Knocking the Rabbis … Into Shape
1. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking part in a Shabbos afternoon panel at Alei Tzion shul in Hendon, chaired by its Rabbi Daniel Roselaar, and consisting of Dayan Lichtenstein, Rabbi Michael Pollack and myself. The subject was whether rabbinic authority is damaged beyond repair by recent events in the UK, Israel and America.
2. You can see an account of the discussion here: http://youandus.theus.org.uk/communities-focus/alei-tzion-hosts-summer-debate-rabbinic-authority-in-the-21st-century-damaged-beyond-repair/.
3. I see from that account that I called for an independent regulatory body to work across all Botei Din.
4. And so I did; the idea had been wooffling around in my mind for some time, but the event somehow crystallised it into a simple thought.
5. The catalyst was something that Rabbi Pollack said: in a helpful attempt to keep the event peaceful and constructive he observed that most rabbis of course do a good job. In an unhelpful attempt to keep the event provocative and constructive I disagreed, and said that by and large our rabbis do a fairly mediocre job, and that we have come to expect so little from them that our expectations are easily exceeded by very moderate performance.
6. How often is a rabbi commended as wonderful for having visited a parishioner in hospital when that is no more than precisely what he is paid a hefty salary for doing? I am all in favour of rabbis and other workers being commended for performing beyond the call of duty, but that should be tested against a reasonably exacting and challenging initial threshold of what that duty should be.
7. We do have some wonderful and inspiring rabbis in the UK community today; and we have very few really bad ones; but we have a fair number of unimpressively mediocre ones; and with the system as it stands there is little impetus for them to strive to improve themselves as a profession.
8. Recent events have shown the lack of a disciplinary body, such as other professions have, for dealing with misconduct by rabbis that is not, or may not be, criminal in nature. But on reflection I see that there is an equal need for a body that can deal with issues that are not about misconduct, but merely poor performance (along the lines of the Medical Professional Performance Act that I drafted in 1995).
9. The more I think about the idea, the more useful I think it could be; and it really need not be very complicated to establish.
10. We need a group of communal activists who are prepared to act as an unpaid disciplinary body for rabbis, including a chair with experience in employment law and a panel of unpaid rabbinic advisers. Hopefully nobody would be called on to act very often, and the body could sit in separate panels (as do many professional regulatory bodies) each consisting of perhaps one person with employment law experience and two or three lay-members, with a rabbi in a purely advisory capacity.
11. Complaints about poor performance and misconduct could be referred to this body in accordance with its rules.
12. Now comes the simple bit – every new contract offered by any congregation would include a clause providing for all complaints about poor performance or misconduct to be considered by the disciplinary body in accordance with its rules. The rabbi and the employing organisation would agree to be bound by the body’s decisions.
12. There are one or two more details that might need to be thought through – but that is the essence. (Halachic enforcement considerations are significant but not insurmountable.)
13. One result would be to provide real protection for the community from misconduct and inefficiency by rabbis – much more importantly, however, the system could serve as the basis for new professional standards that rabbis could set for themselves, and therefore as a mechanism for restoring trust in, and the moral authority of, the profession that is meant to be the backbone of our religion.