From a Rabbi’s Perspective


I am grateful to those who have respectfully disagreed and pointed out the error of my ways with kindness.

by Elyse Winick

“A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi.”
– Reb Yisroel Salanter (1819–1883), Founder of the Musar Movement

Smarting after a particularly biting response by a third party to something I had done, a friend reminded me that just because someone accuses you of something doesn’t mean it’s true. At the time, it was valuable advice. I’m always one to take criticism to heart and am quick to beat myself up over it. I think many women do the same. When your ego and your skin are vulnerable and thin, such reminders are the armor you need on the journey towards perfection (a journey with no end, I might add).

That armor can also become a place to hide, a defense turned defensiveness, a way to avoid the reasonable moments in which we all must admit to being wrong.

It seems to me that when you sit in a position of leadership, it can become increasingly difficult to admit to mistakes made. There is a certain pride of position that renders you right in any ambiguous situation, which often seeps into those times when, in point of fact, you are wrong. As a young rabbi, I remember being confronted by a student who felt that I had crossed the line in the advice I had given in an interpersonal situation. I realized that, in that moment, I was wrong, not because of the content of the advice (with which, you might have guessed, he disagreed), but in giving advice in the first place. My role in that particular moment was to listen and be supportive, not to offer guidance.

In retrospect, I can think of countless times in which I wish I had handled situations differently. They gnaw endlessly at my soul, those moments in which I lost patience, interfered, neglected to honor someone’s role, or made suggestions that were a product of my priorities rather than those of my interlocutor. And I am ever grateful to those who have respectfully disagreed, who have pointed out the error of my ways with kindness, and have helped to keep me grounded when I could easily be lost in the clouds.

At the same time, there have been instances when students have disagreed with me, particularly on issues of Jewish Law, when either, because of the needs of the community or the preponderance of the law alone, I was right and they were wrong. Sometimes those challenges were made with the utmost of respect. At other times, they were made with total disregard for me as a human being, let alone as a rabbi.

Therein lies the rub.

Rabbis have had years of training and experience that enable us to provide the teaching and the guidance that our communities require. And we are human. We do make mistakes. We are sometimes wrong. Some of us have the confidence to own our errors. Some of us do not. How those moments are resolved are often framed by the nature of the partnership we have created with our community and with the individuals who comprise it.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) noted that following the moment in which God places Moses in the cleft of the rock and passes before him, the trace of God’s presence is left on Moses’ face and thus appears on all of our faces thereafter. If we strive to see the presence of God in the face of the other at all times, then our disagreements will always be for the sake of heaven. Disagreeing does not always mean that one of us is right and the other is wrong – though it sometimes does. At moments of conflict, we need to raise the standard even higher and assume the best of those we criticize and those who criticize us, even in the midst of that criticism.

Not every challenging conversation requires advance preparation (though all should depend on advance thought), but for those that do, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (Penguin Books, 2010), is a wonderful resource for how to use self-reflection as a tool. An exploration of the emotions we bring to the table in such encounters can enable us to be that much more effective when we make our case.

The Tefillah Zakah, recited by many just prior to the Kol Nidrei service, opens with these words: “Master of the Universe, is there a person anywhere who never sins? I am but flesh and blood, often yielding to temptation; I am human, often torn by conflicts.” There are those who might suggest that as Jews, it is in our DNA to disagree. We perfect it as an art form when we learn how and when to best use that skill.

 Four Things to Remember When Talking to Your Rabbi (and any other human being!)

  1. Take a deep breath. Don’t allow unhappiness or anger to frame your inquiry negatively. Be prepared to listen, really listen, to the response.
  1. Do meet in person. We are much more sensitive, compassionate, and understanding when we have to look the other person in the eye. Remember that you are both created in the Divine Image.
  1. If writing an email will help you to launch the conversation, omit the “To:” field when you draft the note and wait at least one day after writing to review it before entering the recipient’s name and hitting send. When we are deeply emotional, our judgment is often clouded and we say/write things we regret.
  1. If you aren’t satisfied that you’ve been heard and validated (remember that you and the rabbi can still disagree), it may be time to find another community. Are you quite certain that you have been reasonable in both your concerns and your approach? Does leaving the community mean sacrificing other relationships that you value? Is there another space in which you can nourish yourself Jewishly? Spend some time in reflection if leaving is a serious consideration. If that’s your ultimate conclusion, take a deep breath and do it – but be sure to find yourself another community. Judaism needs you. And you need Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Elyse Winick serves as the Jewish chaplain at Brandeis University. A graduate of Brandeis and the Jewish Theological Seminary, she spent the past 20 years with the Department of KOACH/College Outreach of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.


  1. Rosie Rosenzweig May 21, 2015 Reply

    I remember my husband telling Rabbi Larry Kushner how he had failed a congregant with MS. Larry called my husband in tears and they went for a walk.
    These things happen, but the slight is only the beginning of a conversation. So glad you wrote this to show that.
    Best, RR

  2. Lev Baesh May 21, 2015 Reply

    I know I’ve disappointed people too. Any rabbi worth their weight has some healthy controversy. My grandfather, the rabbi, told me “If 20% of the congregation isn’t mad at you, you’re not doing your job. But if 25% are mad, it’s time to look for another job. He believed, as do I, that if you have convictions, you always run the risk of disappointing people when their desires or expectations don’t match yours.
    The problem arises when the rabbi or the congregant (or free range other) don’t respect the humanity in each other. Then, disagreement becomes disappointment.
    Also, rabbis run the risk of disappointing when they aren’t clear about their beliefs and practices. The most lovely liberal rabbi can hold tight conservative views about ritual and life cycles. Growing up in a congregation with a sweet, welcoming rabbi can lead to the false expectations that this rabbi will marry interfaith couples. Or a conservative rabbi might marry GLBT couples and freak out members of the congregation. And don’t get me started on expectations of rabbis and their views on Israel!

    In the end, as I see it, it isn’t so much about the idea that being human is about frailties, rather being human is about recognizing the humanness of the other. Disappointment is about having unmet expectations. To defy disappointment is to recognize expectations are sometimes unrealistic or based on a failure to ask questions without presupposing answers. It’s also about not expecting to get what we want, but to get a true and well thought out answer to our questions. And, to be treated with the respect every human, rabbi or otherwise, deserves.

  3. ruth housman May 23, 2015 Reply

    I have learned, that rabbis do not have all the answers. I have learned that wisdom comes from the search, within, and from without, in myriad ways, and that the beacon that guides us, is, The Light. I have had beautiful, powerful, mystic experiences in life, and every time I went to a rabbi, because I felt a rabbi was the place to discuss these, I was rebuffed, by never being heard. Not once. And I also wrote in depth to people about my life, and got total silence. I learned to go within, and to rely on myself, for answers, and they kept coming. I was hurt. And I went outside Judaism to others, to reading widely, the literature of spirituality, and found these same truths, articulated, everywhere, in beautiful prose, in beautiful poetry, about LOVE.

    I learned through my life to question authority. To question what told me how to live, how to build a Sukka, how to love, because in depth, what is important, is that meaning, within the act, that loving, and yes, God is a verb. I do not have any problem with people who do not believe, or who question, and say they are on the fence, being agnostics. Life is hard. Life is cruel. And to question, and to search for meaning is a human quest, and it is humanity at the crossroads, all asking these same deep questions, as in Gauguin’s most famous painting.

    I feel totally guided. I have not one drop of doubt. My life feels like a waking dream. It’s entirely synchronous, meaning I am living a life of radical amazement, and recording this. I am also gifted a Story that has everything to do with words, crossing Babel, that Sanskrit gate. And I am meeting and greeting friends from around the world, who go into synch with me. There is a Story extant. It’s going to hit. Because Love is all Here Is. And this Story is going to bring all stories into a new light. Mirrors in Time. None of us has ever been deserted, though it often feels we all have been cast into the desert.

    As for this story about rabbis not listening. It’s true, they did not listen, and have not listened to many of us. But we are, also gifted the same calling, and we also heed that call, and need to respect what brings us to the table. It’s a Divine Love Story. I have not one drop of doubt. And God wrote not parts but the entire story. It’s ALL GOD.

    We’re here, to sort the wheat from the chaff, as did Ruth, as did others, in those ancient fields, those corners left for the poor and hungry. And herein lies a Story that is deep, about friendship and love.

    in truth/ruth

  4. Bobbi S. May 24, 2015 Reply

    With this issue, you have opened doors and hearts and minds that show that it is time for change and acceptance if this religion is to survive. Thankfully the Head Rabbi at our temple is such a joy. I have found her to be a personal relief. Has there been discussion about sending a “copy” of this 614 to many Rabbis? It is such a perfect vehicle to create a progression of changes in the way many rabbi’s conduct their behaviors.

  5. Dorothy Werner May 25, 2015 Reply

    I don’t understand why rabbis are not taught that ketubbot providing that either party can obtain a no fault divorce existed in the time of Ezra.

    Mordechai Akiva Friedman of the Talmud Department of Tel Aviv University discussed this in his book written in 1980-81, Jewish Marriage in Palestine: A Cairo Geniza Study.

    He states that each of the three marriage contracts “contains a double clause that deals with the consequences of divorce initiated by husband and wife respectively.

    “Variations between the texts notwithstanding, it includes the following elements: husband or wife may rise in the assembly and declare that he or she ‘hates’ the other, the instigating party makes certain payments, and (as a result of the divorce) the wife leaves her husband’s home and is free to go wherever she desires.

    “As we learn from the Geniza fragments, such a stipulation was written in the ketubbot of Palestine through the 11th century,” the book continues. “Passages that reflect the wife’s right for a divorce can be identified in the Talmudic literature. And in some localities, this usage became accepted legal practice in post-Talmudic times.”


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