Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rabbis Optional

A congregation in northern Israel just finished a year of living without a rabbi (not voluntarily, it seems). They were committed to holding services every Shabbat, as they had always done, and so they came together as a congregation, and as a community, and figured out how to do so. What they discovered is that although it was certainly challenging, and not always ideal, there were some real benefits to being forced into this:
Some members admitted that at the beginning, they felt unsure as to whether we would succeed, but at the end of the year, we overwhelmingly felt proud that we had pulled together to sustain our congregation. Our new reality had the positive effect of encouraging our multicultural and multilingual members to further integrate in order to overcome some of the differences between us. Without a rabbi, we discovered unknown talents and the hidden potential of many members who came forth willingly to contribute. Our ritual committee chairperson revealed that to her delight, she never received a negative response when she asked someone to give a drasha (discussion of the weekly Torah portion) or lead services. Moreover, some of the members who were not comfortable conducting services, stepped up their efforts in other areas for the well being of the congregation
Look--I don't want to oversell this (it would be bad for me, career-wise), but I think that every congregation would benefit from realizing that a Rabbi is, fundamentally, superfluous. Don't get me wrong; a Rabbi isn't useless*. A good Rabbi (or Cantor) will know how to lead a service well, and will have a body of teaching that will help to make for good sermons--that sort of thing. But, none of that is out of the reach of an average layperson. The majority of congregants at Beth Am (or, most synagogues' congregants), given the proper motivation, maybe a smidgen of guidance and a working Internet connection can construct a pretty darn good sermon, if asked to do so. I'd probably be better than most of them at giving one weekly, because I've got the experience and the knowledge base. But, that's very different from having some esoteric, magical ability that just isn't available to the run of the mill Jew.

* well, hopefully. I guess it depends on the Rabbi.

And, that's the real point. Rabbis (and Cantors) can bring an awful lot to the table. But, nothing that they bring is inherently, intrinsically tied to their being ordained. At my Ordination, no one sprinkled Magic Rabbi Dust ™on my head. I walked off the bimah pretty much the same person as I was when I walked on.

The most important time to remember this is not with sermons so much, as it is with prayers. Some people seem to think that, because I'm a Rabbi, my prayers have special power, special potency. That a prayer offered by me, or a name read for Mi Sheberach (the prayer for healing) or Kaddish (the prayer for mourners) is special in a way which that same prayer or name, if read by a congregant, is not. Believe me--I have no special access to God*. My prayers are in no way more likely to be heard or answered**. To insist otherwise is, I firmly believe, to misunderstand the nature of Rabbis, prayer, and God.

* Your Honor, I submit exhibit a, the 2013 New York Yankees' season.

** Your Honor, I submit exhibit b, the 2013 New York Giants' season.

One of my childhood Rabbis, Rabbi Jerome Malino (z"l) was often asked, before a wedding, bar mitzvah or similar event, to offer a special prayer for good weather. "I'm sorry," he would always reply. "I'm in sales, not management."

When it comes to prayer, and to sermons, and to just about everything that goes on in a synagogue, there may be someone who is more comfortable with you. There may be someone who is more knowledgable than you. Maybe more skilled than you.

But there is never anyone who is more powerful than you.

1 comment:

Stephen B. said...

Ah, but in contrast, I submit to you the results of my prayers regarding the Red Sox 2013 season.