Sunday, December 15, 2013

Things Rabbis Are NOT

We've discussed briefly before how a rabbi, scary though he may seem, is a normal person with dreams, faults, anxieties, and other responsibilities. His job responsibilities may be less than clear: What is the Proper Role of a Congregational Rabbi?

But what is he NOT?
  • He's not your friend, sadly. He might become your friend over time, but a conversion candidate needs to always treat a rabbi like you would treat your boss.
  • He's not your confidant. See above. 
  • He may not seem friendly. He might even be unfriendly or temperamental. He may even be a Diva with a capital D.
  • He's not your therapist. He probably has no psychology training.
  • He may not be a good listener.
  • He's probably not a doctor, so make sure you get a doctor's input so he can make better halachic rulings about your health.
  • He may be too busy to answer your questions. After all, unless you're a member, you don't pay his salary. Unless you're engaged to the shul President's child; then you'll get plenty of time.
  • Hopefully he is knowledgeable, but there are no guarantees.
  • If he's unknowledgeable on a topic, he may refuse to admit that and give you rulings that you know have no connection to reality or logic (pets come to mind). Ask someone else, even if you have to go to social media. Don't just take a ruling you know is uninformed.
  • He will most likely not be knowledgeable about the conversion process or conversion-specific halachic questions. 
  • He may not be rational, sane, or mentally stable. Again, there are no guarantees in life.
  • He may not be encouraging, kind, or welcoming. He's got stuff to do and people to see.
  • He may not be the best leader you need for your strengths and weaknesses.
  • He may have no concept of the struggles you face or how this process complicates your life.
  • He may have no understanding of how a halachic ruling may impact your relationship with your non-Jewish family. 
  • He may not appear compassionate or kind.
  • He may be judgmental about the choices you've made and make.
  • He may not like you as a person. He doesn't have to in order to do his job. You might not like him either.

All of these things sound so negative, I know. But when I learned (most of) these lessons, I found it really freeing. At least 90% of the bad interactions in my life have nothing to do with me and everything to do with that person's perspective or emotional state. Those things are out of my control, but I can control how I react to them. And that is the secret for how I maintain(ed) my sanity.

I became very gun-shy of rabbis. But then I moved to NY and befriended many rabbis and rabbis-in-training and realized they're just human beings. Some are awesome, some are ok, and some are best avoided. In the shul and community, the community rabbi is doing his job. It's a job, much like any other, influenced by politics and finances and time restraints. He probably also has a family and hobbies and likes to nap occasionally. So cut the rabbis a little slack sometimes. But also recognize when a rabbi is toxic for you and move on to Plan B. 

You can survive a bad rabbi relationship. Sometimes you have to suffer through it, but sometimes you can find a new rabbi. Try to avoid the nuclear option, though I know first-hand that is survivable too.

Even when you feel the most powerless, you still have control over some parts of the conversion process, such as how you react and who you spend your time with. Make healthy choices.


  1. stay away from rabbis. If you need a halacha opinion it is better to find someone involved in actually learning and teaching Torah on a daily basis. sadly many rabbis are ami haaretz

  2. Wow, this made me feel soooo lucky to have had my conversion sponsored by a rabbi (MY rabbi as I became a member of the shul soon after beginning our work together) who is wise, compassionate, nonjudgmental, open, dependable, intelligent, learned, warm, and a good hugger who always makes me feel unconditionally accepted. Counting my blessings!

    1. Don't worry, no rabbi is ALL of these things. We all have a vision of what the "right" rabbi should be for us as individuals, but rabbis can't possibly fulfill everything we need from them. I hope this helps people keep these relationships in perspective.

  3. I don't entirely agree only because my Rabbi is very intelligent and caring, and is always there for me. Well I'm Jewish though.