Monday, May 16, 2005

Social Change and the Orthodox Rabbinate

Following is a speech given on May 15, 2005 at the national convention of the Rabbinical Council of America:

As a graduate student nearly a half century ago, I took a course on social change that was taught by Albert deGrazia. At the time, much attention was being given to technological changes, to inventions that were transforming how we live. There were advances in transportation, computers that were as large as large-size bedrooms, and television was the new rage. It was expected that what was already evident in the mid-1950's would be the tip of a technological iceberg.

There has been, of course, a stream of additional inventions, many of them wondrous and many of them affecting our lives in an important way. But they haven't really changed our lives to the extent anticipated by those who predicted subways and highways in the sky and other Buck Rogers-style fantasies. In a physical sense, the pattern of our lives hasn't changed all that much. We travel by car, train, bus and plane, as we did then. We live in houses and apartments where we rely on refrigerators and ovens as perhaps the key appliances. Where we live often looks pretty much like the way it looked fifty years ago.

By the 1950's, the process of social change was substantially underway in the move to suburbia and the corollary Black and Hispanic migrations to the inner city, as well as in the growing affluence of Americans, certainly including Jews. These are factors that have impacted importantly on Jewish life. Too many abandoned synagogues and too many congregations with rows of nearly empty pews attest to how we have been affected by these developments.

For Orthodox pulpit rabbis, however, life seems to be much like it was. They continue to serve single congregations, give sermons on Shabbos morning, speak at other occasions, teach classes, provide pastoral services, decide halachic questions and play a role in Jewish communal life. Certainly, the Shulchan Aruch is unchanged. In a dynamic world, it seems that the Rabbinate is a bastion of stability.

This picture of stability blurs too many realities. It is true that in a structural sense the rabbinate is mainly as it was. Yet, much else has been transformed. We can begin with demography or population shifts, encompassing movement into and away from communities and also the demographics of those who remain. It is not necessary to point to the Newarks and Co-op Cities of America to know how devastating out-migration can be to synagogue life, nor do we have to refer to the Five Towns to recognize the blessings of in-migration.

Even when the overall number of religious Jews living in a community remains the same, shul membership and attendance can be powerfully affected by intra-Orthodox differences or by the desire to daven in small shuls or the determination of young couples to daven with people of a like age group or the unwillingness of children to go to the synagogues that their parents go to. The once familiar sight of three generations davening together is nearly gone with the wind. Even two generations of adults together is heading in the same direction. What is not being lost as a result of these factors is being taken away by housing costs that have gone through the roof and which increasingly impel young families to move away.

There is another dimension to the generational picture. Many synagogue members are in what has been referred to as the sandwich generation, the idea being that people in the middle stages of life have responsibilities that span across three generations. I will not extend the metaphor and say that rabbis deal primarily with the middle generation that is sandwiched in-between parents and children. What I find striking is that even as the concept has taken root, it is becoming dated because of the remarkable, perhaps breathtaking, increase in life expectancy which means that a growing number of families extend across four generations. For reasons related to our fertility patterns, this development is more relevant to Orthodox life than elsewhere. In turn, pulpit rabbis are burdened with increased pastoral responsibilities. With increased responsibility there inevitably is an increased number of events.

A palm pilot or little black calendar book can tell a rabbi where he is supposed to be at a particular time. So far as I know, neither can add to the hours in the day. But while the hours have remained constant, the events have not. The line-up is familiar, including weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs, engagement parties, funerals, shiva calls and much else. What is mainly new is not the character of the events but their number, growing each year, in some measure because people are living longer and also because our families are larger. Zero population growth is not an Orthodox Jewish phenomenon. I was surprised to learn six years ago when I conducted my first day school census that there were 3.26 children in the families of Modern Orthodox day school enrollees and 4.26 children in the families of Centrist Orthodox day school enrollees. Of course, the statistics are much higher in both the yeshiva world and Chassidic sectors.

Life-cycle ceremonies are not all that rabbis must participate in. In every nook and cranny of our communal life we are blessed with organizations and where there are organizations there is fundraising and where there is fundraising there are events. When a congregant is a macher in an organization or an honoree, attendance by the rabbi is usually expected. This may mean a free supper and the Rebbitzin doesn't have to cook. Alas, the time spent is not free.

I do not know whether pulpit rabbis teach more classes than they once did.
I believe that at least some do, if only because of the daf hayomi phenomenon. Thanks to ArtScroll and the sincere desire of many to study Torah, congregants are more learned and this means that rabbis have to be better prepared. Women come into the picture because they, too, are more learned and they, too, want to learn more. If rabbis try to wing it without preparation, the deficit is readily apparent.

Greater interest in Torah study leads to the increased likelihood that halachic questions will be asked. Social and technological changes have created new issues. While the Shulchan Aruch is unchanged, its applications are often new. That's why twenty-five years ago I asked Rabbi Avrohom Cohen - I believe he is an RCA member - to become editor of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society which is published by the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.

The difficulty rabbis face is not only in finding the time to answer the multitude of questions that come their way. It is in knowing what to answer. There is an avalanche of learned books, journals, articles and other publications that can provide guidance, but this requires the allocation of scarce time. Just look at the stacks on your desk. Apart from the reading material there is the Internet which for all of its problematic qualities, conveys a wealth of Judaic information that is worthy of attention.

There are issues where halacha is clear but socio-psychological factors result in complications. Think of these two polar experiences, intermarriage and conversions. The sharply higher intermarriage rate among Jews includes increased intermarriage among those who were raised Orthodox or have been affiliated with Orthodox congregations. The practical implications of intermarriage are different nowadays, if only because unlike the historical pattern many more of the intermarried want to maintain active connections with Jewish life and with their families. This begets difficult, even sticky, situations that rabbis are required to confront.

It's evident that conversions are a new development. A generation ago, geirus was rare. I was told last year that in one New York Orthodox synagogue, more than twenty persons were studying for conversion. Each case is time-consuming and potentially wrought with difficulty. For rabbis, complications and commitment of time do not end with conversion. Halacha may tell us that when a person becomes a Jew, the biological family is no longer his or her family. Emotions and certain realities tug in an entirely different direction.

This catalogue of social change needs to include the opportunities and obligations incurred through kiruv activities. Few full-service synagogues are now totally disengaged from kiruv, which certainly was not true a generation ago when the tshuva movement arose. For those who return to Judaism, there is a journey that requires guidance and empathy and which continues after an individual has become observant. While outreach workers play an important role in this, rabbis are inevitably involved, at times intensively.

Because of time limitations, I shall not dwell on changes resulting from affluence, as their impact extends far beyond synagogue life. Affluence and its Siamese twins, hedonism and conspicuous consumption, breed situations that often land at the rabbi's doorstep. There is the flip side of having to deal with and help those who do not have and the greater difficulty of assisting those who once had.

While our relative affluence allows us to fulfill physical needs - in our homes, through travel, how we dress - it may also plant the seeds for the contagion of emotional deprivation that we are witness to. There is sadness and pain in too many families and this belies the physical comforts that we enjoy. These situations are added to the pastoral agenda of rabbis. Again, this responsibility is in its nature no different from what rabbis have always experienced. The difference is primarily quantitative.

I mentioned earlier family size as a factor adding to the burden on rabbis. There is another aspect to this. So far as I know, there is no data on the number of children in rabbinical families today as compared to a generation or more ago. I believe that there has been a significant increase, if only because this is true of Orthodox families overall. This, too, adds to the burden on rabbis who need to be available to their children, to study with them, to give them guidance and emotional support. Pulpit rabbis are also husbands and fathers. The increase in their family size and in the size of the families of close relatives also means that they have more events to go to and more personal responsibilities to fulfill.

By now, some of you may be thinking that I am describing a world that you do not recognize. I suspect that more of you believe that I am suggesting that you seek other employment. That certainly isn't the case, although as you know some talented pulpit rabbis - including people in this room - have left synagogue life to serve at organizations and institutions where the work hours are normal and the pressure is bearable. I need not tell you that the shortage of pulpit rabbis is becoming more severe, even though much attention has been paid to the problem over the past generation.

Additional social changes that will affect the rabbinate are inevitable because change is inevitable. Although we are enjoined not to prophesize, we are permitted to make projections based on what is already in the womb of time. What awaits the rabbinate is a world that awaits the rest of us, a world that will spin even faster, a world that will be even more hectic. Just think how email and the cell phone have impacted on your workday, as congregants and others are able to have immediate access to you. Too often they also want immediate action or immediate answers.

If you cannot retard social change, perhaps you can bring about changes in synagogue life that might make your work less stressful. One suggestion is to do away with the import from alien sources that mandates constant changes in lay leadership by limiting the term of the synagogue's president to two or three years. This is a foolish practice, although I recognize that the practice does not seem too foolish when the president is a dud or a petty tyrant. Overall, rapid lay leadership change results in a harder life for rabbis.

Rabbis need to reflect on how they can best use their time. They must establish rules that limit the demands made on their limited time. I doubt that this is something that can be taught; likely, it is an inherent feel for things. Yet, reflection may result in improvements.

I am a strong believer in people emphasizing what they are good at and confident about and not devoting much effort to what they do not do well. In the multiplicity of tasks confronting pulpit rabbis, a wide range of abilities are brought to bear. If a rabbi is a strong writer, he should find the time to write. If he is an outstanding speaker, the effort put into sermons is worthwhile. But if sermonizing is not his forte, that aspect of the job should be downplayed. More generally, I recommend but do not expect that sermons be given on a far less frequent basis. They should not be a weekly obligation.

There is one element of social change that can be converted into an advantage. In nearly all shuls, there are people of experience and talent, men and women with knowledge and good judgment. They are utilized in educational programs and, at times, in fulfilling other synagogue responsibilities. Their role should be expanded to include fulfilling part of the pastoral duties that are now nearly the exclusive responsibility of the rabbi.

Rabbis need to discuss with lay leaders and congregants how social change has transformed their work, how and why it isn't realistic or fair to expect rabbis to deal with all that is being put on their plate. This kind of change is not inevitable and it is difficult to achieve. Our community has over the years developed a long agenda of expectations regarding a rabbi's role and this agenda has paid scant heed to social change. It may be that what is needed, perhaps through the leadership of the Rabbinical Council, is a long-term informational program that seeks to educate the rank and file of lay people about the lives and challenges facing pulpit rabbis. If the overall climate of opinion is changed, synagogue boards and members will come to be more understanding.

There is a final transformation. Because of other changes in the Orthodox world, rabbinical leadership has a more creative role in this country than it has had for at least two generations. There are opportunities for leadership that - I believe for good reasons - were not available until recently. This change presents an opportunity and also another set of difficulties, if only because leadership is a very fragile instrumentality. My prayer is that this be an opportunity and a challenge that is addressed with fidelity to Torah.