Sunday, February 12, 1995

Superabbi: The Flawed Model

New York Jewish Week: 1995

Item: A seventh grader's soccer coach has scheduled a practice for Rosh Hashanah. She walks up to him and says, "You'd better change this or my rabbi's gonna beat you up." She later relates the story to me, with a proud smile on her face. I pray that the coach is not a black belt.

Item: I am welcomed to a new congregation at a service filled with intense excitement and anticipation. The cantor dedicates a new musical composition in my honor, based on Isaiah, called "The Lord is in Our Midst." I fret that expectations are running a tad high.

Item: A large, influential group of Jews proclaims that their rabbi is the Messiah. The rabbi dies, but some insist that he is still the Messiah and will soon return.

The role of the rabbi has always been complex, but lately it appears to have broken the bounds of all human capability. There have been wonder-working rabbis for centuries, but none until now have been called upon to pull off the greatest miracle of all: to single-handedly fill the gaping spiritual hole in the postmodern, alienated Jewish soul. This is a job for Superabbi.

Like frantic Lois Lanes falling from a burning building, people are reaching out; people without roots, without purpose, all stretching their arms toward Superabbi to heal, to shepherd, to redeem them. Skeptical people, betrayed by the very modernity that promised them salvation, now turn to this lonely man of faith imploring, "Make my life full, before it is too late....

...Only don't expect me to commit to anything.

...Only I don't want my friends to see that I am vulnerable.

...And don't forget, it's because of you that I'm so alienated."

And who is "you?" "You" is what I've come to call the O.B.R., the One Bad Rabbi. All it takes is one, and a Jew can be turned off to Judaism for life. Apparently, most of us have had him, and we all went to the O.B.H.S., the One Bad Hebrew School, where this O.B.R. used to rap knuckles and force kids to sing the Sh'ma while screeching chalk along the blackboard with sadistic pleasure. Whatever this O.B.R. did, and it ranges from giving O.L.S. (One Lousy Sermon) to adultery, what matters is that he fell short of expectations, and therefore so did Judaism. The O.B.R. is the one reason I hear more than any other for individuals having been turned off to organized Jewish life.

If the O.B.R. is so dangerous, it's because he is Superabbi unmasked. If we were to not rely so heavily on Superabbi to save us, we'd be far less susceptible to the inevitable revelation that rabbis are fallible. Judaism is too important, and its future too uncertain, for Jews to place its fate in the hands of a single human being.

Or maybe the O.B.R. is just a convenient excuse for those who long ago left the fold but don't want to blame the other likely culprits: Mommy and Daddy, conformity, greed, fear and self-hatred. Whatever the reason, the O.B.R. has got to go, and Superabbi with it.

Through the ages, Jews have had a knack of creating the perfect model of leadership to match their needs. In ancient Israel, kings and prophet answered the call for military might and social justice. In Babylonian exile and beyond, prophets became more comforting and priests arose to create the rituals that would bring the people back into God's favor.

Then, in the wake of the Second Temple's destruction, the rabbinic model of scholar/arbiter/teacher and part-time miracle worker came to dominate the Jewish world. The source of his power was clearly his ability to reason. In the melting pot of 20th century America, the rabbi was converted from teacher to pastor/shepherd, so he could be just like the Christian clergy next door, but with all the ancient Jewish trappings of the miracle worker intact. When the holy man is a teacher, his holiness endows him with wisdom, but otherwise he remains human; when the holy man is primarily a pastor, however, his mere touch can bring salvation.

That kind of promise arouses superhuman expectations -- and disappointments.

Further, if the rabbi is a shepherd, that makes the rest of us sheep. O.K., so Moses, David and Akiba started out as shepherds, but they didn't have to worry about an intermarriage rate of 52 percent and climbing. If the rabbi is a shepherd, he has to lead the flock up the hillside, pulling, pushing and cajoling. Superabbi is expected to get those sheep to the destination, even if they don't want to go.

I have a better idea. How about the rabbi as a co-traveler, a very well educated member of the flock? I chose this model for myself long ago. I don't push or pull my companions, I share my experiences and learn from theirs; together we strive to reach the thick pasture at the top of the hill.

As I see it, I am a spiritual leader simply because I want to refine my own spirit, using the texts of my tradition for guidance, and, in doing so, possibly to inspire others to do the same. I am no different from my friends on the journey, except that I have some wisdom as a tourguide that I share where appropriate.

I believe that the rabbi is neither holier than others nor less human. The extent to which the rabbi can share his humanness, in fact, is the extent to which he can touch the lives of those who choose to travel along. To be the "perfect rabbi," therefore, is not to avoid mistakes, but to make them and then grow from them.

It is time to reaffirm the original intent of the rabbinic model as teacher and spiritual guide, in order to rescue our communities from the ravages of unmet expectations. If Superabbi is allowed to survive, we're setting ourselves up for a fall. In the end, there will be only burnt out rabbis and dissatisfied congregants, lots of O.B.R.s and very few Jews.