The Double Standard of Religious Leadership

Why preachers should practice what they preach even more than what they believe.

A while back on a Friday afternoon I walked by a Beverly Hills restaurant. Many of my congregants were sitting having lunch at outdoor tables. I stopped to talk, and remarked to one, “I never knew this was the place to meet up with Sinai Temple.”

“Oh, Rabbi” he said, laughing, “this is nothing. You should come here Saturday after services — everyone is here!”

My synagogue is Conservative, which means that, in theory at least, people should not be spending money on the Sabbath, or shopping or driving (other than to synagogue). But here was a congregant who not only took for granted that everyone does, but also felt nothing but a mild amusement at telling the Rabbi. Yet this same congregant would have been scandalized had he seen the Rabbi there on the Sabbath.

The Conservative movement is in a strange, intermediate position: unlike the Reform movement, it officially recognizes the legitimacy of the halachic (Jewish legal) rules; unlike Orthodoxy, much if not most of the laity are very lax in conforming to them.

Many years ago, my brother Paul, a sociologist, told me of the distinction some observers have made between a criminal and a revolutionary. A revolutionary does not recognize the legitimacy of the law. In this sense, a Reform Jew can be seen as a revolutionary. The law is not necessarily bad, but it is also not binding. On the other hand, an orthodox Jew who, for instance, drives near to the synagogue and then walks so others will not see him get out of the car, is acting as a criminal. He acknowledges the legitimacy of the law even as he breaks it.

Conservative Jews feel on both sides of the divide at different moments; sometimes they feel a sense of guilt in violating this or that part of the law. Other times they feel it no longer applies, or not to them. But in all cases they still feel it should be upheld by the clergy.

As a result of this dichotomy, clergy families are in a very peculiar position. Growing up, my daughter could not do what most of her friends from the same religious day school did: go to movies or restaurants on Saturday. Most of the time she didn’t mind the fact of it, but both the theory and occasionally the restriction were onerous and, in a real sense, unfair. When there is a gap between leadership and laity, families are implicated as well.

There is a certain logic to holding clergy to a different standard. In theory, all Jews are subject to the same laws. Rabbis are not “more” obligated to keep kosher than anyone else. Nonetheless, clergy represent a system and purport to embody and transmit its values. No one expects perfection; clergy will fall and fail, as we know too well. To simply disregard the system you are giving your life to promote, however, is a high level of hypocrisy that congregants rightly resent.

Additionally, there is a paradox in all leadership. On the one hand, leaders are accorded certain privileges and have corresponding responsibilities. The price of the platform is accountability. At the same time, we don’t want leaders to assume they are somehow better. When they fail there is a certain reassurance and even delight in the schadenfreudian confirmation that everyone is human.

Yes, it is a double standard. In reality, most of us incline to double standards. We get upset when someone cuts in front of our car on the road, forgetting that we have done the same to others. Behavior we excuse in ourselves we find distasteful or disappointing when confronted by friends, family members, and even more, public figures. And in the religious sphere, we look to others to “carry” the tradition on our own behalf. The congregant may not keep kosher, but the Rabbi must, for he is the acknowledged and appointed bearer of the tradition.

What is true in ritual is true, with a twist, in morals. The Rabbi who steals money or makes a cruel remark is more blameworthy than a congregant. For the religious system the Rabbi represents is not only a ritual, but a moral framework. Here the congregant does not imagine himself exempt, but a violation is nonetheless less severe — for their entire lives are not devoted to urging the legitimacy of the moral framework. The sentiment may be summed up simply: We may be hypocritical for violating what we believe, but surely it is less hypocritical than violating what we preach. Therefore, preachers: beware.

Image © Vadim Molo

David Wolpe
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  • Martin Hughes

    I think that ‘double standard’ is being used in more than one sense here. There’s favouritism – the tendency to find excuses for ourselves or for the apples of our eye or for our side in a conflict – while expressing resentment over the same behaviour by others. There’s then the rationalised ds, where we say that because someone has a special status higher standards apply – a teacher should be specially careful in speaking about controversial subjects in the classroom, perhaps, and not give the impression that there is only one side to the story where there are really two, whereas the same is not true of a family conversation over the dinner table in a Beverly Hills restaurant – or a Wokingham one, though I’m sure the food’s less interesting. Some of these rationalisations may be more convincing than others: sometimes a teacher with a passionate conviction may educate better, I think, that one who’s all ‘on the one hand, on the other’. I’m not sure I can see the rationality of expecting the clergy to stick to rules of behaviour which the people in the pew not only do not practise but do not particularly respect. They don’t seem to have a revolutionary contempt for the law or a criminal sneakiness about breaking it – they are, on the evidence given, inclined to regard the rules as faintly absurd. Why pay someone to preach or to practise rules whose sense you can’t see? That sounds to me like ds in the third and least appealing sense, where there’s not even an attempt at rationalisation.

  • R.W.

    The good rabbi doesn’t name names, but the choice of photo speaks volumes (pun intended).

  • RS

    Someone sent me this link, the picture is of Rabbi Shimmy Susskind, Chabad Rabbi in Vernon Hills, Illinois.