Closeup of male face (mannequin) with defocused lights in the background.

The Perfect Replacement

When Rabbi Himmelstein introduced Rabbi Perl, Eliyahu Weiss shook the newcomer’s hand warmly. “It’s about time Rabbi Himmelstein brought in someone to help with his duties.”

Rabbi Perl’s lips curled in a small smile. “I’ll support him to the best of my abilities.”

Eliyahu had been curious to meet Rabbi Perl ever since learning of his appointment as Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Beis Emunah. Barring any unforeseen difficulties, everyone expected that Rabbi Perl would replace Rabbi Himmelstein in a year or two.

Upon close inspection, the new rabbi’s wiry grey hair hinted at middle age, but his face remained unlined. Good, thought Eliyahu. He’s old enough to have some gravitas, but young enough to stick around for decades to come.

Rabbi Himmelstein finished folding his tallis and slipped it into its embroidered bag alongside the pouch containing his tefillin. “I’m glad you came to the early minyan today, Eliyahu. You missed Rabbi Perl’s visit this summer. Most of the congregants met him then.”

Eliyahu nodded and turned to Rabbi Perl, “I heard they were very impressed by your Shabbos morning drash.

Rabbi Perl looked down modestly. “Hopefully, they remain impressed after I settle in.”

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”  Shouldering his tallis bag, Eliyahu smiled. “Gotta get home to Mrs. Weiss. You married, Rabbi Perl?”

“A widower.”

“Oy, gevalt!” Eliyahu slapped his forehead.

Rabbi Himmelstein shot him a look of horror. “Eliyahu! Be sensitive!”

“I didn’t mean it that way!” Wincing, he added, “It’s just that every wannabe schadchan in the shul will be after him.”

Rabbi Perl looked sober, but not offended. “I’m not interested in remarriage yet.  The loss is,” he paused, searching for the right word, “too recent. I’ll let everyone know when that changes.”

“No problem.” Offering his goodbyes, Eliyahu headed out the door. He turned right and waited on the curb for a green light to appear. A self-driving school bus carried kids past him. He recognized one of the kids at the window—his neighbor’s son, Chezky—and waved. The boy waved back before turning back to his phone.

Eliyahu’s light turned green, and he stepped into the intersection. As he crossed the street, an old Porsche 911—its top downs—screeched to a halt just six inches from him.

The driver winced, then blushed. “Sorry!”

“It’s okay!” Eliyahu assured him, but truthfully, his heart raced a little. Now that most people left driving to their cars, not to humans, that kind of thing rarely happened. In fact, the rise of robotics had reduced all kinds of human errors: medical errors, air traffic control mistakes, incorrect dosing of prescription medicine. Robots fought fires and did surgery. Computers guided construction and checked the freshness of food served at restaurants and in cafeterias.

Still, as he watched the guy in the Porsche drive off, he had to admit to a tinge of nostalgia.

#

 

“I met Rabbi Himmelstein’s new right-hand man after shacharis,” Eliyahu announced to Shifra as he entered the kitchen.

She stopped mid-way through zipping up Chaim’s backpack. “Really… what did you think?”

He grabbed a mug, then poured in some coffee. “Can’t tell much from a handshake, but he seems like a fine fellow.”

Shifra pulled up the zipper the rest of the way without looking at her husband. “Miriam Katzowitz says Rabbi Perl is single.”

Rolling his eyes, Eliyahu clarified, “A widower. And he says he’s not ready to move on yet.”

“If we find the right woman, he’ll be ready.”

“Shifra—”

Turning to look him in the eye, she said, “Don’t ‘Shifra’ me, Eliyahu Weiss. A man needs a wife.”

Eliyahu pressed his lips firmly together. “That may be. But, this particular man says he’s not interested in one. At least, not yet.”

“Hmmm.”

Chaim and Boaz’s carpool honked. Shifra pecked each child on the cheek, then showed them out the kitchen door. She shut it and sighed.

Offering Eliyahu the sugar bowl as a peace offering, she changed the topic. “Well, I’m glad that Rabbi Himmelstein finally hired an assistant. It’s getting harder and harder for him to keep up with everything. And maybe he can finally spend holidays with all those grandkids of his in Lakewood and Baltimore.”

Eliyahu dumped a teaspoon of sugar into the coffee, hesitated, then added another. “You know he wanted to find the perfect candidate. One he could be sure of.”

Shifra shot her husband a meaningful look. “You mean, after last time.”

Nodding, Eliyahu said, “Rabbi Himmelstein took Rabbi Morris’s indiscretions very hard. He thinks of us as his flock, and he wants the perfect shepherd to keep us safe.”

Pouring the dregs of her coffee in the trash, Shifra replied, “He must be pretty confident in Rabbi Perl if he hired him.”

“Must be.” Eliyahu grabbed a banana off the counter and sat down at the table. He recited a blessing and took a bite of the fruit. It was under-ripe. He frowned.

Excusing herself, Shifra departed so she could daven in the next room. Now alone, Eliyahu picked up the newstablet he’d grabbed on his way in the house. Depressing headlines blared from the front of the tablet, as usual: Unemployment figures up, protests at the capital. Politicians and unions pinning joblessness on androids taking jobs originally intended for humans. No one mentioned that androids took the most dangerous jobs, the most repetitive, the worst paying. Eliyahu wondered, Do any human want those jobs, anyway?

He drained his cup of coffee, stuck it in the dishwasher, and left for work.

*

On Monday morning, Eliyahu headed to shul a bit early. When he got there, only three other men had arrived—Rabbi Perl, Mitch Segal, and Sruly Jackson.

Shalom Aleichem,” said Rabbi Perl.

Mitch looked up from his Gemara. “Good morning, Eliyahu!”

Sruly shut his book of psalms with a snap. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Weiss, but you’re not usually one of the early crowd.”

Dropping his bag on a seat near the front of the room, Eliyahu smirked. “I know Sruly, but it’s my father’s yahrtzeit. I want to make sure I can lead the prayers this morning.” He unbuttoned his left sleeve and began rolling it up so he could wind his tefillin around his arm.

As he noticed the clock, he worried about how few congregants had arrived so far.

It’s early, he reassured himself. The other seven will make it by 6:30.

Men began to filter in as he placed the little black boxes on his head and bicep. More arrived after that, but at 6:30, they were still two men short of a minyan. Sighing, Eliyahu began the introductory psalms and hoped the last two men would arrive before the first kaddish.

At Yishtabach, he looked over his shoulder. Two more men had arrived, but where was Rabbi Perl? He knew Eliyahu needed to say kaddish today!

Eliyahu’s heart sank as he waited for Rabbi Perl to return. Did he have to rush to the bathroom? Was that it? How long would it take? Some of the men had to reach by eight. How long could they wait?

Eliyahu considered skipping the kaddish, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. It was the anniversary of his father’s death!

At last! Huffing and puffing, Leonard Slifkin pushed through the swinging doors at the back. Eliyahu began Yishtabach with a feeling of relief.

After the service ended, Eliyahu turned around. At some point, Rabbi Perl had returned.

It must have been something pressing, Eliyahu told himself. I can’t let myself take it personally. 

*

Over the lunch table on Shabbos Shuva, Shifra asked the guests what they thought of Beis Emunah’s new assistant rabbi.

“More than satisfied.” Meir Lefkowitz smiled. “And it’s not just me. Everyone is just raving about him.”

Another guest, Leib Hertz, nodded. “That sermon he gave on Rosh Hashanah was just excellent.”

Eliyahu set his fork back on his plate. Wetting his lips with the tip of his tongue, he said, “I don’t know. He’s a little…”

“A little what?” Meir asked, taken aback.

“I can’t put my finger on it. A little…odd.” Eliyahu searched his memory for examples. “He refused to sit on a beis din, last week. If he’s going to stick around, we’re going to need him to do the work this community needs. And the Breuers need their divorce.”

Meir spooned more cholent onto his plate. “I overheard him tell Sruly that he can’t stomach sitting on a court administering a divorce. How it just saddens him.” Licking some of the stew from his knuckle, he added, “Besides, another rabbi was able to sit with Rabbi Himmelstein and Rabbi Cohen from Hartville.”

“But—”

“Tatte, isn’t it loshon hara to talk about people?” Chaim piped up.

“I stand corrected.” But, as Eliyahu nibbled a slice of schnitzel, he could not stop thinking about how odd Rabbi Perl had been behaving. How he had blown shofar so effectively during Elul, but had pled asthma at Rosh Hashanah and let someone else do the job. And he never, ever prayed with just a minyan. There always had to be at least eleven men present.

Yes, Rabbi Perl was odd. But everyone else seemed so happy with him. And there certainly seemed to be nothing inappropriate in his relations with congregants. After all, that was always in the back of Eliyahu’s mind, and he knew others at Beis Emunah felt the same. So, really, Eliyahu needed to get a grip on himself.

It’s just my imagination, he thought. Rabbi Perl may be odd, but he’s doing just fine.

Resolving to let the matter drop, Eliyahu reached for another slice of kugel. 

*

A couple days after Sukkos, Shifra phoned Eliyahu at work. “I did it!” She sounded exuberant.

“What?”

“Remember what I said when you said that Rabbi Perl said he wasn’t interested in finding a match?”

Eliyahu stopped reading the progress report on his computer screen and focused on his wife’s voice. “Don’t tell me you haven’t given up.”

“Of course not! I told you that if I found the right catch, he’d be good to go. It was just a matter of time.” Her voice oozed satisfaction. “Honestly, I thought it would take longer.”

Rolling his eyes, Eliyahu sighed. “You mean, you found a weapon in your sneaky plot to beat all the other amateur matchmakers in the community to Rabbi Perl.”

“Now, stop teasing. I’m serious.”

“Fine. Who’s the victim?”

Sounding very confident, Shifra said, “Leyla Marcus.”

“Oh!” Leyla had gone to high school with Eliyahu’s older sister. He pictured her—tallish; a bit plump, but in a nice way; kind smile; very intelligent—but, “Isn’t she married? With kids?”

“She’s got five, but her husband dropped dead a couple years ago.”

“Oy!”

Shifra just kept going. “Sudden heart attack. He had an undetected problem with a valve.”

Eliyahu stroked his beard. “I gotta admit, she is a catch.”

“She’s just a find, isn’t she? And definitely rebbitzen material.”

“Okay.”

“So, you’re going to ask him, right?”

“Ask who?”

“Rabbi Perl. You’re going to suggest the match.”

“Listen, Shifra, I wash my hands of the whole thing.”

“Hey! You said Leyla’s a catch!”

“For someone else. Last I heard, Rabbi Perl doesn’t want to remarry.”

Shifra hollered down the line, “Fine. I’ll just handle it myself.”

Eliyahu just sighed as she clicked End.

*

When he got home later that afternoon, Eliyahu expected to find Shifra in a rage. Instead, she sagged around the kitchen like a half-empty sack of flour.

“What is it?” He asked, worried.

“Not interested,” she said.

“Who?”

“Rabbi Perl says he’s not interested,” she explained. And then she sighed.

Putting his arm around Shifra, Eliyahu suggested, “Maybe you can find someone else for Leyla?”

She pulled away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“He wasn’t nasty about it or anything, was he?”

Shaking her head rigorously, Shifra said, “Of course not. But he was unmovable.”

“Maybe he’ll warm up to the idea later.”

“Maybe.” Shifra stirred onions in a pan. No smile.

“You never know.” Eliyahu didn’t really feel optimistic, but the sight of her so deflated kinda hurt. Earlier, he had made fun of her aspirations, but she’d wanted to make Rabbi Perl happy. Wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t that chessed?  Shifra was a good woman.

“Rabbi Perl might not want a wife, but I’m glad I have one,” he said, a bit impetuously.

Shifra added a sprinkle of salt to the pan and blushed. “I love you, too, Eliyahu.”

*

Trying to remember which flavor of hummus the kids preferred, Eliyahu stood gazing at the refrigerator case in the grocery store.

A robot shopping assistant rolled up to Eliyahu. “Can I help you make a selection?”

“No, thank you.” Eliyahu waved it away. Did Boaz and Chaim prefer lemon or jalapeno flavor…

“Hey, Weiss.” Meir came up behind him and slapped him on the back.

“How’s it going?”

“Thank G-d, fine.” Meir looked left and right, then seemed to consider something. “Listen,” he finally said, “Remember how you thought Rabbi Perl acted oddly?”

Eliyahu felt a stab of regret for sharing his opinions over his Shabbos table. “Yeah. But, he’s new. I’m probably just not used to him yet.”

“Maybe. But..” Again, a hasty look right and left.

“But what?” Eliyahu was anxious to have the confrontation over.

Meir dropped his voice. “I noticed something last week. And then again, over Shabbos.”

“What?” Enough of the drama, Eliyahu thought. Just cut to the chase!

“He never says a blessing with ‘asher kidishanu b’mitzvosav.’ Neh-ver.”

“He doesn’t mention that he’s been made holy through commandments?”

Meir shook his head once, twice, vigorously. “Maybe he says the blessing, but he never really says those words. I’ve been watching.”

“What could that mean?”

“I don’t know. But isn’t that weird?”

“Yes.”

Eliyahu’s phone rang. “It’s Shifra. She probably needs me to pick up something she forgot to put on the list.”

Patting him on the shoulder, Meir abandoned him to the shelves stacked with twelve varieties of hummus.

*

As he walked home from the grocery store, a little voice told him that he had all the pieces of the puzzle in front of him. It took him a few hours, but Eliyahu put them together.

What if Rabbi Perl wasn’t actually Jewish?

Bursting into the shul an hour after the last service of the day, Eliyahu found the foyer empty except for Rabbi Himmelstein. The rabbi stood in front of a bookshelf, methodically flipping upside-down books to the correct orientation.

“We’ve got to talk,” Eliyahu announced.

The old man looked up, startled by Eliyahu’s sudden and direct approach. “Good evening, Eliyahu. What do we need to talk about?”

“About Rabbi Perl. About who—or what—he is.”

Rabbi Himmelstein paled. Ushering the younger man into his office, he gestured to a chair, then sat in his own. He took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. The room was so quiet, Eliyahu could hear the air drifting through the vent overhead. He sat watching Rabbi Himmelstein resting like that for a full minute, his eyes closed. Had the old man fallen asleep?

No. “Remember when we hired Rabbi Morris?” the rabbi asked at last.

“How could I forget?”

“Remember when the allegations came out? The sense of betrayal?”

I cringed, thinking about the poor Kohn family. “We were all outraged, Rabbi.”

“In addition to my outrage, my disgust, I felt responsible. I had been the one to hire Rabbi Morris. I had ignored my hunch when I first noticed that he seemed to be paying an awful lot of attention to Rikki Kohn.”

“But you had no evidence at that point. You can’t blame yourself.”

“I spoke to him, asked him not to offer gifts or compliments to individual children. I took his reassurances at face value. Instead, I should have spoken to the parents, made them aware of my concern.”

“We were all fooled, Rabbi. And you acted with great courage when the family came to you with proof. Some rabbis would have covered up the situation, but you made sure he landed behind bars.”

Rabbi Himmelstein put his glasses back on his face and looked Eliyahu in the eye. “I can’t let that happen again. Not to any little girl, and not to our community. I decided to take measures to protect you all.”

Eliyahu said, “But I don’t understand. If Rabbi Perl isn’t Jewish, he’s neither more likely, nor less likely to harm a congregant.”

Rabbi Himmelstein stared at him, then dropped his head in his arms. His shoulders bounced up and down. Was he crying?

Eliyahu immediately regretted his words. “Rabbi—”

Rabbi Himmelstein sat up and wiped his eyes with the worn corner of a sleeve. He’d been laughing! “No, no. You’ve got it all wrong. I didn’t hire a non-Jew.”

Eliyahu looked confused.

“I hired an android,” Rabbi Himmelstein whispered.

“You hired an android?” Eliyahu murmured after a moment of shock.

“Yes. To be more precise, I ordered an android from a tech firm in Israel.”

“Why!?!”

“Rabbi Perl has no yetzer to lead him astray. He’s the perfect replacement when the time comes for me to retire. He’ll learn the ropes, and then I can leave, knowing you are all in safe hands.”

Eliyahu’s surprise faded. Indignation replaced it. “Safe hands? How can we accept rebuke from a leader who has no yetzer himself? How can he offer us genuine compassion when he’s never felt loss? Can he truly trust in Hashem, or is his belief simply programming?”

“I don’t know. All I know is that you’ll be safe.”

“How long do you think you can keep Rabbi Perl’s identity secret? Already Meir Lefkowitz suspects.”

“What do you propose I do?”

Eliyahu said, “You could tell them the truth.”

“The truth?”

“And then let them decide whether or not to keep Rabbi Perl on.”

“Do you think our little congregation is ready to openly accept an android in the pulpit?”

Before he could answer, Eliyahu’s cell phone rang. “That’s Shifra. I promised to take her out this evening.”

“Go to your wife. I’ll, I’ll…I’ll figure out something. Okay?”

“No problem, Rabbi. I trust you to do what’s best for everyone around.”

*

On Shabbos morning, after the Torah reading, Rabbi Perl ascended the podium to address the congregation. “I’d originally planned to share a few words with you this morning about this week’s Torah portion. However, I’ve reconsidered. Instead of a sermon, I would like to share a secret.”

Buzzing filled the main sanctuary of Congregation Beis Emunah. Peering across the aisle, Eliyahu caught Rabbi Himmelstein’s eye. “Your idea?” he mouthed.

Rabbi Himmelstein shook his head briskly, then nervously twirled the end of beard around his finger.

Drawing a large breath, Rabbi Perl continued, “You know how Rabbi Himmelstein has so lovingly tended to the members of Beis Emunah for all these years. He can’t forgive himself for the tragic mistake he made in selecting Rabbi Morris as his auxiliary rabbi, but he also knows that, eventually, he must retire. He wants nothing more to find a new rabbi for this congregation who would never, ever fall to the schemes of the evil inclination, the yetzer hara.

The crowd hushed. Eliyahu noticed several people exchanging curious glances.

Rabbi Perl said, “Rabbi Himmelstein hired me, because unlike all the other candidates, I have no yetzer.

“What are you saying, Rabbi?” Mitch called out, puzzled.

Looking Mitch straight in the eye, Rabbi Perl said, “I am an android, my friend.”

Jaws dropped throughout the congregation. And then the murmuring began again.

“He won’t ever disappoint us like Rabbi Morris.”

“A ‘droid? But he’s such a nice guy!”

“Just what we need!”

Peeking through a crack in the partition between the men’s and women’s sides of the synagogue, Eliyahu spotted Shifra sitting silently, in shock. Poor Shifra, he thought. Poor Beis Emunah. Is this really what we need? 

*

On the way home Eliyahu walked so close to Shifra that the sleeves of their jackets brushed against one another. The children hopped and skipped their way across the pavement under their watchful eyes.

“What do you think of Rabbi Perl’s announcement?” Eliyahu asked Shifra.

She smirked. “He’s put me out of the matchmaking business!” Her smile faded. “But, seriously, what kind of role model will he be?”

“What do you mean?”

“If he has no yetzer, he can’t show us how to fight it.”

Eliyahu stared at his feet, pondering. Then, he said, “Hashem sent us down to earth to battle the yetzer. He could have made us free from temptation, like angels.”

Tapping him with the point of her forefinger, Shifra said, “Exactly. And the yetzer is around us, always. It’s our job to master it.”

“But Rabbi Perl doesn’t have to master it.”

“No, he doesn’t.”

“But we’ll be safe. Our children will be safe.”

“Safe at Beis Emunah, certainly. But what about out there?” Shifra’s arm swept away from her, indicating the whole world. “The yetzer will be out there, waiting for them. “Predators are out there. We can’t protect them by replacing every human being with an automaton.”

They turned the corner, nearly stumbling into the Lefkowitzes. Shaking hands with Eliyahu and grinning, Meir said, “You were in shul today, right?”

After exchanging a look with Shifra, Eliyahu nodded.

Meir went on. “We’re lucky to have Rabbi Perl! Think of it—the first completely trustworthy rabbi!”

His wife, Dina, added, “Pretty clever of Rabbi Himmelstein, eh?”

Meir nodded. “Soon, every congregation is going to want to hire one.”

The two couples chatted just a moment longer, and then Boaz and Chaim got antsy. The Lefkowitzes went one way, and the Weisses, another. Shifra and Eliyahu walked a couple blocks in silence.

At Oakhurst and Cashio, they had to wait as a car passed them. Shifra asked Eliyahu, “Do you think every shul is going to have an android in the pulpit someday?”

He thought again of all the harm caused by Rabbi Morris, by others. “What a shame it is that we would find it necessary to even ask ourselves.”