Posted tagged ‘Freedom of Speech’

Controversy and Disclaimer

April 16, 2010

I serve as a rabbi of a congregation and that is not always the easiest of jobs.  Congregational rabbis are highly visible creatures and perpetually vulnerable.  With every Jew possessing at least three opinions on any topic, the job is not that different than that of herding cats.  And to make matters all the more complex, there exists this truly interfaith phenomenon that when some people come together into association for the expressed purpose of raising up the will and work of God, for some unexplained and inexplicable reason, these individuals seem to leave both reason and compassion at the door and become easily provoked into behaving more like a lynch mob than like a sacred congregation when dealing with their clergy.  For when they find that they have differences of opinion with their clergy, they do not approach their clergy to discuss these differences rationally, in a respectful, and hopefully productive, dialogue but rather they expend great energy to spread their discontent far and wide and gather their forces to seek out the congregational lay leadership in order to pursue some sort of administrative solution which often can mimic Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Heart’s call for “Off with his head!”  Several years ago, a Protestant clergy person wrote a fairly popular study on such people and entitled his work “Clergy Killers.”

I share this with you because in my community, somewhat of a firestorm has arisen over the views that I have expressed on this blog in regards to two recent entries – “A Perfect Storm Threatens Same Sex Marriage in Iowa” and “Revisiting The Perfect Storm.”  While only two members of my community demonstrated the good character to approach me in order to dialogue about their discomfort over these articles, there seem to have been several others who have taken great pains to run to the president of my congregation with their cries of outrage.  I have been a rabbi for 35 years.  Having people disagree with me on issues is not exactly a new experience.  I welcome disagreement and the healthy discourse that it can lead to, for it is out of such discourse that we all can grow; that is if we are open to growth.  Venting one’s anger is quite another story, especially when one vents it in such a way as to attempt to do material harm to the object of their anger and that person’s family.  There is something fundamentally mean spirited about such behavior.

While these people have legitimate reasons to disagree with me – and to take issue with the content of these blog entries – they did not have  legitimate reason to seek an administrative solution to their problems through the mechanisms of my congregation.  Let me explain why.

No clergy person is the “property” of their congregation, with the congregation possessing the “right” to regulate and control their every waking action and word.  All clergy have both their professional lives and the personal lives.  What they do within their professional lives is most certainly open to scrutiny, and if necessary, censure by their congregation.  What they do within their personal lives is not.

For me, my blogging is a function of my personal life and NOT my professional one.  I write my blog entries on my own time, from my home computer.  I utilize neither work time nor work resources upon them.  One might say that my blog is my hobby.  As such, it stands outside the purview of congregational control or regulation.  Indeed, I see one of the functions of my blog being that of providing me with the opportunity to address topics that I could never address within my official role as rabbi of my congregation; topics I could never speak or write on in a newsletter article, or a sermon, or in the context of a synagogue class; topics such as partisan politics, for doing so would endanger the congregation’s 501c3 not for profit status.

While, in my professional capacity, I cannot broach such topics, that does not in any way mean that I am devoid of opinions on them or that I am completely restricted from ever addressing them at any time in any place.  No.  Clergy, like every other citizen of the United States of America possess the right to freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  The very idea that clergy, by stint of being clergy, relinquish their constitutional rights and surrender them over to the powers of their congregations is patently absurd.  Clergy most certainly have the right to publicly express their opinions on any and all matters, as long as they restrict those expressions within the legal parameters of the tax codes when they are serving in their official capacity within their congregations.  But outside of their congregational life, they are as free as any other American citizen to speak their mind.

Does this mean that the members of their faith community do not have the right to express their dissatisfaction with whatever they say, outside of congregational life?  Of course not!  It does, however mean that it is extremely inappropriate and fundamentally wrong for such faith community members to turn to and use the administrative mechanisms of their congregations in order to express that dissatisfaction.  If such people wish to take issue with what is being said by their clergy outside of their congregation, then they should go to the clergy person him or herself – as did the two individuals who actually sent me emails and entered into dialogue with me.  They can pick up the phone.  They can send an email.  They can even knock on the door.  And, in the case of my blogging, then can also make comments directly on my blog site.  But they cannot seek institutional redress for matters that are extra-institutional.

In discussing this issue with my congregational president, he pointed out that there was no place on my blog which stated that the views expressed here are exclusively my views and are not to be considered the views of my congregation.  Though such a disclaimer is not required, considering the fact that the blog is mine and not the congregation’s, I was more than happy to add such a disclaimer to the header of this blog, simply for the sake of clarity.  Indeed, after my president left my office, I immediately called my good friend, and past synagogue president, Alan Garfield, who helped me set up this blog, and asked him to help revise the header.  He did so within one hour!

Personally, I would be interested to learn of how many of the OTHER 18 blog entries, over and above the ones in question, were read by the folks who called my president to express their outrage.  I wonder if there were any of those entries with which they agreed, and whether or not they expressed their approval for those entries along with their disapproval of the two in question.  But that is probably too much to ask for, seeing that human nature tends to focus on getting upset about what you don’t like and disregarding the rest.

I know that there still will be those who will claim that no one is trying to deny me my freedom of speech, but that whenever I speak, or write, there will be those who will choose to believe that I am speaking and writing for the Jewish community as well as for myself.  In fact, what such folks are saying is that of course I have my freedom of speech, as long as they agree with what I say.  However, whenever they disagree, that freedom somehow has been revoked.  For such folks, I hope that the disclaimer now present on this blog will satisfy them.  If not, I pray that they will learn to live with it, just as I pray that the lay leadership of my congregation will learn to respond to blog complaints by saying that the blog is outside of their jurisdiction and that they suggest that the dissatisfied party seek me out directly.

By the way, as far as my presenting a questionable face of the Quad Cities Jewish Community, and of Temple Emanuel in specific, via some of the entries in my blog is concerned, the numbers tell the story.  I truly wish that this blog was so well read by others, but it is not.  Since I started it in December, it has received some 1,053 hits.  Of those hits, some 243 of them followed my posting of the first “Perfect Storm” entry.  About 23% of the total hits on my blog come from these entries and are most likely the result of the actions of those upset community members who energetically went around telling whoever they could, “Have you read what Rabbi Karp wrote on his blog?”  Over the last two days, as the word has by and large finished making its rounds, the number of daily hits has dropped back down to its typical 2 to 15 per day.  How ironic that those who were concerned about the exposure of this blog were in and of themselves responsible for providing it with its greatest exposure.  Indeed, since the complaints started coming in and making their rounds, my blog had its two best readership day.

I do not seek out ways to generate controversy nor do I get any pleasure from being embroiled in one.  But as those who know me can attest, I always have been one to speak my mind and to follow the dictates of my conscience, regardless of risk.  In the world of Western Religion, we call that possessing a “Prophetic Voice.”  And like the biblical prophets, those of us who speak “prophetically” sometimes find that we get beaten up for doing so.  We don’t like it but we are willing to pay the price.  What we are not willing to pay is the price for keeping silent out of fear of the consequences.  In the realm of Holocaust studies we call such people who surrender to such fear “bystanders”.  Now I know how some people just cannot abide with Holocaust analogies, but if the shoe fits…

So in the future, if anyone has an issue with anything I say on this blog, don’t call my president.  Call me.  I will be more than happy to enter into dialogue with you.  If our dialogue is successful, then hopefully we both will benefit and grow from it.  In Yiddish we say that is the “menschlekite” thing to do.

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