Friday, September 16, 2011

What Is the Proper Role of a Congregational Rabbi?

I'm curious what you think a congregational rabbi's role should be with the individuals who attend his synagogue. Below is a list of possible roles to jumpstart your thought process:
  • Spiritual Leader
  • Organizer
  • Counselor (but what kind of counseling/how serious?)
  • Role Model
  • Teacher of children
  • Teacher of adults
  • Person who oversees lifecycle events
  • Host
  • Friend?
Reflecting on your answer to the above, how do you think that role changes with a conversion candidate? Should it change? Should the sponsoring rabbi be more distant, more involved?

I recommend that any conversion candidate consider these two questions. You may also want to discuss your perceptions with your rabbi to make sure that you're on the same page. Remember that your rabbi is a human. He may have other responsibilities, including (but not limited to): 
  • Family responsibilities 
  • Jewish community responsibilities
  • Give halachic rulings at any hour of the day
  • Synagogue board and committee meetings
  • Deal with emergency issues such as death or illness
  • Deal with media inquiries and be a public face of the Jewish community
  • Be involved with other community organizations
  • Be taking graduate-level coursework
  • Have a "day job" (not all congregational leaders are "full-time"!)
  • Be expected to study halacha for several hours a day in addition to his work with the shul
  • Not to mention having hobbies and personal interests!


  1. I think the number 1 feature of a congregational rabbi is as the halachic decisor (aka mara d'atra) for the congregation. Ideally, a rabbi should specify the communal kashrut rules so everyone can eat in each other's homes. The rabbi should be responsible for adjudicating disputes about the order of prayer (e.g., should tachanun be recited on a particular day, or should tefillin be worn during chol hamoed?)

    Nowadays this sort of local pastoral authority is rare - in liberal congregations the rabbi has to lead by example, but cannot command. And in many Orthodox communities the laity often has their own rabbis (from their yeshiva or elsewhere) whom they listen to before they listen to the local rabbi.

  2. My congregational Rabbi is VERY busy. He is a full time Rabbi, but he handles a growing, thriving congregation. He's there for minyan at the crack of dawn and often isn't home until after evening minyan. On top of that, he is a husband and a father of 5!

    Understandably, he has to kind of do "triage" when it comes to handling issues. Unfortunately and completely understandably, this means that he often has to focus his time and attention on the people he knows either need him the most or who form the backbone of his congregation.

    Let's face it, many people flirt with the idea of conversion, but statistically few are really committed to following through the process and sticking with it for life. It makes sense that congregational Rabbis just can't devote the resources needed unless and until they're absolutely sure that they won't be wasted.

    This is tough, but reality is that the time and attention of a congregational Rabbi is a very limited resource in most communities. It makes sense to me that he would be more focused on keeping those already under his care taken care of than taking the time to help me, unless and until he's certain that I'm going to be one of those people for a long time. It's nothing personal against me any more than a triage nurse making the person with a broken leg wait while they treat the person having a heart attack is personal. He's doing the best he can to do the most good for his congregation with the limited resources he has.

    It still is tough for the conversion candidates. It's frustrating and sometimes even hurts. Still, I try always to keep in mind that the intention is not to slight me, but to do what's best for the good of the whole.