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The Jewish Ethicist: Jewish Democracy

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

How can I stop plotting of our board members?

Q. The board members in our synagogue are working to replace our wonderful rabbi for illegitimate reasons. How can I prevent them from harming our congregation in this way?

A. When you say the board's reasons are "illegitimate," you could mean
one of two things:

1. The board's actions do not reflect the desires of most congregants, but rather their own private interests;

2. Most congregants approve of the change, but their reasons are inappropriate for a synagogue.

If the board is acting against the desires of the congregants in order
to advance private interests, their actions are certainly invalid.
Decisions in any community or commonwealth are typically delegated to a
small body, such as a board or committee, because it is impractical and
unwieldy to have all decisions made by a town meeting. It's usually
difficult or impossible to get a truly representative quorum at such
meetings, discussions are awkward and unproductive, not everyone is
really an expert, and even when every community member is present not
everyone will actually get a fair chance to present his or her position.
But that doesn't mean that the representatives become masters of
community affairs; all their authority and legitimacy ultimately stems
from the community which appointed them.

We find the idea of representative community democracy in the Talmud in
the form of a town council referred to as "the seven elect of the city"
(tovei ha'ir). Here is a typical example. The Mishna asserts that when a synagogue is sold, the money retains the sanctity of a synagogue, and the money must be used for a comparably sanctified purpose. The Talmud then explains:

"Rava stated: This only applies if it wasn't sold by the town council in
the presence of the people of the town. But if the town council sold it
in the presence of the people of the town, the money can be used even
for beer." (1)

Rava's statement implies that there are two different levels of
authority: The town council has a certain amount of authority even
without the presence of the town members. They are able to sell one
synagogue structure, and the money will be used to obtain a new one.
This is an ordinary day-to-day management activity. But to sell the
synagogue and nullify its sanctity, from the building and from the
proceeds, is a far-reaching step; it only obtains validity if there is
some formal support from the town members. The town members don't have
to be actually present, but they have to have a reasonable opportunity
to express their objections. (2)

There are also decisions which are completely beyond the legitimate
authority of the town. While the Mishna allows the sale of a synagogue,
the Talmud adds:

"Rebbe Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rebbe Yonatan, this was
taught only for a synagogue in a small village. But a synagogue in a
city, since people come from all over' they are not allowed to sell it,
since it belongs to the public." (1)

So in your case we have a variety of considerations:

1. If the board members are acting in their own private interests,
they are usurping their authority and their actions are null and
void. You should certainly act to urge congregation members to
reassert their authority over the running of their institution.

2. If the board members believe they are acting in the best interests
of the community, it may be that they are still exceeding their
authority. Replacing a rabbi is not a routine managerial task
typically delegated to a committee, like replacing a gardener. It
affects the very substance and heart of the community. The
Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) tells us that
hiring a rabbi is one of the primary responsibilities of a Jewish
community. (3) It would be very unusual for a synagogue board to
have legitimate authority to carry out such an action without "the
presence of the members of the town" -- a meeting, forum, or
similar procedure to make sure input is obtained and considered
from all community members. Again, it is appropriate to urge
congregation members to reassert their authority, which is
primary, over that of the board members. In this case you should
act with particular respect, since the board members are trying to
represent the best interests of the congregation. But you are
absolutely right to insist that existential community decisions be
taken with universal community participation.

3. It may be that the majority of community members actually do want
to change the rabbi, but they have an illegitimate reason for
doing so. (For example, they may be upset that the rabbi is
resisting innovations which are completely opposed to Jewish
practice.) This would correspond to the residents of a city who
all agree they want to sell their synagogue, but they are not
allowed to because there is an overriding public interest in
keeping municipal synagogues open for the benefit of visitors.

If this is the kind of "illegitimacy" you refer to, you are in a sticky
situation. While you may certainly be in the right, there may be no
source of authority which can enforce your rights. This situation is
quite similar to a secular law which was passed according to all the
legitimate procedures of a representative legislature, but violates the
Constitution. Even if the majority of US voters agreed to re-introduce
slavery into the US, and the Congress and Senate passed a law to this
effect, the law would be invalid and unconstitutional. The United
States, like many countries, has a tradition of judicial review which
enables the courts to overturn legislation which violates the
Constitution. But synagogues do not usually have this luxury. Secular
courts nowadays refuse to adjudicate religious disputes (in my opinion,
wisely). In some cases synagogues belong to a movement or association
with certain by-laws, and if the proposed changes (or the procedures
being used to carry them out) violate these, you may have the ability to
have the movement apply sanctions. But ultimately, all you can do in
this case is to make an impassioned plea to your fellow congregation
members to consider the gravity of their decision.

Your main goal should be one of empowerment: doing whatever you can to
keep power from being artificially in the hands of small group and
restore power to the congregation as a whole. In this way all decisions
will be made in a balanced and democratic fashion, and the congregation
will be able to maintain a high level of Torah leadership it can be
proud of.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Megillah 26a. (2) Shulchan Arukh Orach
Chaim 153:7 in Rema. (3) OC 53:24

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at

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