The great Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk once explained that the main obligation of a community rabbi was to perform acts of kindness and exhibit compassion towards the members of his congregation and community. There are some rabbis today whose interpretation of this responsibility is a far cry from Rabbi Soloveichik’s intention as revealed in an article which appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal describing the latest tactics certain rabbis implement in their synagogues in order to draw more members and please their congregants. Surprisingly these tactics do not reveal themselves by way of sermons, innovative programs, informative lessons or espousing truisms as one would typically expect from someone of the clergy; these rabbis accomplish their goal by encouraging their constituents to imbibe exorbitant alcoholic beverages and consume kosher delicacies over sumptuous gluttonous feasts.
The article explains how, come Saturday, the holy day of Shabbat, the atmosphere at “The Shul” in Bal Harbor Florida, turns festive as eating and drinking kick in early on in the day as its “spiritual” leader, Rabbi Shalom Lipsker encourages “party time” after early services for its predominantly male crowd. “The Shul” (a name which arrogantly suggests that it embodies everything a shul/synagogue should exemplify) becomes a place where men prove their machismo and flaunt their earnings as they indulge in a lavish Kiddush which is described as a “post service fellowship hour adorned by boozy and over-the-top spreads”. The word Kiddush in fact stems from the Hebrew word “Kadosh” which means to sanctify; an aspiration in Judaism which is accomplished through prayer services and sessions of Torah study. Rabbi Lipskar proudly declares how he has solicited donors for a special “Kiddush bank” to fund the pricey libations and epicurean fare that can cost anywhere from $1,800 to $3,600 per week.
“It is perfect,” says Lipskar, “God didn’t make the delicious stuff only for non-Jews.” Perhaps Lipskar understands what God created “delicious stuff” for, but he certainly seems to have forgotten what God created a Synagogue for. Ironically this article was published during the same week as the Torah portion of Trumah would be read in the synagogue; a portion which instructs the Jewish people to donate their monies towards the construction of the holy Tabernacle in order to facilitate worshiping God in a reputable manner, through sacrificial offerings and introspective prayers. The Torah details the materials and precise dimensions of the utensils which would be crafted after procuring the funds; there is no mention whatsoever of purchasing expensive alcohol or opulent treats to accomplish this very task.
Lipskar, a Hasidic Jew, explains that before Jews drink their hard liquor—they proclaim, “L’chaim” – referring to the traditional Jewish toast “to life”. He continues by insisting that “this is not a drinking fest because the drinks are in small cups”; as he excuses the excessive behavior only to refer later on in the article to the fact that last year there was a particular donor whose “driver” would appear every Shabbat carrying a leather suitcase with a giant 1.75 liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue label tucked inside. At the Saturday Kiddush, a special volunteer handed out shot glasses of the $500 scotch to which Lipskar repugnantly remarks, “It went pretty fast”.
In an attempt to make sense of the rabbi’s actions the article explains that in the face of dwindling attendance at religious services, many rabbis have had to become similarly creative; hence we are introduced to Rabbi Marc Schneier. Schneier plans his synagogue’s summer worship in New York’s posh Hamptons community, by lining up guest speakers, and considering ways to improve the Synagogue’s martini bar. Robert Fischer, a friend of the rabbi, unashamedly explains how the “L’chaim” table of high-price spirits is the most popular feature of The Hampton Synagogue’s Saturday summer service because,
“There is always vodka, an assortment of single malts, and tequila”.
Schneier explains that he infuses his congregants with the understanding that one can enjoy the materialisms that this world has to offer as long as a Jew remembers that,
“everything is about the M word, not Martinis, but about moderation”.
This objective certainly sounds pious, but coming from a rabbi whose congregation spends an average of $10,000 a week on the Kidush, one realizes that the M word most fitting for a rabbi like Schneier would be materialism or how about Macallan; certainly not moderation or modesty. Perhaps it is unfair to judge Schneier and his congregation so harshly, for it appears that his motivation is instructive, after all, every Kidush at the Hamptons synagogue includes 12 types of herring which represent the twelve tribes of Israel; indeed the rabbi exerts creative energy to find ways to incorporate education into his weekly $10,000 buffet budget.
I recall when I attended Yeshiva there was a requirement to complete an academic degree in Jewish education or Jewish history together with the rabbinic ordination, but maybe the Yeshiva got it all wrong. Perhaps I would have been better served to have completed a bartending course or a party planning or catering course to go along with my rabbinic requirements. On the other hand, the question really becomes what exactly is wrong with these rabbis; were they limited in their knowledge of Torah or of the Talmud such that they were unable to find some words of wisdom with which to inspire their congregation? Had they never prepared a sermon which would sincerely urge their members to pray and to appreciate the moral obligations of what it means to be a religious Jew? Could they not council their congregants with thoughtful insights on the priorities of life or sadly, was the only insight they had to offer their members was whether one should take their martini stirred or shaken?
The Lincoln Square Synagogue recently announced the formation of its own “L’Chaim Club,” asking members to contribute $100 for the purchase of liquor. In doing so, the Synagogue’s bulletin added, a person can partake of the booze “guilt-free.” Guilt free?!! Imagine the amount of charities these people could help support if they would be willing to drink Johnny Walker black instead of Johnny Walker blue. It appears that these so called religious leaders, have not only shamefully forgotten the role they are supposed to play within the Jewish community but even worse, they have allowed their congregants to forget what it means to be a spiritual Jew or perhaps they never taught them in the first place; they have transformed the divine synagogue into a selfish playground for adults who still chase their childish fetishes.
The only rabbi quoted in the article who expressed his disappointment in this entire shenanigan was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union who said,
“It is very upsetting. It is not in keeping with Jewish standards of modesty”.
Even more upsetting is the reason why these rabbis manage to get away with this disgraceful behavior which can only be labeled Hilul Hashem (the Hebrew term for the sin of publicly mortifying God’s name). This is because unfortunately “everything is about the M word – money”. The communities mentioned above are extremely affluent; their membership consists of very wealthy people who wield power within the Jewish world and regrettably these rabbis hide behind the comforts of their friendship rather then confronting them regarding their behavior which compromises the dignity of the Synagogue.
We celebrate Purim by dressing up in costumes and drinking merrily. The costumes serve as a statement that regardless of what we might look like on the outside we maintain an internal sincerity which facilitates who we are and what we represent. We drink plentifully because alcohol induces the revelation of one’s internal thoughts and character; again something which we are not ashamed to do based on the confidence we have in our integrity. Perhaps this Purim certain rabbis should wear their costumes and refrain from drinking, lest they reveal their internal character which may prove to be rather unsightly for them and their congregations.