The old joke about rabbis – invisible six days a week and incomprehensible on the seventh – is not only long out of date, but totally ignores the enormous amount of time that rabbis spend on a one-to-one basis with congregants dealing with the personal issues they face.
It is partly to lift the veil that I have compiled into a book – Confessions of a Rabbi – many of the issues that members of Maidenhead and those from elsewhere shared with me. It is also to reassure people with acute problems that they are normal.
The names and identities have been changed, but the situations are true. They reveal the dilemmas and crises that so many of us experience during the course of our life, with very few families not knowing some form of turmoil.
When Eve found Bob in bed with one of her friends, she sued for divorce, but was secretly delighted.
She confided in me that Bob had been abusing her physically for much of their 22-year marriage, but she had felt too ashamed to admit it and too repressed to take action. Now she had a publicly acceptable excuse to leave him.
My dilemma arose two years later when Bob began dating a feisty divorcee, which then turned into an engagement.
Did I warn her that he was an abuser and break Eve’s confidence? Or did I hope that, being a different character, she would not let a repeat scenario occur?
I decided that the greater wrong would come from silence. It is not easy telling someone that the person with whom they are besotted and pinning great hopes for the future is not all he seems. Some time later the relationship ended.
Alison’s problem was very different. Just before her husband had died two years earlier after a short illness, he had made her promise not to marry again.
She had agreed at the time, both to save him any distress and because she thought it unthinkable that, after a happy marriage of almost 40 years, she would ever consider it.
To her surprise, a new friendship with someone who had moved nearby developed into a relationship.
Being in her 60s, she knew she might enjoy another two or three decades and would much prefer to share them with someone rather than spend them alone. Was she bound by her promise?
My attitude was simple. No! The promise was a very selfish one and should never have been requested. Moreover, she had agreed under duress, not wanting to deny her husband’s dying wish.
In addition, she had been a loving wife throughout the marriage, and need have no qualms about having ‘done her duty’. He could not control her beyond the grave.
‘Do you really mean that?’ she asked, indicating that, despite her hesitation, she wanted to go ahead. I conducted the wedding six months later.
Stephen had been running a sportswear firm with Jerry, an older man who had founded it. They worked together well and business thrived.
Unfortunately, Stephen began to run up some debts, gambling beyond his means. His solution was to take increasingly large amounts of money out of the business without Jerry realising.
Eventually, the business went into liquidation and Jerry – who had relied on selling it one day to pay for his retirement – was left too depressed to work again, and was forced into an impoverished existence.
Stephen had spent a period in prison, but although he felt he had paid for his crime, he did not feel he had atoned for the personal hurt he had done to Jerry.
‘So why not contact him and apologise?’ I suggested. ‘Even if he refuses to accept it, at least you will have made the effort’.
‘That’s the problem,’ he replied, ‘when I tried to locate where he was living, I discovered he had died two years earlier. He never married, so I can’t even try to make it up to his family. I feel stuck with permanent guilt and no way out’.
I told him to find out where Jerry was buried, go there and say out aloud what he would have said had he been alive. Jerry would not be able to respond, but Stephen would have made the effort of physically going there and uttering words of contrition. It would allow him to ‘move on’ and not let the past be an albatross around his neck for all time.
Stephen stared at me blankly, and then smiled. ‘I’m going to feel a right idiot talking to the air’, he said, but it was clear that he could see himself doing it successfully.
Confessions of a Rabbi is published by Biteback at £12.99 and is also available post-free from: firstname.lastname@example.org