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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