Being a pulpit rabbi is no easy task. Doctors are either on-call or not. Police officers are either on-duty or not. Taxi drivers are on the meter or not. Pulpit rabbis, however, do not have the luxury of being off-duty. At least in theory and often in practice, pulpit rabbis remain at the beckon call of their clients—those pesky congregants—24 hours a day and, as The Beatles used to sing, “Eight Days A Week.”
The question is: given such onerous work conditions, why would any rationale human being choose to become a pulpit rabbi?
Granted, some rabbinic tasks involve wonderfully joyful occasions. For example, rabbis preside over bar and bat mitzvahs, which usually are positive experiences unless the child (i) has a stage fright-induced panic attack, (ii) loses an eye during the candy throwing or (iii) thanks everyone in the room except for the rabbi. (Note: Any such omission can easily be rectified by an obscenely large contribution to the rabbi’s discretionary fund.)
Pulpit rabbis also officiate weddings, which typically are beautiful and heart-warming unless the bride or groom has a last-minute change of heart while standing under the chuppah. Under those unfortunate conditions, the officiating rabbi must make some tough decisions, the most important being whether to let the non-refundable catered affair go to waste (canceled) or to waist (consumed).
Pulpit rabbis also preside over funerals, which actually can be moving and comforting experiences for the bereaved, unless the rabbi knows absolutely nothing about the deceased. (Then again, it’s not as if the dearly departed is in a position to fact-check.) A rabbi’s speech at a funeral also can be challenging if the deceased was objectively insufferable and universally disliked. Most rabbis, however, know how to deliver Oscar award-winning eulogies, miraculously transforming any menace into a mensch. (Does the rabbinical school curriculum include Acting 101?)
Pulpit rabbis also must deliver powerful and meaningful weekly sermons, which usually are well-received unless there is a hot kiddush waiting. Coming up with material every week is no small task, so rabbis should be applauded for their creativity. On the flipside, rabbis who unoriginally recycle the same speeches year in and year out should be punished in one of the following ways: (i) 1-month demotion to junior congregation, (ii) 2-month kiddush clean-up duty or (iii) 3-month duty as rabbi, chazzan and shul president. (Yes, that is the Jewish version of a triple-threat, i.e., a rabbi who can deliver a speech, carry a tune and read the weekly announcements, all without inducing congregants to revoke their memberships on the spot.)
Pulpit rabbis also must act like they know (or at least recognize) each and every one of their congregants, which is reasonable unless the rabbi has no long-term memory, facial recognition or social skills. On this note, I’m sure that all rabbis dread welcoming someone as a newcomer, only to find out that they’ve been a member for decades. The only thing worse is when a rabbi speaks at a bar or bat mitzvah and waxes poetic about the child and the parents, but then completely mispronounces their names. (Goodbye credibility, goodbye.)
Pulpit rabbis also have the unenviable task of scolding talkative congregants whose gossiping disturbs the prayer service. Of course, excessive chatter can become a major nuisance requiring a robust reprimand. Thus, I’m guessing that if halachically permissible, some rabbis would gladly patrol the pews with congregant-specific eject buttons and trapdoor levers. (Many rabbis may secretly have these devices at their fingertips but the specter of criminal and civil liability can understandably make anyone a bit gun-shy.)
Sometimes pulpit rabbis must deal with extreme emergencies like when (i) a couple specifically orders plain white tablecloths for their shul event but the in-house caterer instead uses off-white (Oh, the horror!); (ii) a child is innocently excluded from a playdate and doesn’t really care at all but the parents stay up all night crying and then go on the warpath (Oh, the humanity!); or (iii) an incredibly undeserving and unlikeable couple is honored at the synagogue dinner and someone has to say something positive about them (“Tonight’s honorees are punctual and... Jewish... and they are not serial killers. So let’s give them a round of applause!”)
When pulpit rabbis retire and hole up in their homes, it can be very hard to keep their uber-needy and psychotically-clingy congregants away, no matter how sharp the barbed wire fencing, no matter how deep the moat and no matter how well-placed the landmines. There is, however, one effective deterrent: a sermon siren. In other words, whenever a congregant approaches, the rabbi should just call out, “In this week’s parsha...” That should have them running for the hills.
Bottom-line: When an overbearing pulpit rabbi is secretly controlled by a shul president who is pulling all of the strings from the behind the scenes, the rabbi is nothing more than a “pulpit” dictator.
By Jon Kranz