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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
On The Role of the Synagogue President
I was sitting at home the other day learning Toirah – specifically, the linkages between Hilchois Nashim and Hilchois Malkus Arbaim, based on some recent educational materials starring Rebbetzin Jenna Jameson and Rabbi Yerachmiel Schneiderman (more popularly known as Rick the Schlong) -- when the phone rang. After thoroughly performing Netilas Yadayim, I picked up the phone to hear the shrill voice of the President of my Kehilla, asking my input on whether it was OK for the Shul to substitute blended scotch for single malt for the weekly Kiddush club. After berating the Minuval for interrupting my Limud Toirah for such Narishkeit, I pointed to a Gemarrah in Nezikin which brings down a Braisah where Rabbi Elazer Ben Azariah castigates Ben Hey Hey for serving “Sheissmead” at Kiddush instead of Yayin Shaychur.
The President should have known better. Last year he called me about delaying the start of our main Minyan so that several members of the Kehilla wouldn’t miss their Pilates classes.
What is this role of President of a synagogue? What is the basis of this role, which clearly violates the Toirah’s intentions of the Rabbi having complete authority over all of Klal Yisroel during every second of the day?
As best as can be determined, the role of the Shul President was established by Reb Yankif Emden, as a response to the Shabsai Tzvi phenomenon. In his siddur, Ka’as Shel Yaakov, Reb Yankif includes a prayer for the well being of the Shul President, and in an introduction to the prayer notes the importance of balancing the sacred guidance of the Rabbi with popular support of the President and the Board on all issues of consequence, “especially the year prior to contract renewal,” unquote.
The importance of the Shul President is not addressed extensively until relatively recent times. The topic does, however, receive detailed attention in the She’alois V’Tshuvois of the 1950s. Reb Moishe Feinstein responds to a letter in 1952 from “Curious in Connecticut” asking whether Shuls need Presidents, as well as Vice Presidents, Treasurers and Secretaries of Defense. Reb Moishe states that while he is not personally in favor of Shul Presidents, “recent circumstances highlight the need to acknowledge secular concerns and monitor current events, since the Reboinoisheloilum is certainly asleep at the wheel.”
Commenting on Reb Moishe’s Teshuvah, Reb Aaron Kutler notes his agreement with Reb Moishe’s position. Writes Reb Aaron, “I would not have agreed with this position in 1935; but given our recent history, it’s probably a good idea.” According to Reb Aaron, reliance on Rabbinic leadership for religious guidance inherently assumes that there is a God, and “given that my entire family in Europe was turned by the Nazis into a box of overcooked Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, I can no longer subscribe to any ideology that requires the existence of Hakadoshboruchhu. Either that, or He is a total dick.”
Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky, however, disagrees vociferously, referring to Reb Aaron as a “Shaygitz with a nice hat.” He insists that there is in fact an Aimishteh, but that the decimation of the Jews is not a reflection of the Reboinoisheloilum’s intent, since there is “free will.” These comments were made in a Teshuvah where Reb Yankif declared it a requirement MiDioraisa for a man to always carry a couple of “Kishka skins” in his wallet, since one never knows when the opportunity might arise to exercise free will in the backseat of an Oldsmobile.
The Steipler Ruv builds upon Reb Yaakov Kaminitsky’s position, noting that the existence of free will necessarily implies that Hakadoshboruchhu is not involved in the activities of the world, for if there is total free will for all human inhabitants, how can the Aimishteh influence their activities?
Consequently, according to The Steipler, there can be no consequences, reward or punishment, good or bad, delivered to this world by any human agent, since, by definition, all of humanity acts through free will, not at the whim of the Reboinoisheloilum. Therefore, says The Steipler, the only ways that Hakadoshboruchhu can influence this world are through disease, natural disaster, and aliens from other planets. And since disease and natural disaster randomly affect all humanity including the innocent and children, then we must conclude that they too cannot function as agents of the Aimishteh, otherwise, in the words of The Steiper, “He is one pretty twisted Dude.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe acknowledges the positions of Reb Moishe, Reb Aaron, Reb Yankif, and The Steipler, referring to them as “my dry Misnagid brothers, who have about as much spirituality in them as an oversqueezed lemon has juice.” He cites the Kabbalistic principle of Tzimtzum in explaining the role of the Reboinoisheloilum in the world. Tzimtzum, originally described by the Ari ZAHL, refers to the Divine withdrawal of a part of His own essence in order to create space for the physical world. Notes the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Hakadoshboruchhu’s act of self limitation is not merely a physical description of time and space, but also applies to His involvement in the world. In creating the world, He chose to withdraw from direct engagement in world affairs, and therefore is not the source of human suffering, Jewish or otherwise. At most, comments the Rebbe, the Aimishteh’s involvement in the world is akin to “a child looking at the fish tank while waiting for her appointment at the orthodontist, moderately interested until she picks up the most recent edition of People magazine.”
However, Reb Oivadia Yoisaiph holds Farkhert to all of the above positions. Says Maran, there is in fact a Reboinoisheloilum, and He is fully engaged in the activities of the world. With regard to the tragedy that befell European Jewry, he states, “…People are upset and ask why was there a Holocaust? Woe to us, for we have sinned… All those poor people in the Holocaust…we wonder why it was done. There were righteous people among them. Still, they were punished because of sins of past generations" (an actual quote from a speech made in the year 2000). Of course, Reb Oivadia made similar comments about a variety of topics towards the end of his life, exemplifying the fact that after a certain number of years, even a great mind, like a fine steak, eventually turns to excrement.
This broad debate about the role of Hakkadosboruchhu in the world leaves us, all of us, with fundamental questions regarding how we, in our world, should relate to the Aimishteh, and what role should synagogue life play. If He does not exist, then why waste our time? If He is evil or sadistic, then why bother? If He is playing for another team, and indeed punished Klal Yisroel for rejecting Christ, Joseph Smith, Shariah, Buddha, Baal, or Jim Jones, then why not switch teams? But if He does exist, and He is accessible to our tradition, what is the purpose of prayer and fulfilling the Mitzvois?
This complex set of questions lies at the core of synagogue life, and is at the heart of the delicate balance between the roles of the Shul President and the Rabbi. The synagogue President is a lay leader representing Gashmiyus to the Rabbi’s Ruchniyus. The President represents the congregants, while the Rabbi represents the voice of tradition. The President represents the blank page, while the Rabbi represents the ink and the letters. The President represents the velvet cloth, while the Rabbi represents the embroidery. The President represents the pasta, while the Rabbi represents the sauce. The President represents the water, while the Rabbi represents the Kool-Ade. The President represents the tonic water, while the Rabbi represents the gin. The President represents the eggs, while the Rabbi represents the bacon. I think you know what I mean.
For those of us who have not rejected the Reboinoisheloilum despite rational arguments and bitter historical experience, we sit in prayer, worshipping a Diety that we cannot begin to understand, using forms and words and practices that are bound in tradition, even when they make little sense to us. The role of the Rabbi is to balance our reality with a proud tradition, synthesizing texts and philosophies with practical considerations. But it is the role of the President to serve as a counterbalance against Rabbinic excesses. If the Rabbi enforces excessive measures of Kashruth beyond rational or economic considerations, the President must speak out. If the Rabbi suggests an overly stringent form of Sabbath laws, the President must speak out. If the Rabbi engages in extramarital affairs, the President must speak out. If the Rabbi coerces a woman whom he is overseeing through the conversion process into having an affair with him, then the president must speak out. If the Rabbi engages in improper relationships with children or adolescents, male or female, then the President must speak out. If the Rabbi implies that rape victims are responsible for being raped, then the President must speak out. If the Rabbi condemns a Kiddush in his synagogue honoring the IDF, whom he had previously compared to Nazis, then the President must speak out.
For if the President does not hold up his (or her) end of the equation, then Jewish communal life falls off kilter, and we may as well skip Shul and make Rabbinic decisions for ourselves, using the latest educational materials from Rebbetzin Jameson and other Gedoilei HaDor.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess