Reading Jordanna Birnbaum’s post about a “rabbi roundtable” she attended, I was struck by the extent to which the role of the rabbi has changed, not necessarily for the better. Birnbaum relates that at the roundtable, rabbis from different denominations stopped at particpants’ tables one at a time, and fielded questions. A common denominator to all their responses was the focus on the individual as arbiter of the tradition, and of personal meaningfulness as the epitome of the religious experience.
Far be it from me to prefer a religion that is devoid of personal meaning, but meaning is not a static thing. One rabbi, for example, noted that he doesn’t like Rashi, and prefers to “look at the text and see what is says to me.” I don’t particularly like Rashi’s approach either, but ignoring him isn’t an option in Jewish learning. And even if it was, interacting with Rashi will lead you to discover new meanings in the text. Circumscribing your Jewish understanding so that it contains only that which you find unobjectionable and/or personally meaningful means living in a religious community of one.
And what of the rabbis in all this? Once, rabbis were figures of authority who compelled their followers in religious worship, ethical practice, and many other dimensions. At other times they were teachers, guides, counselors, and confidants. Today they are priests at the Temple of Me, serving as spiritual cheerleaders for congregations and individuals who feel empowered to celebrate their own ignorance of Jewish religious life, theology, and spirituality.
At the lay leadership retreat I recently attended at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Rabbi David Hartman spoke to the assembled congregation of both lay leaders and rabbinical leaders (who were on a simultaneous rabbinic retreat). Speaking to the rabbis, he said that in his shul, the board told him that if he wanted to receive a raise, he should begin to announce page numbers during the service. At this point, Rabbi Hartman became animated and roared “they wanted to turn me from a rabbi into a monkey!”
His message to the rabbis was courageous, powerful, and challenging. Reinvent yourselves! You are obsolete. Your ‘leadership’ over the last sixty years has led the Jewish community to its highest rates of disaffiliation, assimilation and ignorance. You have presided over a collapse, not a renaissance! Rabbis must teach Torah. Not just the parts that correspond to a congregation’s secular ethics or humanist leanings. The actual authentic Torah. Don’t like Rashi? Good. Go learn him and tell me exactly what you don’t like about him, and then go compare him to his grandson the Rashbam. Don’t want to follow halacha as written in the Shulchan Aruch? Don’t think it’s appropriate to modern times? How would you know, if you’ve never studied it? Rabbis have enabled this ignorance and abandoned their central mission in order to become fundraisers and salves to the conscience of Jews who will never flourish until more is demanded of them by God, by faith, and even, yes, by their personal sense of self-worth.