After my first year of law school, I spent half the summer clerking at a law firm in Rome whose office was just a few blocks from the Vatican. I went to St. Peter’s Square every day for lunch, got to touch Pope John Paul II’s hand as he whisked by in his Popemobile during a general audience, and attended a semiprivate papal audience (along with a few thousand other people) in a large auditorium. Those experiences left me with a lifelong fascination with the Vatican, and I have been following the Italian and American press religiously over the past few weeks as they try to predict which of the “papabili” will be the next Pope. As I direct my gaze towards the chimney of the Sistine Chapel this week, I will be filled with holy envy – of the Jewish community.
Since I blog for a Jewish website, I drafted a list of rabbis who would be my “papabili” if an election were held for Chief Rabbi of LA. Should I go with erudition over charisma, to the extent that they are mutually exclusive? Should a rabbinate be centered on social justice? Torah teaching? Israel issues? Los Angeles is blessed with an abundance of capable rabbis, and narrowing the list was very hard to do. In the end, I chose one rabbi from each of the three major movements: David Woznica (Reform), Ed Feinstein (Conservative), and Elazar Muskin (Orthodox).
Holy envy rears its head when I think of the opportunities that these rabbis and other Jewish leaders have to carve out their own niche in the Jewish world while remaining under the Jewish community’s expansive umbrella. A rabbi can teach, head a congregation, create a nonprofit organization, work for a Jewish organization, become a newspaper columnist, or follow any number of professional paths that lead to his/her fulfillment. Things are a little different in the hierarchical, structured LDS world.
Mormon bishops – the closest LDS equivalent to rabbis -- don’t choose their callings; instead, they are invited to serve their congregations in a volunteer capacity for about five years. They are of course free to engage in any of the activities mentioned above like teaching and founding nonprofits, but these private activities fall outside the official LDS umbrella. For example, there are only a few official periodicals published by the church. If a group of Mormon bishops got together in LA and decided to publish an LDS-themed newspaper, they would have a zero percent chance of receiving official church sanction of their efforts, even though many Mormons might read their paper. The Jewish Journal, by way of contrast, is very much a part of LA’s “official” Jewish community, even though to the best of my knowledge there is no rabbi in a senior position at the paper.
LDS bishops are given specific responsibilities, though they do have some leeway in how they carry them out. These include focusing on youth programs and counseling those seeking repentance for past wrongs. A bishop can’t suddenly decide that he’s going to set aside his administrative or counseling responsibilities so that he can devote more pulpit time to teaching, involving his congregation in social justice campaigns, etc. He’s certainly welcome to do these things on his own time, but not in his capacity as an LDS leader.
Rabbis have an enviable opportunity to personalize their rabbinates, and they do a wonderful job applying their training and talents to tikkun olam and serving the Jewish community. Catholic Cardinals, like LDS leaders, have a little less leeway in their capacity as senior representatives of a hierarchical church, but it is my sincere hope that they will be moved this week to elect a leader of the world’s largest church who will be worthy of the job.