I know them. I’ve been at the shul for 16 years now. I know who comes to the daily minyan, and who comes Friday night. I know who sits where at Saturday morning services. I even know what time people will arrive, who on time, who 10 minutes late. I know my sleepers – those congregants who, within a minute and a half of anyone speaking (I don’t take it personally!) will be dozing comfortably in their chairs. I know their politics – who is ‘liberal,’ who ‘conservative,’ who believes Obama is ‘trying to destroy America,’ and who thinks Israel has lost its moral compass. I know who will call me the day after a meeting with a comment or concern, and who, during a meeting, will be critical. I know who will ask the awkward question in a class, and who will make the thoughtful comment. We are all creatures of habit.
So it was that I was not surprised when a congregant made a bee line for me after services recently, when I had given a sermon about Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land. This congregant cannot tolerate any negative thing said, or even implied, about Israel. It doesn’t matter if what is said is true. It doesn’t even matter if it is important for people to know about, or if the overall message of the sermon was that Israel is a fabulous place. The congregant has a zero tolerance policy, like a drug free zone around a school. In the sermon I touched on some of the troubling passages in Shavit’s book, namely his description of events in Lydda in the War of Independence, and his military reserve service in the Gaza Prison Camp. I knew, as I walked from my office to the kiddish, that my congregant would be waiting for me, angry.
It is OK. I don’t mind, as long as a sense of respect guides the conversation. And the truth is, if you have a good relationship with someone, based on time, based on a sense of warmth and shared experience, you can have these disagreements and, as the saying goes, ‘agree to disagree.’ There is a lot of talk these days about ‘relational’ Judaism, the idea that a congregation has to be a place of relationships, and the rabbi should be at the center. But the truth is the rabbi has a twofold role in congregational life – on the one hand, relational, helping people feel they are part of a real community, a caring, warm, and connected group with common concerns and interests. On the other hand, the rabbi has to be confrontational. Reminding people that the tradition at times confronts them with things they are not comfortable with, things they may not like or agree with. It doesn’t have to be nasty – confrontation can be respectful, thoughtful, challenging. But the rabbi who doesn’t make his congregants a bit uncomfortable sometimes is not doing his or her job. It IS a tough job. But someone has to do it. And as long as it is in the right measure, and done the right way, everyone will be fine.