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Virtual Talmud


Can Religious Leaders Be Perfect?

At the very beginning of my rabbinical studies, one of my teachers gave me a sage piece of advice: “Don’t let your congregants put you on a pedestal. Then they’ll spend all their time trying to knock you off of it.” The point is that clergy are often held up to unrealistic expectations–the “perfect” rabbi is supposed to make only $20,000 a year and give away $30,000 of it to tzedakah!–and then are faulted when they fail to live up to them.

The key, as my teacher was telling me, was not to get caught up in this dynamic in the first place. Don’t let your congregation start believing you’re superhuman (flawless) and don’t let yourself start believing it either.

Clergy are very human, with human strengths and weaknesses. Certainly we should be aspiring to the highest levels of ethical behavior that we can, but we also need to be honest and open about issues that we are struggling with. A rabbi who is “perfect” has nothing to teach his or her congregants, who aren’t. But a rabbi who confronts difficult issues with honesty and integrity can offer congregants a model of how to do the same in their own lives.

As Gayle Haggard, wife of disgraced evangelical minister Ted Haggard, acknowledged in a letter to her former congregation, “For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case.”

Ted Haggard, like so many other religious leaders, seemed to believe that he always had to project an image of ‘perfection’ at all costs. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Rabbi Fred Neulander, who hired a hit man to murder his wife rather than suffer the humiliation of a divorce.

Clergy need to acknowledge that we are not perfect and reach out for help when we need it, rather than trying to maintain a perfect façade that does both us and our congregants a real disservice. Worst of all, we can begin to believe about ourselves what others wish to believe about us, and then we are doomed.

Instead of holding ourselves above the congregation, we must lead from within–showing that even a flawed, imperfect, everyday person has the possibility–and obligation–to strive for honesty, holiness, and the highest of ethical standards.



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T Beck

posted November 22, 2006 at 6:18 pm


A couple of years ago, during a new member breakfast at our synagogue, our rabbi showed up late, having been playing in his usual Sunday morning softball league game. He was wearing what you’d expect – t-shirt, shorts, sneakers – and was surrounded by his 3 young children clamoring for his attention. He apologized for being late and for his attire. I thought to myself at that moment, that he had absolutely nothing to apologize for, and in fact, it was the perfect introduction. People often think the rabbi may not understand their own, real lives, and here they see this young, active, athletic man, trying to balance career with personal pursuits, pestered by his children the same way they are – what better way to see that the rabbi will obviously understand their concerns, since these are his concerns, too.



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T Beck

posted November 22, 2006 at 6:18 pm


A couple of years ago, during a new member breakfast at our synagogue, our rabbi showed up late, having been playing in his usual Sunday morning softball league game. He was wearing what you’d expect – t-shirt, shorts, sneakers – and was surrounded by his 3 young children clamoring for his attention. He apologized for being late and for his attire. I thought to myself at that moment, that he had absolutely nothing to apologize for, and in fact, it was the perfect introduction. People often think the rabbi may not understand their own, real lives, and here they see this young, active, athletic man, trying to balance career with personal pursuits, pestered by his children the same way they are – what better way to see that the rabbi will obviously understand their concerns, since these are his concerns, too.



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Chana Silverman

posted November 23, 2006 at 3:18 pm


Previous commet so perfecty describes a Rabbi to love and respect. We do expect our Rabbis to be more knowledgeable than a “lay person” as they have had an extensive education and we do expect a high level of moral integrity. “Perfection” is in the eye of the beholder as we are unable to look inside the heart. My Rabbi wears his heart on his jacket and it shines in his eyes, but I know he is just as human as everyone else. For Mr. Haggard to sucumb to a such a low degree of sexual immorality is sadly shocking. He did not just jump off of the precipice in one leap, he slowly descended one step at a tme. I am sure there where signs all along the way his choices would end in disasterous results; However, lust can be very self-deceiving. It is a good thing for him to have been discoverd, for now he has a chance to open himself to healing and deal with all his “demons”, and his “golden calf” of choice, to renounce. I am sure drinking the bitter waters he is surely drinking must be pretty unbearable. My heart goes out to him. We make a big mistake when we “idolize” our leaders, our teachers. There is a difference between a wolf in sheeps clothing and a sheep who has strayed. In our humaness, and with HaShem’s help we can be wise to the ways of the wolf and we can know the possibility of a descent is in everyone. This should make us cling to HaShem with all our being. We have been delivered from “Eqypt” and the Law is our sheild. G-d help us if we forget that. Our leaders should also know to whom much is given, much is required and that the light bulbs are always on them, as Rabbi Waxman says:” not to hold oneself above the congreation and to display the highest of ethical standards.” This must be a terrible “test of faith” for Mr. Haggard’s followers and challenge everything they have hiether to believed in. Maybe that is a good thing. Having our beliefs challenged makes us grow up and do our own soul searching.



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Chana Silverman

posted November 23, 2006 at 3:18 pm


Previous commet so perfecty describes a Rabbi to love and respect. We do expect our Rabbis to be more knowledgeable than a “lay person” as they have had an extensive education and we do expect a high level of moral integrity. “Perfection” is in the eye of the beholder as we are unable to look inside the heart. My Rabbi wears his heart on his jacket and it shines in his eyes, but I know he is just as human as everyone else. For Mr. Haggard to sucumb to a such a low degree of sexual immorality is sadly shocking. He did not just jump off of the precipice in one leap, he slowly descended one step at a tme. I am sure there where signs all along the way his choices would end in disasterous results; However, lust can be very self-deceiving. It is a good thing for him to have been discoverd, for now he has a chance to open himself to healing and deal with all his “demons”, and his “golden calf” of choice, to renounce. I am sure drinking the bitter waters he is surely drinking must be pretty unbearable. My heart goes out to him. We make a big mistake when we “idolize” our leaders, our teachers. There is a difference between a wolf in sheeps clothing and a sheep who has strayed. In our humaness, and with HaShem’s help we can be wise to the ways of the wolf and we can know the possibility of a descent is in everyone. This should make us cling to HaShem with all our being. We have been delivered from “Eqypt” and the Law is our sheild. G-d help us if we forget that. Our leaders should also know to whom much is given, much is required and that the light bulbs are always on them, as Rabbi Waxman says:” not to hold oneself above the congreation and to display the highest of ethical standards.” This must be a terrible “test of faith” for Mr. Haggard’s followers and challenge everything they have hiether to believed in. Maybe that is a good thing. Having our beliefs challenged makes us grow up and do our own soul searching.



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L Kanterman

posted November 24, 2006 at 2:33 pm


I don’t think anyone expects a rabbi to be “perfect”, but I do think congregants have the right to expect a rabbi to try to set a good example. We once had a rabbi who preached about ethical behavior and then weaseled his way out of his contract when a better opportunity for him personally came along. This sent a very clear mesage – ethical principles are important as abstracts but when it comes to economic self-interest the dollar trumps the princ iple. Is this the kind of example a clergyperson really wants to set, the kind of message they want to send?



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L Kanterman

posted November 24, 2006 at 2:33 pm


I don’t think anyone expects a rabbi to be “perfect”, but I do think congregants have the right to expect a rabbi to try to set a good example. We once had a rabbi who preached about ethical behavior and then weaseled his way out of his contract when a better opportunity for him personally came along. This sent a very clear mesage – ethical principles are important as abstracts but when it comes to economic self-interest the dollar trumps the princ iple. Is this the kind of example a clergyperson really wants to set, the kind of message they want to send?



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Deborah

posted December 3, 2006 at 3:09 am


We are all of us supposed to be good examples one to another, not just the teachers, and the preachers, and the leaders. And I read what you wrote about the ‘church’ paying you $20,000 yr and expecting you to give $30,000yr at their whim. I believe the Jewish people are supposed to tithe, and we might should too, and it is more blessed to give that to receive when done in a cheerful manner, but ‘the church’ does not dictate how the preacher, or teacher is to spend their money, or who to give it to. That kind of a congregation should ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own busines and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependant on anybody.’ If that kind of people does that, there will be no time for invading someone else’s private affairs, that has the same rights as they have, and should be thoroughly respected as such. Anyway, preachers have the option of putting the congregation in their place, and should do so, if called by God to be a shepherd or a leader, or I would say, ‘No thanks, bye-bye, and lead yourselves. Purely personal thought there at the last. Anyway, don’t let people push you into anything that you know is wrong, and not even scriptural in the least, if they want ‘called’ then the shepherd is the shepherd and the church is the church not to be blind in faith, but to search out the scripture, ’cause, we are all human and we are all still learning, and are supposed to be a support to one another, not to tear one another down or apart or to take undue advantage of anyone whatsoever, and that means for them not to take undue advantage of you either, teacher or preacher or shepherd. Hope this will be taken in the light that it was written. ‘Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’



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Deborah

posted December 3, 2006 at 3:09 am


We are all of us supposed to be good examples one to another, not just the teachers, and the preachers, and the leaders. And I read what you wrote about the ‘church’ paying you $20,000 yr and expecting you to give $30,000yr at their whim. I believe the Jewish people are supposed to tithe, and we might should too, and it is more blessed to give that to receive when done in a cheerful manner, but ‘the church’ does not dictate how the preacher, or teacher is to spend their money, or who to give it to. That kind of a congregation should ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own busines and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependant on anybody.’ If that kind of people does that, there will be no time for invading someone else’s private affairs, that has the same rights as they have, and should be thoroughly respected as such. Anyway, preachers have the option of putting the congregation in their place, and should do so, if called by God to be a shepherd or a leader, or I would say, ‘No thanks, bye-bye, and lead yourselves. Purely personal thought there at the last. Anyway, don’t let people push you into anything that you know is wrong, and not even scriptural in the least, if they want ‘called’ then the shepherd is the shepherd and the church is the church not to be blind in faith, but to search out the scripture, ’cause, we are all human and we are all still learning, and are supposed to be a support to one another, not to tear one another down or apart or to take undue advantage of anyone whatsoever, and that means for them not to take undue advantage of you either, teacher or preacher or shepherd. Hope this will be taken in the light that it was written. ‘Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’



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Rachel

posted December 5, 2006 at 9:20 pm


My father was a pastor (not Jewish, but bear with me…) — and his congregation loved him so much, thought he was so caring, loving, understanding. And he was — to them. Unfortunately, he was not nearly as caring, loving, understanding to his own children. And I have the therapy bills to prove it (!). I would suggest to any member of the clergy that they strive to set a good example of living a good life, while having a *real* life, in both personal and professional arenas. And letting their children know it is okay to make mistakes, as well.



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Rachel

posted December 5, 2006 at 9:20 pm


My father was a pastor (not Jewish, but bear with me…) — and his congregation loved him so much, thought he was so caring, loving, understanding. And he was — to them. Unfortunately, he was not nearly as caring, loving, understanding to his own children. And I have the therapy bills to prove it (!). I would suggest to any member of the clergy that they strive to set a good example of living a good life, while having a *real* life, in both personal and professional arenas. And letting their children know it is okay to make mistakes, as well.



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L Kanterman

posted December 6, 2006 at 6:02 pm


The comment about a rabbi getting a $20,000 salary and then being expected to give $30,000 to charity is just an example of hyperbole that is common in Jewish humor. In reality, may (if not most) Conservative and Reform rabbis make close to if not above $100,000, and the highest paid make >$200,000. Some Orthodox rabbis have very small congregations that can only pay a small salary, but Jewish clergy are not expected to live a life of poverty.



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L Kanterman

posted December 6, 2006 at 6:02 pm


The comment about a rabbi getting a $20,000 salary and then being expected to give $30,000 to charity is just an example of hyperbole that is common in Jewish humor. In reality, may (if not most) Conservative and Reform rabbis make close to if not above $100,000, and the highest paid make >$200,000. Some Orthodox rabbis have very small congregations that can only pay a small salary, but Jewish clergy are not expected to live a life of poverty.



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Deborah

posted December 7, 2006 at 9:30 am


That’s good to know. Smile



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Deborah

posted December 7, 2006 at 9:30 am


That’s good to know. Smile



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