December 11, 2019

Moral Expectations vs. Religious Obligations

This past week I spent five days studying with my rabbi, Rabbi Joel Roth, at the Rabbinical Assembly’s Rav haMakshir conference in New York. We spent time talking about the ethical behaviors behind animal slaughter (note the vegetarian in me was suffering throughout) and the processes which may make a kosher symbol (hechsher) kosher. We examined various labels and practices throughout the country and most importantly we are now able to return to our cities with the knowledge and confidence to know what to trust so that our congregants and community can properly keep kosher.

This got me thinking about the ethics of rabbis, as to where to blindly trust another rabbi’s opinion and when do I dig further to make sure a hechsher is legitimate. The entire time, while many disagreed with me, I advocated that trusting colleagues (Orthodox, Conservative, and potentially others) is imperative in providing kosher products and establishments for my community. It was clear that every rabbi in the room had a difference of opinion on almost every issue (insert Jewish joke here) and for me it came down to a wide spectrum of belief and specific boundaries I would and would not cross.

I think this comes down to understanding the well intentions of a rabbi that often congregants, colleagues, and even everyday people do not understand. There are certain moral expectations that rabbis live with on top of the religious obligations they preach. Both moral expectations and religious obligations are important but depending on the situation can be mutually exclusive.

The classic rabbinic case is when congregants say, “Rabbi, you should take time to yourself and vacation, everyone understands. Just do not miss my family’s simcha/emergency.” Rabbis feel bad when they cannot, for whatever reason, make it to see all patients in the hospital or attend every simcha, but there are a million reasons rabbis are not able to be everywhere. Even when there is a religious obligation sometimes the moral expectation trumps it and vice versa.

On my return home from the conference I ran into a dilemma. An airline, whose name I will leave out, caused myself and a colleague a 15 hour delay. During this process we expressed the need to return home in time for Shabbat. While they placed us on another flight, they refused to reimburse our ticket for the 15 hours of discomfort and financial loss we took which included a $130 taxi ride to Newark. Assuming the airline knew we were rabbis, which they did, can I as religious exemplar get angry and shout knowing that on the other line I have, as a moral figure, yelled at a customer service rep who now will think differently of rabbis and Jews. Rabbis will often check themselves before any act and say, what would this mean for others if they saw me; if I honk my horn to loud, if I drive too fast, or if I am caught eating something others might not consider kosher. Rabbis do not just live in the Jewish world, they very much live in the modern world with moral expectations. And the question I ask myself everyday and now will take even further in practical rabbinics as a Rav haMakshir is; will the next move I make, whether superficial or religious, be a move that is for the betterment of the Jewish people.