The Rabbinate

     A piece I wrote in another forum has generated so much attention that it is worthwhile to reprise and expand on here.

     Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is one of the most gifted writers and thinkers in recent times, and has a knack for defining the important issues on the Jewish agenda through his provocative and engaging articles. One recent essay ( engendered much hostile reaction in the Rabbinical world in which I ply my craft. He posited that Rabbis have become too nice and therefore have lost the moral influence they once had; that Rabbis no longer lead but follow; that Rabbis delight in being perceived as “friends” and backslappers of their congregants, and therefore never challenge them on the excess materialism, vacuous lives, tawdry lifestyles, high divorce rate, immodest dress, lavish weddings, etc.; that Rabbis have too often become religious functionaries, and therefore have no influence in the real world where ideas reign and Jewish interests are deliberated by wealthy Federation officials.  And then he got tough.

      I have much fondness and sympathy for Rabbi Boteach, and a certain affinity for the Rabbinic straw-man he proffers, as shocking as that sounds. (!).  I have personally witnessed unbecoming examples of Rabbinic timidity over the years that undermine our claim or even right to “leadership.” For example, more than 500 Rabbis recently signed a letter to President Obama requesting clemency for Jonathan Pollard, on grounds that a “life sentence” for his crime was excessive and unjust. Well, where have these people been for 25 years ? A life sentence was as unjust 25, 20, 15, 10 and 5 years ago as it is today. The answer is that Pollard’s cause was not mainstreamed until recently, so most Rabbis were afraid to be associated with him. The few voices in the wilderness – I can single out Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel for his selfless devotion – were drowned out by a chorus of timorous, tentative followers, not leaders, who waited until it became “safe” to support a Jew in his time of need. Then, they joined the herd.

    The herd mentality was also in full view sixteen years ago and throughout the Oslo process. Most Jewish organizations (again exempting NCYI, and ZOA too) – and most Rabbis– were petrified of opposing the Israeli government and standing up for Jewish rights of settlement throughout the land of Israel. Perhaps they were horrified at the notion of not being invited to the next photo op when Israel’s prime minister came to town, and so the warnings about the dangers of Oslo – the terror and the whetting of the Arab appetite for Israel’s demise – were not heeded. Opponents of the Oslo debacle were labeled warmongers, haters, users of vitriolic rhetoric, fascists and the like. One of my learned colleagues even proclaimed at a public Rabbinic forum on this matter that deliberated a statement of support for Jewish settlement in Israel that “we have no right to oppose the State Department.”

    That was a bitter failure of leadership on the part of the American Orthodox Rabbinate, who, in line with Rabbi Boteach’s thinking, came into its own when terror ripped apart Israeli society. Then, Rabbis assumed their “traditional” role as “professional mourners,” guiding the recitation of the right Psalms, invoking the Almighty to stop the bloodshed and bring peace, and intoning pleasantries that struck a hollow note when compared to the complete abdication of responsibility that preceded it. Why were they so silent ? They didn’t want to offend, they didn’t want to upset their audiences, they didn’t want to speak about “politics” from the pulpit, there were different views on the issue in the “Congregation” and so they didn’t want to take sides, or the Board of Directors had directed them to bore their audiences with anything but what was on people’s minds at the time. Thousands of Jews were killed and maimed, in part because of this diffidence, and it remains a shameful chapter in our history – yet to be rectified and with the offenders in Jewish life yet to be held accountable.

    In that regard – the failure of Rabbis to be effective, even controversial, leaders when required – I am in Rabbi Boteach’s corner.

    This is where he misses the point. Rabbi Boteach has been remarkably successful in creating a new Rabbinic prototype – the celebrity-Rabbi. The celebrity-Rabbi has a public face, but need not give shiurim or drashot, or visit the sick, or counsel the ailing, or even attend smachot. He deals in celebrity. He may lament the shallowness of the material lives of many Jews – especially as he does not receive a salary from them – but he dabbles in the same superficiality, and because of it remains in the public eye. I have never understood how the Jewish people are bettered through understanding the essence of Michael Jackson or Oprah Winfrey, or assuaging Rick Sanchez or even trying to make Chris Hitchens a little more religious. (In fact, I question altogether the spiritual value of debating atheists in public, as I find it hard to believe any listener will change his/her mind, much less the debaters themselves. The whole event therefore smacks of “Torah as show biz” or “Torah as entertainment”.)

     Rabbis have an obligation to disseminate the Torah idea to wide and disparate audiences, but properly, with the honor the Torah deserves. Trying to shout a Torah concept on a TV show or at a debate over the shrill voices of antagonists is not really “the honor of Torah,” nor particularly effective. The Rabbi then becomes just another talking head, in a society inundated by talking heads. But it is entertaining, and that I suppose becomes the whole point. It is somewhat fatuous to decry the emptiness of celebrity, and then make your reputation befriending and promoting celebrities, and then becoming one yourself.

      I take issue as well with the criticism of the lack of Rabbinic influence in Jewish conclaves – that Rabbis “are seldom, if ever, consulted on issues of activism or policy.” That statement per se is true, but misdirected.  Rabbis are not influential in Jewish organizations not because we are afraid to take positions (most of these organizations are superfluous anyway), but because these organizations are led by our oligarchs, who either bring in money to sustain them, or contribute it themselves. Some of these oligarchs even lead very lavish lifestyles that seem to draw a pass when their money is otherwise allocated to “productive” uses. But it is their money that matters, not their ideas; indeed, some of their ideas are so harebrained that they would be derided, if not for the fact that they put their money behind it. In the words of the old Jewish adage (in Hebrew it rhymes), “the one with the money is the one with the ideas.” Or, the Yiddish proverb: “with money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome and you sing well too.” Titans of business are not receptive to delegating decision-making to others who lack the same financial investment that they have made; in fact, they often assume their business acumen has provided them with insight into all areas of Jewish life. 

     Rabbi Boteach also conflates “influence” with media prominence (much like Newsweek does in its annual list of “influential Rabbis,” about half of whom I have never heard of, and I work in the field!). They are simply Rabbis who find their names in the public domain again and again, with the hype bigger than the reality. There are many rabbis with great influence over the lives of thousands of Jews who are unknown to the secular media, and just as well. Many of the Newsweek “Rabbis” are individuals who possess impressive organizational titles, but have no real influence in the Jewish world at all.

     Rabbi Boteach seems to admire Rabbis who are financially independent, or have established their own organizations and therefore are not dependent on any community. Those Rabbis can do great things, but a Rabbi who is detached from any communal structure is also dangerous, as he can say and do anything with impunity. There are such mavericks in every generation. Rav Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) was one, to take an example that will offend no one. He spent only five years as a shul Rabbi, but left after he received a license from the King of Denmark to own and operate his own printing press, which enabled him to pursue controversy and torment his ideological foes at will.  We have such mavericks today, as well, in a different context. They push the halachic envelope, and say and write whatever pleases them, because they are not accountable to anyone. It is easy to attack Jew-haters, Arab terrorists, neo-Nazis, et al – and    G-d-bless those who have a platform to do so and do it.

      But, what if you are even remotely accountable to others ? For example, and this in no way refers directly to Rabbi Boteach’s Values Network, with which I am unfamiliar: might a Rabbi who needs funding for some cause from the wealthy overlook that donor’s intermarriage, and thereby undercut the Torah message that perceives intermarriage as a horror and an incipient loss of Jewish identity ? Might a Rabbi who wants to curry favor with celebrities dampen the Torah’s vehement objection to homosexuality ? Would a Rabbi-columnist criticize the editors of the newspapers that publish his columns, admonishing them for printing material that is slanderous or salacious ? Hmmm… and for how long do you think those donations will be provided or that column will be carried ?

      The same holds true for the Rabbi who always finds fault with his congregation, and hectors them for one failing or another. Rabbis should – must – challenge their flock – but sometimes people just want to be engaged, illuminated and educated. Sometimes they just want to be inspired by the Torah and not disparaged for the flaws. Finding the right balance is a key to the successful Rabbinate. If Rabbi Boteach enters the pulpit (and rumor has it that he is starting his own shul in a neighboring town), he may find that life in the pulpit is different than the glamorous life of hobnobbing with celebrities.  Again, if he is financially independent (and it is a chutzpah that AJU thought to pay him less than the other participants in the atheism debate), then it won’t matter to him personally what he does or says, but he will find that people vote with their feet.

       A rabbi who is too polarizing just drives people away – in our world, they don’t stay home and show up three times a year; they just go to the shul up the road where the Rabbi is not such a nudnik. On the other hand (to paraphrase Rav Yisrael Salanter) a rabbi of a shul whom no one wants to leave is probably not challenging his people enough. I don’t know what the appropriate measure is – the optimum number of people who at any one time want leave a shul – and certainly people can leave for legitimate reasons, and sometimes the shul benefits from their departure (call it “addition by subtraction”). But in such a case, the Rabbi has lost the opportunity to teach them Torah and bring them closer to G-d, and not just harangue them about their lifestyles.

       Anyone can decry the wasted expense of weddings and Bar Mitzvas, and everyone should. The real dilemma is this: should the rabbi refuse to attend such a wedding or celebrations to make a point ? Sure, and if he chose that route, I can guarantee that he would not have to attend many more, because he would be looking for other work. And there is only so often you can castigate people for the “high divorce” rate – especially when it is not that high, both in real and in relative terms. Undoubtedly, you can put bodies in seats if you announce that Oprah is showing up one week, and Steadman the next – but is that what a shul is for ? Is that just a tool to entice people into the shul, or an end in itself ? And what moral compromises have to be made in order to accommodate the peculiar lifestyles of the rich and famous ? Those are all fair questions that need to be answered, once we overcome the obvious hurdle that, for most Rabbis, the rabbinate is not just a calling but also an occupation – the way they pay their bills. The Rabbi who is dismissed for being too controversial – or, for that matter, being too bland – has not done himself or his causes any favors, assuming he had what to offer the world of Torah.

    In essence, Rabbi is lamenting the lack of independence that the average pulpit Rabbi experiences, and I share in that lament. I heard this true story not long. A Chasidic Rebbe said to an American Orthodox Rabbi: “The difference between me and you ? Your baalei batim (congregants) choose you; I choose my baalei batim.” The sentiment is accurate, but the Chasidic norm is hardly a workable model in a Western, democratic society in which people’s opinions count and matter.

     That being said, Rabbi Boteach has done, as always, an admirable job in giving Rabbis and laymen food for thought. He has a unique ability to be self-critical in his writings, the hallmark of a striver for truth. (I find it hard to be self-critical in my writings. Wait a second, I guess I can for I just did !) His insistence that Rabbis should seek to be respected more than to be liked is trenchant and obligatory (of course, it is possible to be both respected and liked). His essay is therefore an effective tool to have people think about what kind of Rabbi they want, and for the Rabbi to consider the purposes and goals of his Rabbinate. Like everything else in life, those choices have consequences.  And if his essay forces Rabbis to re-think or re-tool our own approaches to controversial issues, and speak out more, even when the causes are unpopular and counter-cultural but mandated by Torah and justice, then his article will have served a valuable purpose for all.

4 responses to “The Rabbinate

  1. > that Rabbis delight in being perceived as “friends” and backslappers of their congregants

    Pretty much describes the rabbi in my community but there’s a very good reason for it.

    We live in a time of extremes. On the Chareidi side of the equation, you have “gedolim” and “roshei yeshivah” who are infallible, omniscient dictators due to their “Daas Torah” and whose every word must be obeyed or you’re a kofer b’ikkar.

    On the MO side of the equation, you have the rabbi as employee. His job is to increase membership through dynamic sermons and programs. Membership has to be increased because a shul is an expensive building to run. As a result, he cannot take any stands that might alienate someone and lead to a loss of a member and hence, money.

    In our shul, it is the unspoken rule that the more non-religious you are, the more you will be catered to. After all, the frum people have nowhere else to go (we’re a small, one Orthodox shul community) but the non-frum might take their money to the Temple down the street. We’ve had to rush through Yom Kippur services so that an intermarried couple could have their son’s bris by a certain time because their schedule was booked later in the day. We had a non-Jewish step-father do psicha (to be fair, the rabbi only found out later he wasn’t Jewish) on Shabbos. We unlock our parking lot on Friday afternoon and lock it back up Sunday morning so congregants can conveniently avoid any pretending they’ve walked to shul. All in the name of building membership because we need the money.
    So go easy on the small time shul employee known as the rabbi. It’s not his job anymore to provide religious leadership. That’s not lucrative.

  2. In great bitterness, I can completely relate to this. For years, to use the Pollard case, we have tried to get our very large MO shul to even say the Mi shebeirach for JP, to announce a call in campaign, or absolutely anything at all to acknowledge this travesty of justice and the need to fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, even offering to pay for every member to get a fact sheet about the case and have been refused at every turn. You speak of where all these 500 Clergy were all these many years who signed this petition…well, I say better late than never, because our Rabbi, even after acknowledging now that “we will do something” didn’t even sign that bloody petition. Bravo for saying it like it is. Bravo!

  3. Yoshekoach for responding to Rabbi Boteach’s essay thoughtfuly, vigorously and respectfully.

  4. A few more thoughts:
    People want to be challenged. We want challenging jobs, we want to he challenged at the gym. We complain at school if our kids are not challenged enough. I think most people who have a good memory of learning in Israel, its because thats where they were challenged to grow. So I think people would welcome being challenged by their Rabbis as well, to do and achieve more on a spiritual level. (Which does not mean getting harangues and browbeaten. ) But by and large, we are getting very little in the way of any challenge.
    If a Rabbi can’t picture challenging his congregants on regular basis to up their game, what did one go into the clergy for? Was it merely to soothe people in their times of grief?
    I understand one might not wish or think it productive to rail against, or refuse to come to, expensive simchot. But it might be nevertheless be something to at least remind people that, in making a lavish or ostentatious simcha, that one should not think one is actually earning an extra Mitzva for it.
    But leadership need not only consist of challenging your congregants. It should also consist of representing us on communal level, as in this country we generally do not really have any other communal leaders, particularly at a local level. For example, I, for one, think that Rabbis could have done more to stop the slide of day schools in Bergen and Westchester into tailoring their product primarily to the “luxury” end of the market. Who else could have done so?
    Kind regards,
    Daniel Barenholtz