The Changing Role of a Modern Rabbi
Rabbi Shalom Lewis is a rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim.
It all began in the Babylonian exile two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Displaced, our ancestors recreated Jewish life in the first, massive diaspora. The Temple was no more and so emerged the synagogue as a gathering place. The sacrificial cult fell away with the absence of the Jerusalem altar and so prayer emerged as the new vehicle of worship. The priesthood lost its role and authority, so a new leadership evolved, linked not to bloodline, but to Torah knowledge, creativity, charisma and spiritual talent, the proto rabbi. Though historians see the Babylonian experiment as a watershed in preserving Judaism in the creation of new, vibrant salvational institutions, I’d like to suggest that the seeds were sewn for the emergence of the rabbi years before, with the prophets. Unlike the monarchy and the priesthood, which were familial and pompish, the prophets were the conscience and the moralists of the Jewish people. They had no staff. No royal ancestry. No entourage, but wandered and preached and warned of the consequences of misbehavior and spiritual defiance. Their task was to be fearless shakers and stirrers of the people, but often at great risk to their very safety. They were the vulnerable functionaries of G-d, spreading His word to the reluctant masses.
Claiming to be a latter-day Jeremiah or Hosea is an admitted leap of hubris, but indeed, there are similarities in the frustrating, demanding job description and in the reception of an audience to sacred finger wagging. But permit me to push a bit further and claim that the rabbi of today has a daunting task and a nearly impossible job. The demands imposed and the skills expected are scattered across the clerical landscape. We are to be scholars. Orators. Fundraisers. Miracle workers. Ambassadors. Singers. Counselors. Teachers. Diplomats. Healers. Writers. We are to uplift. Entertain. Captivate. Console. Educate. Warn. Inform. Transform. It can be an exhausting day for the conscientious rabbi.
The dynamics a rabbi must confront are complex. We are employees and yet tell those who sign our checks how to act. How they should spend their weekends. What they should eat. How deeply they are to reach into their pockets. Who they should marry. They seek our guidance and yet often tell us what to do. They want passion, but not too much. They want guilt, but not too much. They want direction, but not too much. For survival, rabbis must discover the Goldilocks Zone in their congregation. That ideal place that is not too hard, not too soft, but just right and pleasing to all. If that sweet spot is unfound, then a parting of the ways is inevitable.
The Maggid of Koznitz, Reb Yisroel, wisely advised, “Any rabbi whose congregation does not wish to be rid of him, is no real rabbi. On the other hand, any rabbi whose congregation has managed to get rid of him, is no real man.” Every day is a walk on the high wire. A balancing act. Even when stakes are high, rabbis often play it safe for fear of offending a congregant or a board member or a generous donor. But just as a loving parent administers bitter medicine to an ailing child, so too should the responsible, loving rabbi administer stern, serious messages to his/her congregation when necessary. Not all the time, of course, variety is the spice of homiletics, but when circumstances demand, the courageous rabbi and the mature congregation must be one, even if there is squirming on the bimah and squirming in the seats. I often wonder what my European colleagues of yesteryear preached from the pulpits of Warsaw. Berlin. Vilna and beyond, as they witnessed the ascendancy of the Nazis. Was it the importance of kashrut? Of mikveh? Of Torah? Of licht benshin? Or was it a thundering geshrai to get packing? Many see the sanctuary literally as a sanctuary, as a safe room. A spiritual eye in the midst of a storm. A pleasant place of tranquility and Kumbaya. Enter stressed and leave whistling a song. With apologies to Ecclesiastes, there is a time for whistling and there is a time for fist-pounding. The wise rabbi knows when to purse and when to clench. The wise congregation knows as well.
The rabbinate is ever-changing. Our position has always been fragile, and yet our sacred message has always been sought. We live in a holy paradox. We are hired and fired. We are revered and scorned. Pursued and ignored. Respected and insulted. The lucky rabbi lands in a shul and remains. Sharing laughter and tears. Achievements and failures. Glories and upsets. The community that has the right fit sees beyond the fancy tallis and the bookshelves, accepting the imperfections and the humanity of their rabbi. In turn, the rabbi looks beyond the High Holiday crowds and the typically mild devotion of his flock and loves them no less.
What a rabbi and a synagogue create is a marriage. There are ups and downs. Moments of calm and moments of friction. Of intimacy and of distance. If the romance is strong then the destiny of our people is secure.
The healthy synagogue lives the magnificent words of Micah, who taught, “…what doth the Lord require of thee. Only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” If that is a shared journey and a sacred mission, then the rabbi and his congregation will live happily ever after.