Sign In Forgot Password

A Rabbi’s Job: Afflict The Comfortable and Comfort The Afflicted

by Rabbi Eric Solomon

When God commanded Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) to go to Pharoah and say, “Let my people go!”— Moshe was far from enthusiastic.

His response was, essentially, “Who, me?“

Still, fairly quickly, God was able to persuade Moshe that he was the right person for the job. And in the process, the model for Jewish leadership was born.

How so? Moshe was not only commanded to tell Pharoah things he didn’t want to hear. Equally as important, Moshe was told to tell his own people things that they didn’t want to hear. Remember: Not all of our people were eager to leave Egypt.

From that point onward, the standard was set: A Jewish leader is not just one who speaks out to the world about injustice; a Jewish leader speaks inward as well, to their own community.

Let’s not underestimate how challenging that can be.

An example: In the 1960s American South, historians recorded numerous cases when rabbis spoke from the bimah about the moral imperative of Civil Rights. While many of us tend to focus on the numerous congregations who — at some risk — embraced that message, the more difficult truth is that not every congregation heeded their rabbis’ calls. 

In fact, many rabbis risked their careers and lost their jobs by sharing their Torah-based message for equality with their congregations.

The American idea that a clergy person has the right to freely speak their interpretation of the Torah is called, “Freedom of the Pulpit.” In nearly all rabbinical contracts (including mine and Rabbi Jenny’s), there are clauses detailing that we have the unfettered right to interpret and share moral messages of the Torah without interference.

Note that this is in complete contradistinction to undemocratic countries throughout the world. In Imam Abdullah Antepli’s recent sermon to our shul in response to the antisemitic attack in Colleyville, Texas, he stated as an aside, that many countries around the world (e.g. Egypt, Turkey) dictate to religious leaders what they can and cannot preach. They do not have the American freedom to speak their minds.

To be clear, when Rabbi Jenny or I offer our Torah-rooted perspective on a social justice issue, we do not expect our entire congregation to rise up with a collective, “Amen!” While it certainly would be nice, we are fully aware that when you have two Jews, there are at least three opinions. We believe that a diversity of views is a Jewish value that is as ancient as the Talmud.

The key word is “our.” These are our interpretations and our positions, not necessarily Beth Meyer Synagogue’s position. In those cases when our congregation seeks to take a stand on an issue-of-the-day (e.g. HB-2), our board takes a formal vote. If a vote passes, then we can clearly state that Beth Meyer Synagogue believes “X”. Without that vote, the Torah interpretations of the rabbis are ours alone.

There is some complexity here for when we serve as Beth Meyer’s rabbis, a privilege we do not take lightly; the public will often associate our public statements with our congregation. We are mindful of that association and take it very seriously.

In the end, by hiring Rabbis Solomon, we have forged a unique covenant together. One in which you asked us to follow the great teaching of Rabbi Israel Salanter, a great German rabbi from the 1800s: “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.” Or, similarly stated by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a clergyperson’s job is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

We promise you that we will never take a Torah-based social justice position without deep thought, study, and prayer. And we will always do our best to open our hearts and ears to those who thoughtfully and respectfully disagree.

In that way, we will be following the Jewish leadership model which has helped our people to flourish for thousands of years. It all started at the Burning Bush when God told Moshe it’s time to tell Pharaoh, and our own people, some things they did not readily want to hear.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784