Of Stains and Stains

“This will leave a permanent stain on the rabbinate”! So exclaimed a fellow rabbi, in response to the recent travesty that took place in Washington D.C. after Barry Freundel, spiritual leader of Kesher Israel Congregation was arrested and charged with voyeurism for hiding a camera in the showers in the mikvah of his synagogue.
Yet, one need not be a morally depraved or sexually perverted rabbi to leave a stain. Countless rabbis are responsible for stains that are far less severe in nature and much less lasting than those of Barry Freundel. As reprehensible and unscrupulous as Barry Freundel’s wanton deed was, one would hopefully agree that when it comes to clergy, there are stains that in no way involve prurient interests. One would also hopefully agree that when it comes to clergy, there are stains that are all too readily overlooked and ignored by the laity. If that weren’t bad enough, such rabbis still earn the respect and admiration of their flock despite irresponsible and even immoral behavior on their part.
The dictionary defines discretion as what should be done in a particular situation. Most, if not all rabbis would wholeheartedly agree with such a definition, particularly with reference to the Rabbis Discretionary Fund. What some rabbis may be unaware of, or may choose to overlook, is the alternate definition for discretion provided by the dictionary. Discretion is behaving in such a way, as to avoid causing offense. Just as freedom of speech has its limitations, so too does management of a Discretionary Fund. Discretionary Funds in my opinion, do not entitle rabbis to underwrite tuition costs for their children or grandchildren by making “donations” from the Discretionary Fund to the Day School or Yeshivah that a child or grandchild is attending! Several years ago, a rabbi in Maryland “got into trouble” for writing checks for his daughter’s wedding from the Discretionary Fund. It just so happened that this rabbi freelanced a goodly number of weddings and funerals each year. Rather than accept his honorarium in the form of a personal check, this rabbi had the family member make out the check to his Discretionary Fund. While I know this rabbi to live by the highest ethical standards, his using his Discretionary Fund as a form of escrow did not sit well with his synagogue board, to say the least. Imagine then if you can, rabbis who have no scruples whatsoever when it comes to using their Discretionary Fund for their own personal needs! Talk about putting a stain on the Rabbinate!
While I admittedly set high standards for the rabbinate, I find it inexcusable for a rabbi to come perpetually late for minyan. By doing so, the rabbi is conveying a message that establishing a set time to formally communicate with G-d is totally meaningless. What’s even worse is when a rabbi arrives 10-15 minutes late, while nine others are waiting impatiently for a minyan! Such a rabbi is effectively holding those nine others “hostage,” preventing any one of them from reciting kaddish. Most unconscionable however, is a rabbi who doesn’t show up for minyan at all! A rabbi from a neighboring congregation back in New Jersey negotiated a contract where he was only responsible to attend morning minyan six times a year! Whether he had to put on Tallis and Tefillen, open a siddur and daven while being present at any one of those six minyanim, I have no way of knowing. I do know however, that such a rabbi does his share in putting a stain on the rabbinate.
Nash Brat is a Russian phrase that found its way into the Yiddish language. While Nash Brat literally means “our brother”, its real meaning is “one of the boys”. Over the years, in an effort to gain acceptability and in an attempt to create a feeling of closeness with congregants, rabbis have taken to showing up at their office on a daily basis clad on jeans and a Tee Shirt (summer) or sweater (winter). Similarly, there are rabbis who ask their congregants to call them by their first names. Karl Wassermann, a native of Vienna was a member of a congregation in New Jersey walking distance from mine. As much contempt as Mr. Wassermann had for his rabbi, in that his rabbi perpetually came late for minyan and dress slovenly, Mr. Wassermann’s eyes would light up whenever he saw “yours truly”. On one occasion, not only was I in my signature double-breasted suit, but I was also wearing a Homburg on my head. Smiling from ear to ear, Mr. Wassermann exclaimed in Yiddish: Dos Heist a Rabbiner, this is (what is called) a rabbi!
As one who whole heartedly endorses the notion that respect must be earned, I am constantly reminded of a phrase that typically rests above many an Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark:
Da Lifnei mi atah omeid! Know before whom you stand! Rabbis, in my opinion, would do well to realize, that in addition to standing before G-d, they also stand before their congregants. It’s quite likely, if more rabbis would take this teaching seriously, there would be fewer stains on the rabbinate.