Monday, March 8, 2010

Kiddush Clubs and the Rabbi

In a recent post, I articulated a particular position on Kiddush Clubs. In case you didn't read the post, I came out against them.
I also noted that during my tenure as rabbi, I did not fight vociferously against the Kiddush Club in my shul, and that I consider this to be a major failure. Truth be told, we did try and keep the KC in check. There were unspoken rules. You had to arrive in shul before 9:30am to go to the KC. No guests were officially permitted. The KC ended before my speech - and most of the members returned to the sanctuary for the drashah, some more sloshed than others. I would slip in a dig against the KC periodically. But I didn't fight against it. I let things slide, and the KC continues to this day.
At the same time, looking back the criticism (or self-criticism) seems patently unfair. By criticizing the KC, I would be causing the shul to possibly lose members and thereby put my own livelihood in jeopardy. Name another profession where the very nature of the job, if it's done well, might very well put you out of work: politics comes to mind. How often must the politician make the choice between the popular and the productive? (Anyone following the debate on health care?)
Ostensibly, I was hired to lead. But when my opinions made people uncomfortable, somehow leadership took a back seat. (And, if you don't know me, I'm not known as someone who cowers or kowtows very much.) There's a famous saying about the rabbinate that speaks to this tension that goes something like this: If none of your members like you, then you're not much of a rabbi, but if all of them like you, you're still not much of a rabbi.
During my first year in Oak Park, I gave this drashah about the need for constant struggle in religious life. This led me somehow to how nothing in Modern Orthodoxy advocates coeducation, and how the local school, Yeshivat Akiva should really be separate. That week my Chairman of the Board, a very well-intentioned man, came to my office to give me the unsolicited advice that I should be more careful with what I say. Right or wrong, he said, "I just want to make sure that you're still able to give speeches after your first contract ends." I pulled out my contract and showed him the explicit clause giving me the freedom of the pulpit, and the right to say whatever I deemed appropriate. I told him that I reserved the right to express my views, regardless of their popularity.
But I never spoke about coeducation from the pulpit again. I never consciously avoided the topic. But, for whatever reason, it never again was the focus of a speech from the pulpit.
I guess my point is, if you're waiting for your rabbi to take a stance against the Kiddush Club in your shul, you're being patently unfair. Sure, he'll back you, at least unofficially. But is it reasonable to expect him to take the lead on an issue that most balebatim shrug about and ignore?
Would you risk your job, you kids' tuitions, to take a stance in your community? Would you risk everything for an issue like Kiddish clubs?
I didn't.
And until our rabbis earn their livings from some other source, and don't depend on their congregants for their parnassah, I don't think very many will in the future.