Four Rab­bis at Lunch: Can­did Con­ver­sa­tions Among Amer­i­can Clergy

  • Review
By – September 9, 2020

Rab­bi Dov Peretz Elkins, a Con­ser­v­a­tive rab­bi who is the author of dozens of books, has assem­bled in his fic­tion­al Four Rab­bis at Lunch a spec­trum of rab­binic voic­es, not as data for a bird’s‑eye-view of com­mu­nal trends, but rather as a fly-on-the-wall lis­ten­ing to what these rab­bis might dis­cuss in a series of pri­vate lun­cheons. Elkins is a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award win­ner, and the author of New York Times Best-Sell­er Chick­en Soup for the Jew­ish Soul.

The book is struc­tured through the frame­work of eigh­teen lengthy lunchtime con­ver­sa­tions between fic­tion­al­ized ver­sions of friends and col­leagues Elkins has had over his half-a-cen­tu­ry career in the rab­binate: one Ortho­dox, two Con­ser­v­a­tive, and one Reform rab­bi. These dis­cus­sions cov­er a diverse array of top­ics, includ­ing inter­mar­riage, inter­faith dia­logue, con­ver­sion, rab­bi-board feed­back, col­lege cam­pus Hil­lels, fem­i­nism, abor­tion, the laws of prop­er speech, and much more. Through­out it all the con­ver­sa­tion part­ners argue, sup­port each oth­er, joke around, request advice, and share learn­ing resources — a few actu­al arti­cles on top­ics rang­ing from Jew­ish law to Israeli pol­i­tics appear, with per­mis­sion from the authors, in the midst of the oth­er­wise imag­ined dis­cus­sions. For exam­ple, the rab­bis dis­cuss the pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives of sur­veys judg­ing their per­for­mance. One char­ac­ter remarks, Frankly, while most of the peo­ple like me very much, there are always the few cranks who will find a few things to kvetch about, and nit­pick. I’m not real­ly in favor of it, but they may just go ahead with it any­way. What do you guys think about it?” To this anoth­er replies, I think that sur­veys sim­ply invite feed­back which can often be more dam­ag­ing than help­ful. They help fos­ter the impres­sion of 1,000 boss­es, or the folks who have the do-it-my-way atti­tude, and might open up a forum for com­plaints. That being said, sur­veys that are focused, and cov­er the entire range of con­gre­ga­tion­al mat­ters, not just the rabbi’s per­for­mance, might pos­si­bly be useful.”

While pro­vid­ing real­is­tic depic­tions of pri­vate­ly dis­cussed top­ics like the ethics of rab­binic per­for­mance reviews is inter­est­ing, and often pur­pose­ful­ly humor­ous, the book can at times be eye­brow-rais­ing. The issue of the per­mis­si­bil­i­ty of Mason­ic prac­tices at Jew­ish funer­als is dis­cussed by the group in no few­er than three sep­a­rate chap­ters, and the Ortho­dox rab­bi, seem­ing­ly posi­tioned as an expert in Jew­ish law, who at some points quotes whole pas­sages from renowned Ortho­dox schol­ars Rab­bi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rab­bi Moshe Fein­stein to answer the­o­log­i­cal and legal ques­tions, nev­er­the­less, in an ear­ly chap­ter, recounts tour­ing a cathe­dral and invit­ing a priest for Passover seder, both of which would be in vio­la­tion of con­ven­tion­al Ortho­dox prac­tice. Nev­er­the­less, the book does pro­vide a wide win­dow into the count­less bur­dens, ques­tions, and insights rab­bis both bear and share with one anoth­er. And by doing so, it pro­vides per­son­al per­spec­tives on the press­ing issues being faced by the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Jew­ish community.

One hopes that groups of real-life com­mu­ni­ty rab­bis share in these types of meet­ings, and that their respec­tive con­gre­gants can be enriched.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions