Don’t Expect a Perfect Rabbi

Rabbinic scandals, anyone? Voyeurism, clannishness, sexual harassment, court battles over defamation. We’re shocked — not just because we expect better, but because we are used to clergy being better.

Daily, I read about politicians, pundits, and celebrities. Reviewed for tax evasion. Spouting profanity at public events. Using public funds for personal luxuries. Inventing negative stories about competitors. Spewing hateful speech. No surprises here. From them, unfortunately, I expect it.

But from rabbis, I do not expect it. No one does. And learning to meet expectations can be one of a rabbi’s hardest challenges.

About a decade ago, Rabbi and psychologist Jack H. Bloom published  The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar. Typical congregation members, writes Bloom, expect their rabbi to live up to high moral and spiritual standards. The rabbi’s religious observance should be ideal. So should the rabbi’s family life. And the rabbi’s ability to endlessly increase the circle of people she or he cares for.

Living up to these expectations, says Bloom, may well be at odds with a rabbi’s inner experience, personal life, or physical energy level. But it can take a long time for a congregation to notice. Often congregants treat the rabbi as a symbol. They experience the rabbi’s personality as a particular embodiment of the symbol. For a rabbi, congregational life — surrounded by people who don’t truly “see” you — can be lonely.

Bloom offers his insights into navigating this loneliness. But here I depart from his thoughts and offer mine. When one’s job requires a show of caring, it is helpful to have a congruent inner experience. Helpful, but not always easy, given the loneliness Bloom describes. How does a rabbi deal with that inside while outwardly projecting only God’s loving face?

Spiritual practice is essential. Research literature into clergy burnout identifies “lack of time for spiritual practice” as a causal factor. Rabbis need time to understand negative feelings, to reach for forgiveness, and to engage in restorative practice. Some rabbis are helped by personal prayer, or study for its own sake (i.e., not preparation for a class or sermon); others by meditation, art, or journaling; still others by debriefing with a spiritual director or depth psychotherapist.

Internalizing ethical principles is important — and I do mean, “internalizing,” so that they simply become something one does, like drinking out of a cup, or looking both ways before crossing a street. Jewish wisdom offers some exceptionally powerful principles: avoiding lashon hara (gossip) and marit ayin (setting a bad example) are only two. Internalizing even these two practices alone can create a powerful congruence, where inner integrity and a positive reputation meet.

Learning humility is helpful. For example, the rabbi and the rabbi’s relatives are expected to perform family brilliantly. Yet the rabbi may have rebellious teens, dying parents who provoke complex feelings, or a spouse that sometimes rebels against the demands of synagogue life. Working to hide these realities can be exhausting for a rabbi trying to perform perfection. Better to accept reality: A flawed family is a typical family. All the rabbi can offer is their human attempt to muddle through with integrity.

For 10 years, I served as a congregational rabbi in a delightful congregation. One of the most precious gifts I received from my congregants is the teaching I have offered here. In light of it, I do not suggest that congregations lower their expectations. The idealization of spiritual guides is too psychologically deep-seated to dissolve at will. Rather, I remind rabbis of the daily inner work needed to respond to the expectations with integrity. And, when the going gets rough, I encourage congregations to pause and reflect on the role their expectations play.

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