Thursday, June 4, 2015

Rabbinic Life in the Fish Bowl

When we made aliyah seven years ago and I left the pulpit rabbinate, I knew that leaving rabbinic life would prove traumatic. I loved many things about the job and the life: the relationships with congregants; helping people in times of need; the opportunity to teach Torah regularly and speak to the community about important issues on a regular basis. Yet, to me the most challenging, demoralizing and distressing aspects of the rabbinate was the "fishbowl." People were watching us (and yes, I mean "us" - not just me, but my wife and children as well). 
I remember the day that I really understood just how profound the fishbowl effect really is: the day that I went to see Spiderman. 
It was a Sunday night, many weeks after the movie had come out, and my wife agreed to humor me and accompany me to a movie she had no interest in seeing. After dinner, we ended up at a theater nowhere near our home. Yet, as we walked into the theater, I heard someone call out, "Hey - we didn't know that rabbis liked Spiderman!" They didn't mean anything by it. Maybe my presence in the theater made them uncomfortable. Maybe the people just wanted to say hello or be noticed by the rabbi. Truth be told, they weren't even members of my shul. But, then and there I remember realizing that I could never, ever do anything in public (and perhaps even in my own home) and expect it to remain private. I knew then that I could expect that my entire congregation, and probably every member of the Jewish community would know if I did something wrong, questionable, or even notable.
I'm certain that those people in that theater didn't mean any harm. But that comment, and the reality it brought was very painful to me, as it robbed me once and for all, of any sense of personal privacy for as long as I remained a pulpit rabbi.

It should come as no surprise that Moshe Rabbeinu - the greatest pulpit rav ever - faced the same fishbowl life, a challenge highlighted by events recounted at the end of Parshat Beha'alotecha. In truth, so many of the events of the parshah deal with issues of rabbinic leadership; the loneliness, frustration and difficulty inherent in a life of spiritual leadership. Yet, all of these challenges seem to come together in the final episode of the parshah, when Miriam and Aharon discuss Moshe's personal life and his decision to separate from his wife. But that's not the end of the story. When Aharon appeals to Moshe to pray for Miriam's recovery, Moshe accedes, but in an unusual way, crafting perhaps the shortest prayer in history: אל נא רפא נא לה - "God please heal her please." 
One could say, "Nice. Short and sweet. To the point." Yet, it seems a bit strange. It's his sister after all. Couldn't he at least say a Misheberach? Add a bit of flourish. A kapitel tehillim
Rashi asks the same question, and offers a startling answer:
מפני מה לא האריך משה בתפילה? שלא יהיו ישראל אומרים אחותו עומדת בצורה והוא עומד ומרבה בתפילה
Why didn't Moshe pray more extensively? So that [the Children of] Israel would not say, "His sister is in pain, so he stands and prays at length."
Why didn't he daven a little longer for Miriam? He was afraid of what people would say. For his sister! He couldn't pray a few extra moments for his sick sister, because he was afraid of "what people would say." It makes me so sad for him, and angry, and upset. Could they not just give him a moment of peace; a modicum of privacy? Perhaps they could, but they would not.

Over the last week, the Orthodox community once again found itself mired in a scandal surrounding the life of a rabbi, and the questionable choices that he has made. The Internet is literally made for this type of episode, with the ability to share stories in a viral manner around the world. What was once a communal badly kept secret is now international news.
Without commenting on the specifics of the episode itself, this much I will say: what was once a communal fishbowl is now a global fishbowl. Blogs and websites now regularly publicize the actions of rabbis and spiritual leaders (for better or for worse), branding them eternally (via Google) leaving them no ability to defend or protect themselves. What rabbi would want to live under permanent threat of global shaming? Who could defend themselves against a vindictive congregant in a social media environment that shares and condemns first, and asks questions later - if ever? Rabbis are burning out faster than ever. If you've never lived in the fishbowl, you cannot appreciate the toll that it takes emotionally and psychologically. 
Today I watch these episodes play out over the internet and thank God that I no longer live in that fishbowl. It's just too much. And I wonder: how many rabbis leave the pulpit - or never enter it, due to the fishbowl effect? How many sane, talented young people legitimately never enter the pulpit because of episodes like these? The rabbi did sign up for a public life, but he didn't sign up to live in a never-ending reality show for his entire community.

What can you do? I guess the best thing you can do is give your rabbi some space. 
Let him work out at the gym in peace. 
You don't need to make a comment about what groceries are in his cart (really) or what his children are wearing. 
Give him and his family a bit of space. 
Protect his privacy when others talk about him and his family. 
Let him pray for his sister for as long as he needs.
Give him the privacy you yourself would want.
 
The rabbi really does live in a fishbowl. But it doesn't mean that his community has to always be watching.