Monday, March 31, 2008

The Problem With Pedestal Rabbis

The Jewish Week, 9/00

We ve been hearing a lot about rabbis lately, and most of it not good. Allegations of abuse of rabbinic power and betrayal of trust are hardly new, here or in Israel. In fact, many Israelis, weaned on the galling defiance of Aryeh Deri and the unmitigated chutzpah of Ovadia Yosef, are having a hard time comprehending how an overtly religious person like Joseph Lieberman can be both observant and uncorrupted.

But it s not just over there. Now Publishers Weekly reports that HarperCollins has paid author and former PBS religion reporter Arthur Magida "a significant six figures" for a book based on a trial that won t even be happening until next spring. Why? Because the defendant, Fred Neulander, is believed to be the first rabbi ever to be charged with murder, according to the Publishers Weekly report. Neulander is accused of murdering his wife in suburban Philadelphia. Magida states that the book will pose the question, "What happens when we deify men and women in the pulpit and are betrayed?"

What happens, evidently, is a boffo book advance, with film rights to follow.

Adding insult to injury, a new study of American Jewry authored by Bethamie Horowitz shows that only 5 percent of American Jews see their rabbis as a positive influence in their lives, while 10 percent say rabbis have negatively influenced them.

The remainder of those surveyed didn t mention rabbis as an influence at all, positive or negative. For rabbis, that it is a striking indictment. It means we are 85 percent irrelevant. That statistic screams out for some major rethinking of the rabbi s place in modern Jewish life.

Personally, if my work is to be irrelevant to 85 percent of American Jewry, there is no reason for me to be missing my kids school plays and Little League games. If I am to be an invisible rabbi, I might as well be a good father.

The very week the Horowitz survey was released, I received three calls from people new to my area wishing to find out about my congregation. Each caller complained about how bad experiences with a rabbi turned him or her off to synagogue life umpteen years ago. I m used to hearing that. But what stunned me most was the depth of their gratitude for my merely returning their call.

Have people come to expect so little of their rabbis that they are actually shocked when one displays simple human decency and warmth? Or is it that we still expect too much? Have we set up our leaders for a fall by placing them on pedestals, allowing them to tower so high above being simply human that when the fall occurs, as is inevitable, it is often devastating? Speaking as a rabbi, there is a clear danger in our being so eager to place rabbis on pedestels: we rabbis begin to believe all our press clippings and forget the reasons we got into the rabbinate in the first place. And when we fail, our followers often blindly defend us because they still need to revere us, and we begin to believe that an admission of fallibility will compromise our ability to lead.

It's time to smash the pedestal rabbinate like so many of Terach s idols. Whereas human rabbis make mistakes, take responsibility for them, and move on, pedestal rabbis make mistakes, deny them, hope that others will not notice, and inevitably succumb to them. Pedestal rabbis are the ones most likely to become 85 percent irrelevant in the end because relevance requires relationship, and human beings relate best to other human beings. Only to the degree that I can be human can I lead others on the human quest.

We rabbis are seeking ways to humanize the role without compromising the respect due the position. A few weeks ago I ran an informal survey of colleagues on my on-line rabbinic chat group and found that most prefer to be called "rabbi" by congregants rather than by their first names. I tend to agree. If our important work is to be taken seriously, then let s not infantilize it. Even Mister Rogers gets to be called by his last name. Imagine if the Baal Shem Tov had been called "Rabbi Izzy." Would his disciples of have taken him seriously?

Actually, yes, because it was the power of his message that made the Baal Shem Tov great, not his name (which means, ironically, "Master of the good name."). And for all those rabbis of the Talmud, like Akiba, who were revered by their first names, and all those medieval rabbis with the cool nicknames, like the Rambam and the Ran, these pet names were indicators of the great respect and affection earned through close relationships rather than pedestal-sitting.

It's clear that if we are to navigate our way through this crisis in confidence and re-establish the rightful place of the rabbi in Jewish life, we have to both safeguard the integrity of the role and reaffirm the frailty of the human being who fills it. And that begins when the rabbi steps down from pulpit of the soul and laughs, cries, errs and does teshuvah together with the rest of us. In the end, it doesn t really matter how the rabbi is addressed. What matters is only that the rabbi is addressed, one soul to another, two flawed human beings in dialogue.

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