Monday, June 8, 2009

While we're on the subject; what is the role of the rabbi in congregational life?

I don't subscribe to "10 Minutes of Torah" any more, but it is a fantastic program for quick learning put out by the Reform Movement. This Monday's is especially pertinent as we get two perspectives on the role of the rabbi in congregational life from my colleagues Cindy Enger and Doug Sagal (special thanks to Jerry Arenson at Beth Emeth for giving me the head's up). Both carry a great deal of wisdom and thoughtfulness, and I agree with much of what they're both saying. So, I thought I'd share their messages with y'all. As always, I'd love for you to share your thoughts on both or either. While we're at it, what do you think the role of the rabbi is today? Is it to welcome and to create a sense of belonging? Is it to create shared vision with the lay-leadership? Is the rabbi 'in charge' or a 'spiritual consultant' to the congregation? Is the congregation the best place for the rabbi to serve? I'm going to refrain from commenting further, as I want to hear your ideas on this matter.

What is the role of the rabbi in our congregations today?

Rabbi Cindy G. Enger

The poet, David Whyte, reminds us, “There is no house like the house of belonging.” (1) For us Jews, the synagogue is a house of study. The synagogue is a house of prayer. The synagogue is a house of gathering in community so that we can perform acts of loving-kindness and righteousness and mark as holy significant moments in time. The synagogue, as Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein writes in the most recent issue of the CCAR Journal – A Reform Jewish Quarterly, “is where the soul of our people resides and from which the core of our tradition flows.” (2) The synagogue, at its best, is also a house of belonging.

We belong to a synagogue -- a congregational community -- when we feel safe and respected, when our voices are solicited, when our presence and contributions are appreciated, when we feel listened to and heard. We belong to a synagogue when we feel nurtured and nourished and encouraged to grow. We belong to a congregation when we contribute of ourselves, offering to the synagogue community the best of ourselves. We belong to a synagogue when we allow ourselves to be open and contributed to -- when our lives are enriched and expanded by Torah and all of its opportunities for learning, by worship and relationship with God, by sacred obligations and acts of loving-kindness shared with one another and with the larger world. We belong to a congregation when our participation has meaning and when we see ourselves and see one another as integral, essential parts of a distinct, living entity, a breathing and changing whole.

We Jews choose to affiliate with synagogue communities for many reasons. “Belonging” as I have articulated it may or may not be among those reasons. And yet, when we allow ourselves to journey beneath the surface and ask: “What becomes possible with synagogue affiliation, what is possible when a group of Jews comes together and call themselves a congregation?” what shows up is the possibility of belonging.

One of the roles as rabbis in our congregations is to recognize a variety of doorways and create openings for a diversity of people to enter. We are diverse communities. We come from different places, and in so many different ways, we see the world through different lenses. We want different things; we find meaning in different aspects of Jewish living. We are diverse communities, and we do not always agree. Nonetheless, deeper than our differences is our common mission to support each other in participating and growing Jewishly. As rabbis, we are blessed with the opportunity to teach that while our diversity is not always easy, it is among our communities’ greatest strengths. Diversity is a source of vitality and creativity, a resource to be nourished and cultivated, acknowledged and cared for. Within our communities, we do not need to be uniform in order to experience and extend to others a similar sense of belonging.

A central role of the rabbi – one of the many roles of the rabbi – in our congregations today is to be a voice and take a stand for the synagogue as a house of belonging. We do this in our teaching, preaching and counseling. We model this in our speech and in our listening. We encourage community members to engage in conversation and experimentation so that together we might begin to see and then internalize a vision of the synagogue as a house of belonging. We facilitate this when we help make our texts and teachings, our traditions and practices accessible, relevant, and alive.

As rabbis, it is important that we articulate and communicate our vision of synagogue community with kindness and compassion, with patience and persistence, with confidence and care. (3) Some moments invite agitation; others call for comfort. Sometimes we lead out in front. Sometimes we guide and push more quietly from behind.

Ultimately, we rabbis are both facilitators and privileged participants in a sacred conversation called synagogue or congregation. Our congregations are the place and the process through which the Jewish people strive to journey home – from brokenness to healing and wholeness, from estrangement to belonging.

The doorway is open. The space is inviting. The divine presence does dwell among us. The synagogue is our house of belonging. From possibility to reality – together, we can go there.

(1) David Whyte, “The House of Belonging,” in The House of Belonging(Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2004) 6.

(2) Jonathan A. Stein, Editor, CCAR Journal – A Reform Jewish Quarterly(Winter 2009): 1.

(3) Deborah Joselow, “Making Change in the Kehillah, CCAR Journal (Winter 2009): 108.

Rabbi Douglas Sagal

I am humbled by the invitation to participate in the Eilu V’eilu dialogue, and honored to share this with my colleague Rabbi Cindy Enger. I look forward to learning from Rabbi Enger, as well as from readers of Eilu V’eilu.

We have been asked to address the issue of the role of the rabbi in the contemporary congregation. It is my belief that the role of the rabbi is to partner with the lay leadership in developing a vision for the congregation and to work with the lay leadership in moving the congregation ever-forwards towards that vision.

But what is authentic partnership?
Most congregations use the language of “partnership” to describe the ideal relationship of rabbi and lay leader. My observation is that across the landscape of all Movements, few congregational leaders and their rabbis understand what genuine lay-rabbinic partnership means, and few congregations and rabbis enjoy authentic partnership.

Partnership between rabbi and lay leadership means that it is publicly acknowledged that both sides in the relationship have insight, knowledge, and vital information necessary to develop a compelling vision. Only when the lay leadership respects the rabbi’s knowledge and skill, and the rabbi respects the lay leadership’s vital experience and awareness of the needs of the congregation can true partnership develop. In other words, in a true partnership, it is only when rabbi and lay leadership combine their insight that a full and complete picture of the congregation and its needs emerge, and a compelling vision be developed.

As I learned from the Rev. Francis Wade, former rector of St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, “It needs to be acknowledged that the laity have part of the truth, the clergy havepart of the truth, and only by combining our knowledge and insight can we gain access to the entire truth.” (1)

I have maintained that the primary role of the rabbi is to partner with the lay leadership in developing a vision for the congregation and to work with the lay leadership in moving the congregation ever-forwards towards that vision. However, it is necessary for such a healthy partnership to exist in the first place. So I will add an addendum: It is the role of the rabbi to teach the meaning of authentic partnership to the lay leadership, and work constantly and consistently to maintain that partnership on an ongoing basis. Sadly, in too many congregations, this healthy partnership does not exist. Often the lay leadership secretly believes that their knowledge of the “real world” trumps the rabbi’s knowledge of Torah when it comes to “running an organization” and the rabbi believes that his or her knowledge of Judaism and human dynamics trumps the lay leadership’s genuine and authentic experiences of the congregation. It is vital for the rabbi and lay leadership to overcome these obstacles and to develop a healthy partnership in order for the rabbi to fulfill his or her primary role.

If a healthy partnership between rabbi and lay leadership can be established, then the hard work of developing a vision for the congregation can begin. Visioning takes great effort. It requires an enormous commitment of time, energy, and creativity. Visioning and creating a united sense of mission means making painful choices, setting priorities and defining not only what the congregationis, but what it is not. The alternative, however, is worse. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 19:18). (2)

Once a vision for the congregation and the parameters and scope of its mission have been conceived, agreed upon, and affirmed by clergy and laity alike, it is the role of the rabbi to partner with the lay leadership in putting the energies of the congregation to the service of the vision and mission. The answer to the age old question of “Who is in charge, the Rabbi or the Temple President?” is “the vision and mission of the congregation is in charge-all of us serve that vision and mission.”

The third role of the rabbi, then, is to partner with the lay leadership to tend and nurture the primacy of the vision. A congregation’s vision and mission must be tended as carefully and as lovingly as Aaron and his sons tended the fires of the Mishkan. Difficult decisions become easier when viewed through the prism of a vision.

(1) Lecture, Alban Institute SeminarLeading the Large Congregation, May 2001

(2) I have purposely left vague the definitions of “vision” and “mission”. There are others who are far better qualified than I to address the precise definitions of these terms. However, for the purposes of this brief essay, I define vision as answering the question “Who are we?” and mission as answering the question“What should be doing?”

(for those who saw the post earlier; apologies. I had trouble getting the formatting right and just decided to post their comments in text style. It's harder to read but at least it's readable!)


  1. Here's a comment emailed to me directly from "Nechama" and posted here with permission. PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS NOT MINE, BUT BELONGS TO THE UNDERSIGNED.

    "The question you pose regarding the role of the Rabbi is a good one and a complex one. I view the Rabbi as the leader of the congregation in that he/she creates the climate in which the goals of the congregation can be carried out, and works with the congregational leaders to accomplish these goals. I liked Rabbi Enger's statement that, in addition to being a place of worship, gathering and study, the synagogue should be a place of “belonging”. To paraphrase her, a congregational community is where we can feel safe and respected, when our voices are solicited, when our presence and contributions are appreciated, when we feel listened to and heard. I have often said that I desire more than just being a name on a membership list, I desire involvement. I expect to be able to contribute to the synagogue regardless of my financial status or imperfections , to support others, and to receive support , encouragement and nurturance where it may not be found elsewhere.

    "The role of the Rabbi as a teacher is significant, as it is within our texts and our Jewish way of living that we find what we need to reach out and sustain each other and to flourish as Jews. We need instruction in order to find meaning within our faith and to develop an understanding of how it actively contributes to our lives. The role of the Rabbi in leading worship is important in that people need the security of consistency – a prayer routine, and need the rabbi as a vehicle to communicate the meaning and relevance of prayer. The choreography of a prayer service is important, but so is the ability of the congregants to be actively involved in that prayer service. Leading prayer, reading Torah, and discussion of prayer concepts and Torah text on the part of the congregant is also important if the congregant is going to personally relate to the process of worship. And of course preparing congregants for active participation is part of the educational process as well as their spiritual nurturance. And, the rabbi is important in making the synagogue a safe, comforting and comfortable gathering place in that his relationships with the congregants and his/her participation in events is essential to pulling together people with diverse backgrounds and needs into a central whole. No rabbi can solely be a strong shoulder, a source of comfort and a friend to all congregants, so the Rabbi needs to encourage congregants to take on the role of helper and comforter and supporter, and if necessary provide the structure for this or guide them. If a synagogue is to be a place of belonging where we celebrate, console or nurture each other, the Rabbi must provide a strong leadership role in this direction so that no one feels alone, ashamed, inadequate or excluded as a result of his/her membership. Moreover, not all leaders at all times lead in accordance with Jewish values and make compassionate decisions, and here is where the Rabbi can offer direction as he/she works with congregational leaders. It is for these reasons that I contend that the rabbi should be the congregational leader in all aspects of synagogue life – not just the spiritual."


  2. I feel comfortable with Rabbi Enger's comments and with what Nechama has to say, but Rabbi Sagal's definition of role sounds like something out of a corporate mission statement :(
    I am glad to see that my new rabbi has a blog so that I can get to know him a little bit before he 'officially' begins on July 1