I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi Waxman that clergy, of any faith, must be careful to see themselves, and allow themselves to be seen, as real human beings with human weaknesses and flaws. As Henri Nouwen so eloquently writes in his book, “The Wounded Healer,” this ability to identify others’ suffering with the suffering in our own hearts, rather than maintain a role of aloofness, is a prerequisite for true ministering to the needy.
Judaism has always treated its clergy in this way to a degree, in the sense that a rabbi is supposed to marry and have children, be responsible to his or her parents, and is expected to be human enough to struggle with the same temptations that other people face. The difference, I would caution, is that as rabbis (or any clergy) we have a special obligation to strive for and surmount temptation and thereby model correct ethical behavior even in our most intimate and familial relations.
When we fail to follow even a basic modicum of morality, as did Ted Haggard, we should be held accountable for falling from a higher standard, as he has been. He does a disservice not only to those he personally hurt, but to the trust all people place in their clergy.
There is a debate in Judaism’s Conservative movement about whether rabbis should be just like everyone else or whether we should strive to be symbolic exemplars, according to Rabbi Jack Bloom, author of “The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar.” While I embrace Nouwen’s approach, I also embrace Bloom’s. For example, I can meet a congregant in the gym and share the challenges of sticking to our exercise routines, and then find that the next encounter with that congregant places me in a pastoral role, conferring on a problem.
For years, I tried to go incognito, particularly while on vacation. Invariably, we would meet someone high up on a trail in a national park, when I certainly did not look very rabbinic, who recognized me and wanted to talk. I realized that being a rabbi has less to do with what we are wearing and where we are standing and everything to do with having an open heart while living in the presence of God.
This is the burden and the blessing of the rabbinate. We are always rabbis, just like doctors are always doctors. It is a part of who we are, and to deny, or hide, or try to escape it does no one any good.
What we and our congregants need is our ability to synthesize everything we are as part of our rabbinic identity. That my rabbinate includes my ability to share my own wounds and challenges empowers my congregants and opens my own heart to them. I also share my efforts to strive to constantly walk in God’s ways and do God’s will, as our tradition understands it.
I agree with Rabbi Waxman: I hope my congregants know enough not to place me on a pedestal, but I also hope my actions in God’s service engender their respect not of me in particular but of Judaism as a way of life worthy of their allegiance.
–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman