Recently, someone posted a comment to a blog post I wrote suggesting that the topic was inappropriate subject matter for a rabbi to post about in public.
I don’t know why this reaction surprises me, but it always does. Truthfully, there are actually very few things that are, technically, inappropriate for a rabbi (or any clergy) to comment on in the public sphere. We are not permitted to endorse political candidates (well, unless we want our congregations’ non-profit tax statuses revoked). We are not permitted to share anything told to us in confidence, in deference to the “priest-parishioner’ relationship. And Jewish tradition would suggest that lashon harah—gossip or slander; that is, speaking about another person, rather than of my own experience—is beneath the dignity of any Jew (or human being for that matter).
But that’s about it. As a rabbi, I have freedom of the pulpit; that is to say, the congregation, when it calls me (hires me), understands that I will speak my mind from that pulpit. That’s the job, and that doesn’t mean I’m going to shy away from controversy. Nor does it mean that the congregation may respond indelicately to that controversy; David Einhorn was run out of antebellum Baltimore due to his anti-slavery sermons is just one classic example. And, as a rabbi, I know that making controversial statements runs me the risk of the ba’al habatim of the congregation asking me to go with God...somewhere else. But in theory, a rabbi and his congregation should have the kind of relationship that is apolitical. In other words, I shouldn’t be editing my sermons (or articles, or blogs, or teaching materials) because I’m worried about what others will think of me. But, if I’m going to say something controversial, then it should a) be something I have direct experience of (i.e. not lashon hara) and b) something I believe quite strongly and willing to stand behind, something I’m passionate about, even though the people in my congregation may reject or challenge my opinion.
And, really, isn’t that why rabbis share challenging, controversial things? To get our congregants to think, to move them, to have them respond, perhaps even angrily. Sure, I could get up there and give a variation on ‘it’s good to be nice and nice to be good,’ again and again and again, and I’d get a ‘nice sermon, rabbi’ from folks who didn’t even hear what I was saying (and truth be told, I wouldn’t be listening either). This is not to say that sermons should be written for shock value, but a good teacher challenges his or her students and encourages them to push back. Torah study—REAL Torah study—isn’t [just] about finding ways to read our own values in the text. It’s about wrestling with the sacred in the text and in the person with whom I’m studying. That’s not going to happen if the rabbi is offering trite aphorisms or harmless, safe, messages about whatever. The trick, then, is to provide a safe space for both rabbi and laypeople to explore and challenge each other. I think often the problem is that communities (and rabbis) don’t know how to do that. Folks who are cowed by the image of their rabbi are going to sit on their hands and stew (or worse, quit) rather than engage in meaningful conversation, because they don’t know how to approach, (I’m endlessly amazed by folks who in one moment call me ‘approachable’ and in a later conversation say, ‘but you’re the RABBI!’) . And rabbis grow fearful about losing their jobs when board members start complaining, especially when a member quits (“he’s hurting the bottom line!”).
So, you don’t like what I said? You have a different opinion or world view? Good: challenge me! Disagree with me! Not disrespectfully (I would never disrespect YOU after all); don’t insult me or my intelligence. Don’t be judgmental, don't be personal. But challenge me, push back, talk about your experience in contradiction to my own, ask for clarification, for refinement, read the text differently from me, with me: teach me something. I’ll be happy to do the same for you (again, in a respectful, thoughtful way).We may not change each others’ opinions, but we will understand each other that much better, and we'll create space for one another. Just don’t tell me that it’s inappropriate for me to talk.