The Power of a Rabbi

Earlier this week, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu reflected on recent stories of rabbis who have acted inappropriately. They have abused the power that comes with being a religious communal leader. In the particular cases being cited, the boundaries that have been crossed are sexual in nature. But rabbis have the ability and, in fact, the need, to exert power each and every day, and with that power comes great responsibility to use it with great thought and care.

We live in an age when many rabbis bemoan the loss of authority that they feel is evident when individuals are making their own choices around defining Jewish community and belonging, marriage, and other life cycle ritual moments, for example. They yearn for a time when rabbis were looked up to as sources of authority (and literally, these rabbis would often speak from a bimah that placed them above the congregation). But that is far from the whole story. There are still many with whom we have the opportunity to connect or to repel by the way we choose to use our power as rabbis.

In the last weeks of rabbinic school, our class had an extended session during which we talked about some of the choices and decisions that may face us as rabbis in the field. What would we say “yes” to, and why, or why not. In conversation with one of my dear colleagues and fellow Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and blogger, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, we reflected together on the importance of discerning when we are speaking from a place of genuine border around what is core to our Jewish practice, and when we are enjoying the position of power from which we get to speak and make determinations for others.  These are conversations that have continued at gatherings of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. We are not, in fact, border-less — we all set limits to what we will or won’t do and what we understand as beyond the realm of Jewish practice. In a pluralistic environment, we don’t all set limits in the same places. It is the conversations that we have about how we make these determinations that are so essential to guiding how we approach our roles as leaders in Jewish communal life.

When I am asked if I will permit some innovation at a bar or bat mitzvah services, I have to ask myself whether my answer is being driven from a place of genuine community consistency (if, in fact, consistency is a necessary factor in the particular question begin asked) or whether from a need to exert my authority as the rabbi who makes decisions about what happens at our congregational services.

When someone tells me that their child is unable to study at the set times and places that we have determined to be available for their education, I need to think carefully about whether my ability to find another path or not is being primarily driven by the full context of the request, or whether the roadblocks that I might be tempted to put up are due to my frustration that my program and my timetable have not been put on the top of somebody else’s priority list. Regardless of how I may feel in the moment, if the latter is driving how I choose to respond then that is power getting in the way of service. The future Jewish life of a young person may depend on what I do.

When I refuse to officiate at a particular wedding, I need to ask myself whether my answer is driven by consistent principles of what aspects of time and space are essential to my sense of a Jewish wedding, or whether I’m responding solely from a frustration that a couple had the gall to book the venue before consulting with a rabbi as to the appropriateness of the day and time in Jewish custom. Now, believe me, there are plenty of rabbis (myself included) who find the latter frustrating (and couples who book their Jewish wedding on the afternoon of erev Rosh Hashanah are likely to find it difficult to find a rabbi to officiate). But frustration is not the appropriate emotion to drive the decision making.

The truth is that, while different rabbis will have different answers to these kinds of questions, and that is appropriate in an age of pluralistic Jewish leadership that engages with Jewish tradition using a variety of criteria, many of these issues do not lend themselves to black-and-white, objective answers. It is our job to serve the Jewish community, and to think deeply about how best we can accomplish that goal for those we hope to serve. As rabbis, we have great power to shape the Jewish experience of others. That doesn’t mean that we can always say ‘yes’, but it does mean that we have to maintain a very self-aware check on the ways we choose to use our power, and be watchful that it is not our desire to exert power itself that is the primary driver of our decision-making.


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