Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Role of a Rabbi

I came across an article recently about the proper role for a Rabbi. I was going to forward it to one of my Rabbinic e-lists, but I then realized a couple of things:

  1. I really want to get back to blogging more (and doing other writing, too)
  2. It might be more interesting to hear what y'all think, instead of a bunch of Rabbis.

So, here goes...


You may know of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - he wrote Kosher Sex, and he got Rabbi-famous (which is very different from real famous - he's about as famous as a Rabbi can get, and getting on Oprah is his fame peak. Not bad for an ordinary guy, but clearly not the same as being really famous. But, I digress). He wrote an article in Huffington Post about the role which Rabbis are supposed to have, and the role they actually do have:

Welcome to a generation where rabbis have been defanged and declawed. The days of the rabbi as a weighty moral conscience are behind us now. The rabbi as irritant has been replaced with rabbi as ego-massager. The rabbi's the with-it guy with whom you watch the ball game. Yep, that's one swell guy, our rabbi.

Ah, you say, the Jewish community is sinking into an ever-deeper pit of material consumption and over-the-top bar mitzvahs? Fear not. The rabbi knows where his bread is buttered. He's not going to anger the board by admonishing the congregation about a life bereft of Jewish values.

Rabbi Shmuley goes to say that, in his opinion, this willing de-fanging is the reason that Rabbis don't actually hold much sway in the Jewish world:

Go to any of the major Jewish conferences like AIPAC or the General Assembly (GA) and you'll see the rabbis rolled out to say the blessing on the bread. They are seldom, if ever, consulted on issues of activism or policy. Birthright Israel was dreamed up by two businessmen rather than even one rabbi.

So, we've really got two issues here. On the one hand, you've got the "Rabbis are letting themselves be neutered" argument. Then, you've got the "therefore, no one listens to them." I think there's a lot of validity to both. Start with the first: it's pretty clear that many people, and many synagogues, expect their Rabbis to be more about comfort than about challenge (one classic definition of a Rabbi (or, probably many other people) is that s/he is supposed to "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." We're very good at one, less so at the other). Every Rabbi is willing to take a stand, but I think that our bar for when to take one has gotten awfully high. That's, in some ways, a good thing. But, not all.

Let's imagine that I decided, based on my learning, that Judaism called us to be in favor of restrictions on abortion (Judaism would clearly never forbid a full ban, but that's besides the point; this is all hypothetical). I now believe that Judaism does not "allow" a person to be fully pro-choice. Would I dare to say so in a Bulletin article? In a sermon? On the High Holy Days? I'm not sure - I'd like to think so, but who wouldn't? Would I be willing, as Rabbi Shmuley suggests, complain publicly about extravagant weddings and b'nei mitzvah? If not, am I really living up to my title? 

And, what if I did? What would your reaction be (if you're already pro-life, just reverse the example, obviously). Would you complain to me? To the board? Would you even think about changing your attitude, because a Rabbi said you should? One of my favorite quotes about Rabbis comes from Rabbi Israel Salanter: A Rabbi who they don't want to run out of town isn't a Rabbi; a Rabbi who lets himself be run out of town isn't a man. Sounds good. Do I live up to it*?

* I'm REALLY not looking for affirmation, here. Please don't comment with any, "But Rabbi, you did X, Y and Z." This isn't really about me; it's about the Rabbinate, and about Congregations, and about Jews (it probably applies to other religions, too, but I know even less about them).

As for item #2 - I think it's too simplistic. I think that this de-fanging might be one real factor in the lower status of Rabbis in the Jewish world. I think it's clearly not the only one. 

For either of these - tell me what you think. Do you want a Rabbi (priest/imam/guru/teacher/whatever) to really challenge you, and even protest you? Do you really want it, or does that just sound good? Would you accept it? 





1 comment:

James said...

So, hypothetically, I could be wealthy enough to make a rabbi blink on the whole `can’t-milk-a-chicken/poultry DNA verification` argument to the meat/milk mixing issue? On a further (and let me again stress completely hypothetical) note, how much of a donation to the synagogue would get that bit of responsa put in the bulletin?

I don’t mind being told I could do something better, such as insinuations that my adoption of the laws of kashrut are, perhaps, incomplete.

Accepting that the rabbi is going to challenge you should be part of the understanding of joining a congregation. Hopefully the rest of the congregation drives you to live a more Jewish life, too.

A rabbi could certainly adopt a position that would make me feel uncomfortable to the point of suggesting they are not a good match for the congregation. The bar is awfully high, from this side as well. With a quick look around the web proves it’s easy to find rabbis pushing views I find, in all honesty, abhorrent.