The tension that exists between rabbis and their flocks is legendary in Jewish history. Although Jews have always paid lip service to the concept of rabbinic authority and honor, in practice it has been a very mixed bag. From the time of Moses onward, Jews have carped about their rabbinic leaders, sometimes legitimately, mostly out of frustration with other parts of their lives having little or nothing to do with the rabbi.
This situation is usually compounded by the rabbi's uncertainty as to how far his authority really extends. In the ideal world of his talmudic training, "all matters of the community are within his purview of authority." But in the rough-and-tumble world of daily Jewish life, in the synagogue, beit din and community, it soon becomes very clear to him how limited his authority really is. Those rabbis who continue to insist upon their authority over "all matters" will, in my experience, suffer a career of tension and dispute.
Nevertheless, there are issues outside the realm of halachic decisions that require the rabbi to stand firm and attempt to exercise leadership and authority in the synagogue and community. Deciding what those issues truly are is the main rub in the rabbi's career. Accepting rabbinic authority and following its mandates when it is obviously justified and well within the purview of accepted and recognized rabbinic authority is the mature responsibility of the members of the synagogue and the community. When both the rabbi and the synagogue/community are in sync regarding these situations, an almost perfect world is achieved.
There are classic cases of disputes between rabbis and their communities in Jewish history. Most of these cases deal with the Ashkenazi communities of Europe and America. It appears to me that Sephardim are much more accepting of rabbinic authority than their Ashkenazi brethren. This is probably an outgrowth of the greater community unity that exists among them, with much less fractionalization and break-offs from the larger community than is common in the Ashkenazi world.
In the 18th century in Vilna, during the lifetime of the famed Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliahu Kramer, a bitter dispute between the rabbi of the community, Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor, and the lay leadership occurred. The issues that led up to this struggle were in retrospect minor and mainly personal. Nevertheless, Avigdor insisted upon asserting his rabbinic authority prerogatives and the community leaders refused to accede to his instructions and wishes. In the ensuing escalation, both sides issued bans of excommunication against each other and the entire situation spun well out of control.
This struggle lasted for decades, with the behavior and tactics employed by both sides deteriorating into the bizarre. After more than 30 (!) years of dispute, the parties finally reconciled, at least on a pro forma basis, but Avigdor died soon afterward, exhausted by his battle to assert his rabbinic authority over a difficult and rebellious community undergoing the changes wrought by modernism and the Haskala.
The lay leadership took its revenge on Avigdor - and rabbinic authority generally - by refusing to name another official rabbi in Vilna for the next 170 years until forced to do so by the Polish authorities in the early 1920s. As a further act of disgrace, they placed a large rock on the official seat of the rabbi in the main synagogue of Vilna, signifying the permanent rejection of rabbinic authority over them.
The rabbis in pre-World War I Lithuania had a unique means of enforcing their authority - they were allowed to slap an insulting offender in the face, usually forcing that person to leave town in shame. In a biography of Rabbi Avraham Kook, a story is related that when he was a young rabbi in Boisk, Lithuania, a young man publicly insulted a visiting great Torah scholar during synagogue services. Kook slapped the man, who thereupon left town in disgrace.
Decades later when Kook visited the US on behalf of the rebuilding of the ravaged yeshiva world of Eastern Europe, this man appeared before him, kissed his hand and thanked him for the slap. He told him that because of that slap he immigrated to America and became a very wealthy and successful businessman. He then slyly offered his other cheek to Kook and said: "Rabbi, you can slap me again whenever you wish."
In our world today, rabbinic authority stems not from slaps or pompous egoism, but rather from great Torah knowledge, loving behavior, infinite patience and a deep abiding faith in the people and God of Israel.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com)