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yesh omrim

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The Goldstein Question

18 July 2005

In a few months, God willing, a new rabbi will be installed at our humble synagogue, culminating a year-long search for someone to succeed our rabbi of thirty-nine years. When I served on the first rabbinic-search committee (more on that later), I contributed one question to our List of Things To Ask:

Suppose you had been a pulpit rabbi when Baruch Goldstein did that thing in Ma`arat ha-Makhpelah. On the following Shabbat, how would you have addressed the issue with your congregation?

There are many disputes of Jewish law where I’m happy to acknowledge that there are multiple points of view, let a rabbi that I trust answer my own questions, and not care that other people get different answers from the rabbis that they trust. May I eat food with a triangle-K hekhsher? At what minute does the fast on Tisha b’Av end? How do I handle going to a family event on Shabbat where my wife and I are the only observant Jews present? On the Goldstein question, however, my tolerance for pluralism runs out. According to a faction of dangerous zealots, he was preventing a mass murder; according to everyone with sense, he was committing one. (I trust I have made my bias sufficiently clear.) Nobody who belongs to the second group should call a member of the first group “my rabbi”.

Furthermore, in my experience, both support and disdain for Goldstein is spread out all over the spectrum of contemporary Orthodoxy; you can’t infer how a rabbi stands on the issue from the color of his hat or his attitude regarding women’s prayer groups. So you have to ask, and you have to ask without telegraphing the answer you’re looking for.

All I wanted, when I added this question to our list, was a litmus test to weed out people I absolutely didn’t want our shul to hire. I got something much better. The way that candidates answered the question—the way they connected the Goldstein massacre to their own personal history, or to issues in the general Jewish community—told us things about their personality and priorities that we didn’t get from the standard interview questions.

So, Gentle Reader, if you ever serve on a rabbinic-search committee for an Orthodox synagogue, I strongly encourage you to ask The Goldstein Question to everyone you interview.

(I also encourage you to endorse the candidate that is most likely to win approval from a large majority of the congregation he will serve, and not the candidate whom you personally believe would be the best person for the synagogue. That, you see, is why our shul had two rabbinic search committees, and why I was not a member of the second one. But that has nothing to do with Goldstein.)