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Rabbi Arthur Segal’s love of people, humanity, and Judaism has him sharing with others “The Wisdom of the Ages” that has been passed on to him. His writings for modern Jews offer Spiritual, Ethical, and eco-Judaic lessons in plain English and with relevance to contemporary lifestyles. He is the author of countless articles, editorials, letters, and blog posts, and he has recently published two books:

The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal: A Path of Transformation for the Modern Jew


A Spiritual and Ethical Compendium to the Torah and Talmud

You can learn more about these books at:

Thursday, August 16, 2018





As Rabbis we have all had to deal with obnoxious members of our congregations. They can cause havoc in our congregations, chase good people away, and make the lives of Rabbis miserable.

We have heard too often from potential new members who have come to a Shabbat service that: ''We loved the rabbi, but found the congregants to be obnoxious.''

So what can we do?

As always, our ancient texts provide an answer, because no matter how rude, or obnoxious, (literally 'bad smelling') a congregant is, our Chazal have dealt with worse.

Sometimes, a few members will intentionally introduce dissension by having obnoxious behaviors. In ''Pastoral Stress: Sources of Tension, Resources for Transformation'', Anthony G. Pappas of the Alban Institute refers to such members as "clergy killers"--people "with power needs and other pathologies"...who find congregations--composed mostly of "warm, loving, and tolerant" people--"a viable environment to act out their internal illness. Ideally, the congregation will need to react in responsible ways to transform or at least contain the harmful behavior...." If all other strategies have failed, Pappas advises that "key congregational leaders [including rabbis] must educate themselves about the reasons and procedures for censure, removal, and/or excommunication of members."

Now it is usually up to a Beit Din, a rabbinic court of 3 rabbis, to punish obnoxious congregants. But in the Reform Movement, which holds the vast majority of practicing American Jews, most rabbis make decisions for their congregations with discussion with their lay board members, and not with other rabbis in a formal sense.

The Talmud   has a list of behaviors that could warrant someone to receive a rabbinic censure. They range from having in one's possession an object that could cause harm, i.e. a broken ladder, a dog that bites, perhaps in today's parlance a loaded gun at home that is not locked away. One could receive a censure for insulting a learned man or for saying a Jewish person is a 'slave'. Obnoxious behaviors also include taking God's name in vain or speaking lashon hara (gossip), motzi shem ra (slander), or rechilut (reporting to someone what others have said about him, i.e. stirring the pot).    In Talmud Bavli Tractate Berachot 19a twenty-four offenses are mentioned. The full list is not given in the Talmud, and was thought to be an opened ended 'round' number, leaving what behaviors could be censored up to the rabbi(s).

However, Maimonides ["Yad," Talmud Torah, vi. 14], gives a list of 24 offenses, in his opinion. If strictly followed, there would be few Jews today who did not deserve rabbinic censure. Aside from the above, Maimonides[ aka Rambam] lists:   insulting a messenger of the court;   refusing to appear before the court at the appointed time;   dealing lightly with any of the rabbinic or Mosaic precepts;   refusing to abide by the decision of the court  selling one's real estate to a non-Jew without assuming the responsibility for any injury that the non-Jew may cause his neighbors;   testifying against one's Jewish neighbor in a non-Jewish court, through which the Jew is involved in a loss of money to which he would not have been condemned by a Jewish court;   appropriation by a priest whose business is the selling of meat, of the priestly portions of all the animals for himself;   violating the second day of a holiday, even though its observance is only a custom ("minhag");   performing work on the afternoon of the day preceding Passover;    causing others to profane the name of God ("cḥillul HaShem");   causing others to eat holy meat outside of Jerusalem;   making calculations for the calendar, and establishing festivals accordingly, outside of Palestine;   putting a stumbling-block in the way of the blind, that is to say, tempting one to sin;   preventing the community from performing some religious act;  selling forbidden ("ṭerefah") meat as permitted meat ("kasher");   omission by a "shocḥeṭ." (ritual slaughterer) to show his knife to the rabbi for examination;   self-abuse;   engaging in business intercourse with one's divorced wife;   being made the subject of scandal (in the case of a rabbi);   excommunicating one unjustly .

While much of the above are not even of concern to most American rabbis today, I submit that a congregant, continually behaving without Derech Eretz, {aka Derek Eretz}, Civility,   are some of the most obnoxious and damaging behaviors a congregant can do, that can harm the congregation, as well as the rabbi's reputation.

The Talmud offers three levels of rabbinic rebuke [tochecha]: nezifah, niddui, and cherem.

Nezifa is a one-day ban from the congregation {outside of the land of Israel}. One stays in one's home, is remorsefully and works on not repeating the behaviors, speaks sparingly to others, stays away from the person to whom she or he was obnoxious, and not conduct business or perform pleasurable activities. When a prominent person, such as a learned man, (so it doesn't have to be rabbi), rebuked one by saying: "How insolent this man is!" the rebuked is to consider him or herself under nezifa.   Because nezifa is the lowest level of rabbinic rebuke, the rebuked is not separated from society (Talmud Bavli Tractate Moed Ḳatan16a).

The second and next level of rebuke is called Niddui.  If a rabbi, a scholar, or a prominent man actually pronounced the formal niddui on one who had slighted him, then all the laws of niddui applied. This procedure was, however, discouraged by the sages. Rabbis, if doing their teaching correctly in a congregation, shouldn't end up with members, so obnoxious, that the niddui ban is pronounced.  It was a matter of pride for a rabbi to be able to say that he had never pronounced this ban (Talmud Bavli Tractate Moed Ḳatan 17a).  

Niddui is a week-long censure {outside of Israel}. Aside from one's family, no one is allowed to associate with this person. No one can dine with the offender, nor sit or stand within six feet of him/her. If it was imposed due to fraud, or monetary concerns, the offender was publically warned 3 times, on a Monday, a Thursday, and another Monday, at services, when the Torah is read out loud.

During this week, the offender was to behave like a mourner with no haircuts, baths, wearing shoes, or be counted as part of a minyan (religious quorum).  If he died during this week, a stone was placed on his hearse.   Relatives were not allowed to perform the rituals of mourning for him/her such as tearing of garments. If the rabbi(s) found the person to be sincerely repentant, the severity of the niddui could be reduced, including the number of days.

Conversely, if the niddui was unrepentant, the rabbi(s) could increase the severity, by increasing the days, and banning his wife from the synagogue and his children from religious school.

Interestingly, the rabbis were not concerned that the niddui might leave Judaism or the community. Their attitude was that a niddui like this person, was toxic to the community, if not sincerely reformed in his/her ways. [Yoreh De'ah, 334, 1]. The congregation will be much healthier without him or her.

Now the third and highest form of rebuke is Cherem i.e. excommunication.  This is a very serious ban because it is an indefinite punishment in which no one is permitted to work with the offender, or go near him. A Jewish shop keeper, especially the kosher butcher, could not sell to the one in Cherem. If the offender owned a shop, no Jew could buy from him/her.

As a practical matter, when Jewish courts lost their authority, in the 1770s during the Jewish Enlightenment (haskalah), and Jews were released from their European Ghettos, and could live and shop and sell anywhere, cherem and niddui lost their power. One could buy products from a non-Jewish vender, and sell to non-Jewish customers, and did not need the synagogue for his life line to society. But cherem was used successfully with Baruch Spinoza and Uriel Acosta in Amsterdam in the mid 1600's, but had little effect when pronounced on Leon Trotsky and other Jewish Bolsheviks in 1918 by the Rabbinical Council of Odessa. Nor did cherem have much effect on rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who was the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, in 1945, when he was excommunicated by the Haredi Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

So what can a modern American rabbi do to change the behaviors or rid himself or herself from toxic, obnoxious congregants? I offer a set of new 10 'suggestions':

First, congregants need to be reminded often, that they are part of a sacred community, a Kahal Kadosh.

Second, they need to be taught that behaviors that may be sadly accepted outside the synagogue are just not allowed inside the synagogue, or to fellow Jews, outside the synagogue (if not to any person at any time).

Third, our congregants need to be actively taught Derek Eretz, civility, civil behavior.

Fourth, our congregants need to be taught the rules of lashon hara, motzi shem ra, and rechilut.

Fifth, our congregants need to be taught how not to produce cḥillul ha Shem, or perhaps described in Yiddish, as a ''Shonda fur dei goyim. ''

Sixth, rabbis need to teach their congregations that Shabbat is an ''oasis in time'' and that synagogues are a holy place of refuge. 

Seventh, our congregants need to be taught over and over that when greeted with a 'Shabbat Shalom' or a 'Gut Yontif', they are to respond in kind, lovingly. "A person's tongue is more powerful than his sword. A sword can only kill someone who is nearby; a tongue can cause the death of someone who is far away" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Shabbat 15b).

Eighth, our rabbis need to actively, and privately, call congregants into their offices, to 'rebuke wisely'. When obnoxious behavior is witnessed, first give the benefit of the doubt, that the offender is misguided, and then teach them Derek Eretz: "As we judge others favorably, so will G!d judge us favorably" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Shabbat 127b).

Ninth: ''Although we may hesitate to offer rebuke (tochecha) for fear of 'hurting another human being, ruining a relationship, engaging in an unhealthy power struggle, or opening up our own sense of vulnerability and insecurity,' (putting our job at risk), says Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Rodeph Sholom Reform Congregation in New York City, "we are nevertheless commanded to rebuke." To minimize the risk of causing hurt feelings, be aware of your motives before proceeding. Do not rebuke someone out of anger or jealousy arising out of your own sense of failure. Maimonides advises us to "speak to the offender gently and tenderly, so that he can hear the critique" (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Deot 6:7). Remember, if a situation arises which cannot be simply "explained away," our tradition enjoins us to rebuke the presumed offender directly and privately (publicly embarrassing someone is prohibited). Leviticus 19:17 states: "You shall surely rebuke your neighbor (hocheyach tochiach et amitecha), but incur no guilt [because of him]." Notably, this mitzvah"appears immediately after the prohibition, "Do not go about as a talebearer" and immediately before, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Eternal God." This advice is from Reform rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, rabbi emerita of Beth Am, New York City, instructor in Liturgy and Homiletics at HUC-JIR.

Tenth: As rabbis, we cannot put off rebuking and teaching for fear of alienating ourselves from a congregant, especially a board member. We of course need to see the good in others. All of us wish to be loved and appreciated and get along. ''But love unaccompanied by criticism is not love....and Peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 54:3).

Just as obnoxious behavior can destroy the sanctity of temple life, tochecha can rebuild it. People will still make behavioral mistakes even in a Kahal Kadosh, where all are regarded as a fellow child of the Divine.  If we as rabbis allow obnoxious behaviors to go unchecked, whether they are seen in our temple's collective culture, in our members or in our leaders, our Sacred Congregations, cannot grow stronger, but only continually become weaker.  A true Jewish congregation acknowledges that we humans on the road to becoming Homo Spiritus do transgress and that it is part of the rabbi's job description to rebuke.  We must teach how one goes about doing a cheshbon ha nefesh (a written inventory of our soul), vidui (admitting our short comings), doing teshuvah (repentance), making reconciliation, and learning forgiveness. To paraphrase the Chofetz Chaim, the ultimate author of books on proper behavior: If a person diligently applies himself to studying the laws of lashon hara and Derek Eretz, G!d will remove his yetzer ha ra (his negative urge) for untoward behaviors. But if an entire congregation will resolve together to guard their behaviors, the effect is much greater.

Thank you for reading and learning,