October 19, 2009
How Rabbis Can Become Relevant
Speaking at a Rabbinical Conference in the American South this week, I made myself instantly unpopular by pointing out how irrelevant we Rabbis have become. How many parents push their kids to be Rabbis? Sure. If the kid flunked science and math. Perhaps. But to choose it over law or a job at Goldman Sachs?
And how many people turn to a Rabbi aside from the obvious life-cycle events like Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, or, more ominously, during tragedies like illness and funerals. And to the extent that we Rabbis are becoming more popular with our communities it seems to be precisely when we act as though we’re not Rabbis but just one of the boys. How often have I heard friends tell me, “We have the coolest new Rabbi. We call him by his first name. He plays poker and basketball with us. He’s amazing.” All of this is, of course, quite kosher. But this kind of popularity is hardly the stuff of leadership.
And if we’re becoming less relevant in the Jewish community, we never had any real relevance outside our community to begin with. While evangelical pastors like Rick Warren have an appeal well beyond Christians, Rabbis remain almost completely unknown in the United States beyond their Synagogues. Not that popularity or renown is any kind of meaningful barometer of success. It’s not. But as a gauge of the degree to which Rabbis are impacting the mainstream culture, it’s clear that we remain mostly marginalized.
And it’s our own fault. We have relegated ourselves to mainstream irrelevance by allowing ourselves to mostly become synagogue quarterbacks and ritual rule-givers. The Rabbi is the man who runs the Synagogue service. He makes announcements like, “Will the Congregation please rise” and “Please turn to page 250.” He is the person you come to with questions like “What time do Kol Nidrei services begin” and “Are my tefillin still kosher?” Now, let’s not trivialize these absolutely vital functions of the communal Rabbi. Let us also, of course, never trivialize the importance of every person whom Rabbis affect, comfort, and inspire, each of whom, according to our Talmud, is an entire universe. But let us also not pretend that any of these functions will ever bring Rabbis or Judaism to have a mainstream impact on a culture crying out for redemption.
What could change all this? A radical transformation in how Rabbis view themselves and how they are viewed by their communities. The principal purpose of a Rabbi is not to present a leather-bound Bible to a Bar Mitzvah boy or even to eulogize a righteous grandmother upon her passing. Rather, the Rabbi’s main objective is to serve as a guide for life to his congregants. Simply put, as a supreme repository of the splendid wisdom contained in Judaism, as Rabbi is the ultimate lifecoach.
The Rabbi once was, and should again be, the main person you come to when you want advice as to how to make your marriage passionate, how to learn to talk to your teenage kids, how to wean yourself off materialism and greed, and how to learn to become a deeper and wiser person. But when these question pop into our heads the personalities we turn to are Oprah, Deepak Chopra, Dr. Phil, and Marianne Williamson.
But aren’t rabbis wise? Are they not students of an ancient tradition that kept families intact and communities whole for generations? Are we not the teachers who can best explain how Joseph learned to forgive his brothers and are we not the heirs of Hillel who practiced patience even through the most outrageous provocations? So why are we teaching so little of this? We Rabbis ought to have owned the self-help revolution that had millions searching for mastery over their lives.
This past Sunday night I was joined on a panel by Elie Wiesel, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Mayor Cory Booker to discuss Jewish values that can heal America. Each of the panelists spoke with great eloquence. Joining in the audience of over 1000 was John Gosselin from TLC’s ‘Jon and Kate Plus Eight’ whose life has become a tabloid parody but who is now searching for redemptive purpose and asked a very important question about values he can employ, as a single father, to raise healthy children. Mayor Booker said ‘Be a moral example to your children.’ Dr. Oz said he must teach his children to always show others respect. And Prof. Wiesel, eloquent as always, said education was key and his children must love learning. I advised him to wean his children off the attention that comes from TV viewers and substitute it instead with the kind of unconditional love that can only come from focused parenting. But the significance of the exchange was that a man whose family has been significantly damaged by the all-American obsession with celebrity is searching for meaning within the well of Jewish values.
About a year ago I had a meeting with a television executive about a family values program. I was warned ahead of time that although the executive was Jewish he was extremely secular and I should be careful not to bring up religion. Yet, as soon as I walked in he asked me, “Do you watch Joel Osteen?” I said that I did, on occasion, and found him to be an effective and inspiring communicator.
As I walked out it occurred to me that his question was somewhat tragic. Not because the Jewish executive watched a Christian pastor to receive spiritual uplift. Rather, the tragedy lay in the fact that Osteen mostly quotes from the Hebrew Bible as opposed to the New Testament. His sermons focus on the Jewish patriarchs, Moses, King David, Jeremiah, and Isaiah for guidance. What he doesn’t do is announce ‘Will the congregation please rise’ or content himself with quarterbacking a service. Rather, he provides guidance for life. And he does it from our Torah. Surely we Rabbis who devote our lives to its mastery can recapture our historical occupation of sharing its wisdom with those who seek to lead lives of moral grandeur and spiritual purpose.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published ‘The Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul in Intimate Conversation.” www.shmuley.com.