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Hear the one about the vicar and the rabbi?

11 May 2018

The dilemmas faced by clergy and rabbis are not so different, argues Jonathan Romain

IF THE heading of this article is the opening line of many a joke, it is based on the assumption that it is an unlikely pairing, made even more extraordinary by situating them in a bar, or in the gondola of a hot-air balloon.

The reality is that there is no reason that we should not be best buddies; for we are often mirror images of each other, sharing a pattern of work, and dealing with similar issues: services, faith schools, adult education, baby blessings, weddings, funerals, hospital visits, or talks to schoolchildren.

One of the first lessons that I learnt as a rabbi was that most of the lessons that I had learnt at rabbinic training college were irrelevant. Yes, all the learned texts and theological issues were important to master, and there can be no short cuts in academic rigour, but the issues that confronted me over the next few decades were primarily pastoral, and needed a mix of common sense, diplomacy, and kindness.

Similarly, an Anglican colleague told me that he was rarely asked to opine on Aquinas’s critique of St Augustine, but often had to referee between warring couples or advise on benefits for single parents.

Of course, we both agree that this, too, is God’s work, and just as valuable. In fact, it is curious that, although many of our flocks think of our job as largely liturgical — when we are most “on display” — in practice, most of our time is with individuals or small groups, listening, helping, and teaching, often away from public view.

In this respect, my father was wrong to have worried that going into the ministry would cut me off from ordinary life, exiling me to an ivory-tower existence. Instead, I have been embroiled in a roller-coaster of domestic crises, emotional traumas, moral dilemmas, and Machiavellian families, dealing with funerals and weddings that didn’t go to plan, while fighting my way through a maze of other people’s fantasies

One example is Bob and Eve (not their real names), a couple heavily involved in the community. One day, Eve rang to ask me to come round as soon as possible. She had come home early to find Bob in bed with a neighbour, and asked him to leave. She added that, to the best of her knowledge, it was the first time he had been unfaithful. During the conversation, I said that, shocking as this must have been for her, people had lapses and later regretted them. If that applied to Bob, would she take him back?

It was then that the truth emerged. No, she told me confidentially, she was glad to be rid of him; for beneath the genial exterior he had bullied her throughout their married life. He had been considerate in public, but constantly humiliated her in private. He had also abused her physically. She had never had the courage to speak out, becoming increasingly submissive over the years; but, having been shocked into action by the sexual betrayal, she was certainly not going to let him take control over her again

Eve applied for a divorce and moved away, but Bob remained part of the community. Bob knew I was aware of the affair, but not that I had been told about the abuse. After a couple of years, he began dating another member, and my dilemma began.

Should I tell her about his past behaviour? Was it right for me to break a secret? It might be that the nature of the new relationship was such that he would not treat her the way he had treated Eve. Would it be wrong of me to prejudice what might be a good second marriage for both of them? Or was it irresponsible to withhold information about a serious character defect that she might discover only once it was too late? Yes, people can change, but often they do not. A man who abused one woman was likely to abuse another.

I decided that the greater harm would come from silence. She took it very calmly, and initially nothing changed, but some months later the relationship ended.

Consider, too, Ronnie and Celia, who had a good marriage, cut short when he had a brain haemorrhage in his mid-forties. He had fallen into a a deep coma, and there was no hope of recovery. Celia visited him in the local hospital daily, but without receiving the slightest response from him for more than two years. She began to dread sitting alone with the man she still loved but with whom she could no longer communicate.

When she mentioned this to a new neighbour who had recently divorced, he offered to accompany her. The one-off became regular trips, and, after a while, they started a relationship. They still both visited Ronnie, but went back to the same home afterwards.

She was clearly a much happier person than before, and the haunted look she had acquired after her lonely visits had disappeared. Yet she also felt guilty that she was letting him down and betraying him. She came to ask me what she should do.

I was torn. It was adultery, and yet Ronnie was not neglected, and she had a right to happiness. Was it necessary for her to be entombed with him, or did she have a right to renew her life? She could divorce him, but felt that would be abandoning him.

I felt that, technically, her behaviour was wrong, but reckoned that morally it was justifiable. It may not be the way that other husbands and wives would react in similar circumstances, but I could not find it in me to deny her practical happiness.

I expect these episodes will resonate with clergy. They illustrate a tug of loyalties: Eve was the wronged spouse, but she left the area and so Bob was now in my care; Ronnie was the more vulnerable, and yet Celia needed me, too.

They are also examples of encounters where there is no clear way to proceed. Rituals have a set format, but human relationships can depend so much on the character of those involved, and I had to chose between respecting Eve’s confidence and the good of Bob’s new partner.

Third, it may well that such cases are better dealt with by trained counsellors or other agencies, but, while we can refer individuals elsewhere, many have come to us because they want us to deal with them.

These stories also raise questions about where clergy turn when they feel out of their depth or emotionally drained. Bigger synagogues, like churches, have team ministries, and, although the weekly meetings are intended to enable us to co-ordinate diaries, they are also an opportunity to offload problems or share quandaries.

Occupying the dual position of both CEO and employee, with both human and heavenly masters, we are constantly wrestling with questions: when to lead decisively and when to gently suggest options; when to condemn and when to nurture; when to stay silent.

Those in sole ministries either have to be very resilient, or create their own support group, within their flock or outside it. A modern boon is the advent of the internet, which means that online rabbinic chat groups — or Skype circles — now offer advice and support that were previously lacking.

What is very apparent is the variety of work patterns among rabbis. Some operate in office hours only, whereas others make themselves available at all times. Some are based largely in their study; others are out and about most of the day. I far prefer to meet people in their homes, as I get a much greater sense of who they really are.

That diversity extends to our abilities, too: some are wonderful at pastoral work, but woeful at sermons; others are the reverse. Most congregations will tolerate both types, knowing that the perfect rabbi is myth, but quickly see through those who are pretentious or lazy.

Noticeable, too, is how some rabbis focus entirely on their congregation, whereas others see an important part of their task as widening their flocks’ horizons to engage in interfaith dialogue, environmental issues, or other causes. We need to both comfort the discomforted, and discomfort the comfortable.

Sometimes, people need to take precedence over theology. I discovered this when Jenny lost one of her two sons when the car he was driving hit a tree. There were no skid marks, other car, depression, drink, or drugs to explain why it happened. It was a mystery.

Next week, she came to synagogue. After the service, she said: “God killed my son to punish me for not coming to services; so from now on I am attending.” I was appalled and said that was not the way God worked.

She came the following week, gave me the same reason, and I argued back. This continued for months, and I became increasingly frustrated with my inability to counter her view. Then I got it. It gave her a reason for her son’s death. Like many people, she preferred a bad explanation to no explanation.

It also gave her the ability to counter that apparently punitive God by coming to services, and thereby protect her other son. I stopped arguing, she was content, and came happily for the rest of her life. I had lost the religious argument completely, but helped a member of the congregation. Knowing when to lose gracefully, even when we are in the right, is perhaps another necessary skill.

As a 19th-century rabbi put it: “A minister whose congregation doesn’t want to run him out of town is no minister; and a minister whose congregation succeeds in running him out of town is no man.”

This may be putting it in more adversarial terms than is necessary, but it expresses the tension between being popular enough to work with people and independent enough to lead them in what we think is the best way.

For all the difficulties — including the weight of administration — virtually all rabbis would say what a wonderful job it is: a unique opportunity to be involved in people’s lives, try to shape them for good, build up a sense of community, and bring others into a sense of God.

If it is not too heretical a thought, perhaps we rabbis and priests often have more in common with each other than we have with our respective flocks — and might make the best support for each other, even in a bar or under a hot-air balloon.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is Minister of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of Confessions of a Rabbi (Biteback, £12.99).

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