Friday, May 3, 2024

A Rabbi Dies - and Kills - and More on "Flipping the Script" (Substack)

A Rabbi Dies - and Kills - and More on "Flipping the Script"

How, after Auschwitz, something shattered in the soul of Judaism that has not yet healed, and it's on full display in the slide of the rabbi, to irrelevance, and in one famous case, to murder.

Two weeks ago, a famous rabbi died - actually, an infamous one. His name was Fred Neulander, and 25 years ago he was convicted of hiring a hitman to murder his wife. To be precise, two hitmen. He died while serving a 30 year prison term in Trenton, N.J., not far from where he was a successful pulpit rabbi, in Cherry Hill.

Neulander was in some ways our O.J. Simpson, the hero turned scoundrel, and the rabbi died exactly one week after the running back.

In 2000, I wrote about Neulander and what his case tells us about the American rabbinate. Why was his story such a cause célèbre, to the point where an author received “a significant six figure” advance to write a book about the crime? Is it because ostensibly he was the first rabbi ever to be charged with murder? (For the ancient rabbis, even legalized killing via capital punishment was a rarity. They couldn’t stand the sight of blood). Or is it because people look for ways to erect pedestals to build up their rabbis, only to secretly seek any opportunity to knock them down?

We love to batter our heroes, in a Freudian kind of way, especially when they deserve it, when they fall short of perfection, when they fail.

For those who are looking for some fascinating background material on the psychological underpinnings of the rabbi-congregant relationship, I highly recommend an essay by Richard Rubenstein, “A Rabbi Dies.” (found in Jacob Neusner’s American Judaism: Adventure in Modernity). In it, he traces the fall of a Neulander-like rabbi, but in this case, one whose only sin was to accept his own mediocrity, and to allow himself to become a totemic communal sacrifice.

It’s a harrowing study into the rapid secularization that took place in the post-Holocaust era, as Jews attempted to grapple with questions too hard to ask and bankrupt theological underpinnings that were quickly sliding away. After Auschwitz, without an all-powerful God to hide behind, or even the illusion of one, the rabbi was revealed to be an emperor with no clothes, a ruler without subjects. Powerless, pathetic and ultimately irrelevant.

Here is Rubenstein’s jarring final scene:

By the turn of this century, rabbis were already becoming stunningly irrelevant to people. In the article I wrote about Neulander’s conviction, I quoted a June, 2000 study by Bethamie Horowitz showing that only 5% of American Jews saw their rabbis as a positive influence in their life, while 10% said rabbis negatively influenced them. The remainder of those surveyed didn't mention rabbis as an influence at all, positive or negative.

For rabbis, that was a striking indictment: It meant we were 85% irrelevant.

That statistic screamed out for some major rethinking of the rabbi’s place in modern Jewish life. Personally, if my work was to be irrelevant to 85% of American Jewry there was no reason for me to be missing my kids’ school plays and Little League games. If I was to be an invisible rabbi, I might as well have tried to be a more visible father.

Now, a quarter century later, I can look back at my years in the pulpit and feel some satisfaction that, at least in my little corner of the sky, my relevance score was quite a bit higher than 15 percent. I know that anecdotally and feel it intuitively, and if I did not, I shudder to think about what a waste of time this all was.

But none of us should be fooled. After Auschwitz, something broke in the soul of American Judaism. All the old types were there, in fossilized or evolved forms: the rabbi, the secular organizational leadership, halacha, prayer, community, peoplehood, even God (especially God) - even Yenta the Matchmaker. Everything needed to be redefined. The Holocaust and modernity had rendered them all obsolete.

Perhaps Fred Neulander’s story netted a six figure advance because we wanted to read about a rabbi who was a murderer. Perhaps it gave license to the ambivalence we were felling about it all - about religion, rabbis, God, and this people called the Jews that everyone still seems to hate, even after they murdered a third of us. Perhaps Rubenstein’s fictitious rabbi and Neulander and the hit men represented all that we hate about ourselves.

And after Auschwitz, perhaps we hated all those things about ourselves more than ever before.

…Until, that is, we flipped the script and began to find positive ways to incorporate the Holocaust into our souls - which is the topic of my 2020 book,  Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously, published by Ben Yehuda Press.

After Auschwitz (also the title of Richard Rubenstein’s most famous book), everything changed for Jews, only it took time for those transformations to appear. Now those changes are clear to see, as the trauma of the Shoah has blended with other social, economic and environmental forces to forge a Judaism that is almost unrecognizable to the ways Jews lived just a generation or two ago. And this cuts across the board, from secular to Haredi. The shifting role of the rabbi is only a small example of something much bigger.

And now, following October 7, the greatest of Auschwitz’s Aftershocks has thrust us into a terrifying future and back to square one, all at the same time.

That is where we stand on the eve of Yom Hashoah 5784.

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Some follow up from last week’s posting, ”Flipping the Script.” It has received inordinate attention over the past few days, including an exchange on Facebook when the article was shared by an old friend, Rabbi Joshua Gutoff, who wrote this:

What follows is a dialogue of the precise sort I was hoping to inspire, with some of Josh’s friends, including rabbis, discussing my claims that the two main roles of a rabbi, priest (pastor) and prophet, are at their core irreconcilable.

So here’s what I wrote to respond to those comments and others along the same vein. Although just a Facebook post, I believe it’s an important addendum to what I wrote last week and helps clarify the issues.

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