Rabbinic Dignity – A Contemporary Lesson
After reading about the latest rabbinic “issue”, we do not know what to say. While the rabbi involved has the right to explain himself, and we cannot assume wrongdoing beyond anything which would be admitted or proven, we are left with a feeling of great disquietude and confusion.
Detractors of the rabbi point out the halachic prohibitions of a rav attending a bathhouse in the presence of his students, and defenders of the rabbi point to the absence of proof of actual wrongdoing or criminal activity. Both sides may be correct, yet they may also be missing an important point – a point that can only be appreciated by taking a step back.
If an individual retains a highly respected position, and on occasion stakes out unpopular positions, he can be the world’s greatest tzaddik and mentch, but he will nonetheless be subject to vilification. And the reverse is true as well: If an individual has criminal proclivities, especially in the realm of physical relationships, then no matter what type of formal safeguards and parameters are established, it will not help.
Yet we speak here not about any of this, but rather about a more general issue – that of k’vod ha-rav. Not of the kavod owed to a rav by others, but of the kavod that the rav owes to himself and his fellows.
Every rabbi wants and needs his laity to feel comfortable with him. The best way for a rabbi to make sure that he is ineffective is to be perceived as a distant figure who is in his own world. An effective rabbi is one who is involved with his laity in a close manner, and whose personal presence is desired; this is the only method to truly impact.
Yet there is a tough balance, as should a rabbi essentially become one of the laity in terms of his leisurely personal interactions and public image, he will lose his rabbinic potency and effect.
While every rabbi seeks to make his congregants comfortable with him, there is a necessary separation and heightened level of dignity that are indispensable. Going to a sauna with talmidim or baale-batim, even covered with a towel and a t-shirt, or engaging in very casual contact sports with congregants, even if there is no appearance of impropriety, compromises the image and position of the rabbi. Closeness and comfort with those whom the rabbi seeks to impact and instruct cannot come at the expense of lack of dignity; there are ways to achieve things without compromising the image that a rav must convey.
Those who point to the halachic issues of a rav being in a bathhouse in view of talmidim focus only on alleging technical violations (and seem to have an additional agenda here, taking into consideration many other factors). While the case at hand needs to be taken extremely seriously (giving the benefit of the doubt, while being zealously and radically vigilant to ensure the safety of everyone), what is also needed is to rethink the general manner in which a rabbi publicly comports himself in terms of speech, appearance, and activities.
I was recently at a formal public event, and a popular rabbi from a nearby community came wearing moccasins. Needless to say, he stood out like a sore thumb and did not garner respect in this situation. I know that this rabbi dresses on the casual side in order to make others comfortable with him, yet failure to also display a sense of heightened dignity and a degree of separation compromises a rabbi’s standing and backfires in terms of real impact and leadership.
I recall how many years ago, a friend who was in a beginner’s program for Torah study commented how uneasy he was with a new staff member, as this new staff member, who was just hired to serve as a rebbe, “always acted and looked like he was going bowling with the guys”; too much of a lack of seriousness and formality had the reverse effect, despite the good intentions.
Of course, no matter how dignified a rabbi presents himself, it will not prevent improper personal activity, should such a proclivity exist. And should a rabbi be distant or stiff, he can kiss his rabbinic success goodbye.
It is a tough balance, but the basic parameters of dignified rabbinic comportment need to be recognized and embraced. Of course, far more acute matters have been raised, but let us learn whatever we can from this and every situation.
Note: The above essay does not assume anything about the facts of the case. The essay is merely adopting some of the talking points in order to draw out an additional, important lesson.