at all. It is an injunction directed not at the rabbi, not at both of us, but rather – unilaterally and unidirectionally – at you or me. To each one of us it says: the obligation to make someone your rabbi – to empower and enable them to be your rabbi – is on you and not on them.

This is indeed very different from Western tradition. We grow up and from the age of 4 to the age of 64 our implicit relationship to any teacher or speaker is: you show me that you’ve got what it takes. If you’re good – if you’re knowledgeable, funny, if you can command my attention – if you can control this class – then (maybe) I’ll show up on time and pay attention and do the reading. But woe betide you if that is not the case. I’ll show up late; I’ll text in the back-row, or the front row; I’ll muck about with my friends; I’ll leave early; in general I’ll act in a way that will influence you negatively in a range that begins with loss of confidence and demoralization and deteriorates from there.

“Aseh l’cha rav” is extraordinary in its implications. It is exactly the opposite of this Western presumption. It says to us: if you want someone to teach well; if you want someone to lead well; then the obligation is on you to support them in that process, to enable and empower them in every way that you can.

I was thinking about this Mishnah, and its implications, because I was at Hazon’s second annual Rabbis’ Retreat, which ended this morning. It has been fascinating and inspiring, but also dispiriting, to be the only non-rabbi in a room full of rabbis. Fascinating and inspiring because rabbis are such interesting people – they are storytellers, teachers, activists, counselors. Their aspirations are built upon idealism, hope, commitment, a sense of service, a love of Jewish tradition, and a desire to improve the world.

And yet it is dispiriting because we do not treat our rabbis well – or well enough – and because the task of rabbi-ing in post-war America has probably never been as complex and demanding as it is in 2015.

Those of us who want to see a healthier or stronger or more sustainable Jewish community: do we imagine that we can have such a thing without supporting our rabbis better than we do? There are beloved senior rabbis in some of our older and larger communities who are deeply respected and supported and who are, I think, thriving as they move towards retirement – but I think they are the exception. There are others, at an opposite extreme, who are buffeted, tired, and demoralized. And many more, in a middle range, are muddling through – they are not doing badly, and they derive many satisfactions from their work; but they could be doing so much more, they could be so much more effective, and they would be so much happier, if we were more considerate of them and more supportive in practical ways.

It has been widely commented upon, for instance, that many rabbis in a broad middle range of synagogues find it hard to talk about Israel – “the AIPAC guy will attack me on one side and the J Street guy on the other.”

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not sufficiently think about our rabbis as human beings. We do not permit them to be themselves; to struggle not only with Israel, but also with davenning, theology, darkness in the world. We do not allow them doubt and then we object when they offer certitude. We have little sense of their need for private time. We know, at some level, that they work on Shabbat, even as they encourage us to be able to switch off and rest, but we do not really think through the toll of this on them, or on their families, over the years.

And – yes – I know, very sadly, that rabbis are human. These last twelve months – these last few years – have reminded us that rabbis are human, and some rabbis are indeed criminals. But the overwhelming majority, in my view, are great people – certainly people with elements of greatness, if we would nurture and support them – and instead we are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

If you disagree with me on this: totally fine.

But if you agree, here are some things you might do, or not do, or think about:

  • If you’re on a synagogue board: rabbis should have a therapist, a supervisor or a mashpiah [a spiritual director] – someone who is paid by the shul, on behalf of the rabbi, and who is there on a regular basis to provide support, counselling, encouragement and direction, within the bounds of confidentiality. In my view all rabbis should have this, as a matter of course;
  • Rabbis should have sabbaticals. If it can’t be one full year off in seven, certainly there should be mini-sabbaticals on a regular basis. The call to officiate at a funeral – to help with a potential suicide – to provide advice or support – can come at any moment, 24/7. Rabbis burn out, and it should be incumbent on the shul or the employer to provide sabbaticals, not on the rabbi to ask for them;
  • Don’t wait for your rabbi to ask for help (which he or she may be nervous to do, by the way): go ahead and say, “is there something I could do in the community that would help you in some way?”
  • If you don’t normally go to shul – go occasionally. It’s not so bad. ☺ You might even like it. You don’t have to “believe in it” – that’s a Christian concept, not a Jewish one. Go because you’re Jewish. Go because you want to learn, or reflect, or meet someone, or say hello to an old lady who was just widowed and is saying kaddish. Go because the very notion of minyan – a prayer quorum – is that our presence counts;
  • And if you do go – go a little more often. Show up a little earlier. Sit nearer the front, not the back. Bring a friend with you;
  • Allow your rabbi to risk things – which means a/ being allowed to try things and b/ having the things they try, not work out. (Advanced Rabbinics 701: a few years ago I walked into BJ on a Friday night. The seating was totally re-arranged from how it was normally. A few minutes into the services one of the rabbis said, “Chevrei: you may have noticed we’ve decided to try a different seating configuration this week. This may turn out to be a great idea, or it may not work – but, please, if you hate it, wait until week 4 until you tell us you hate it…!!)

Rabbis especially, I believe, need real support in being encouraged to be their best selves – to speak, to teach, to change things. For some there will be a place of loving the tradition, of wanting to encourage greater observance – but they’re scared to say that. For others there may be a desire to shake up parts of the service much more radically – but what will people say? Rabbis are there to do many things but high in most lists is teaching, and facilitating Jewish journeys and conversations. They cannot do that if we do not take active steps to support them, existentially and practically, in doing their jobs.

A couple of last things. First: this email is all my own work! I didn’t discuss it in advance with any rabbi – it doesn’t reflect anyone’s views but my own. No rabbi has, as it were, put me up to this. But if you have views or suggestions – particularly if, either as a rabbi or a non-rabbi, there are ways you think we could or should be supporting rabbis better, let me know – perhaps I’ll do a second set of suggestions at some point.

And lastly: I didn’t mention the third clause in the triptych – “and give every person the benefit of the doubt.” The image is of a scale, with merit on one side – hanging in the balance. Is it there to teach us how to make someone our rabbi, how to acquire a friend – that to do so we must give them the benefit of the doubt? Or does it imply that of course we give the benefit of the doubt to the person who is our rabbi or our friend, but we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone else?

As ever, the rabbis of the Mishnah were epigrammatic, and thus open to multiple readings. So this Shabbat, try it out and see how it feels – give the benefit of the doubt to your friends and family; give the benefit of the doubt to someone you’re mad at, or not feeling close to; and, most of all, give the benefit of the doubt to your rabbi.