Ariel Kaminer, the Times‘ Ethicist columnist, takes a question about the search for a new rabbi. Having just served on my synagogue’s rabbi search committee, I have opinions. First, the question and response:
My synagogue is interviewing four rabbis. One, who lives nearby, comes every Saturday to pray and glad-hand. The other three can’t, because they don’t travel on the Sabbath. Isn’t it unethical of him to take advantage of his proximity? NAME WITHHELD
Attending those services isn’t unethical; it’s sensible. If you applied for a job at a bookstore, would you refuse on principle to visit until they made their choice? But if you find the rabbi’s behavior in the synagogue to be inappropriate (if, say, he hands out $50 bills during the mourner’s prayer), then cast your vote accordingly.
Terrible answer. A good search committee goes out of its way to level the playing field among candidates, especially finalists (I presume Name Withheld was talking about finalists). We introduced our candidates to the congregation in audition weekends designed to be as identical as possible, so that the candidates would have similar opportunities to make their impressions. Had one of the candidates begun showing up on other days, I hope we would have said, “So as not to unduly prejudice the outcome, we politely request that you refrain from visiting the synagogue during the search process.”
The difference between a bookstore job and a pulpit is that you rarely if ever put the bookstore job to a vote of the store’s staff or customers. Most rabbinical searches are democratic in one way or the other — the congregation has some kind of say, even if it is an up and down vote at the end of the process (that’s one reason why the Conservative movement has a policy that interim rabbis cannot be considered for the eventual full-time position — their access to the congregation would give them an unfair advantage over other candidates). One rabbi’s glad-handling would, like political activity within 50 feet of a polling station, distort the process.
Besides, you can’t tell everything about a rabbi by the way she shmoozes during kiddush. That’s why congregations delegate much of the screening to a committee. Sometimes, because of confidentiality, the search commitee is privy to things — a bad recommendation, an unreasonable compensation or work-related request, a tendency to drop f-bombs during the interview — that a congregation could not and should not possibly know. Pity the committee that rejects an inappropriate candidate who has managed to ingratiate himself to congregants during frequent visits to shul.
No doubt a candidate could figure out a way to do some politicking on his or her own. Hell, it would be “sensible” for a candidate to sit in the front row during a rival’s audition sermon and challenge her to a debate(think how far that has gotten Newt). But I think it was clear to the rabbis in our search, if not across the Conservative movement, that campaigning is bad form, if not disqualifying.