Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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.
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September 30, 2009 | 6:31 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
If J Street, the new left-wing Israel lobby, wants to be taken seriously by mainstream American Jewry, then I would suggest they immediately stop the patronizing argument that all those who disagree with them are ossified Jewish knuckledraggers who see an anti-Semite behind every corner. The New York Times Magazine feature on J Street this past Sunday, which raised the group from near obscurity to high visibility, may have been off in its quotations of its director Jeremy Ben-Ami. But if accurate they represent a nauseating and patronizing position of breathtaking condescension toward ideological opponents that can only sow deep divisions within the Jewish community.
Here are some choice morsels.
On why most of the pro-Israel lobbying groups, whom J Street has come to ‘balance,’ support a hard-line against terror, Ben Ami says that they see “Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.” Ben-Ami added further that these groups stifle dissent because they argue that “we’re still on too-shaky ground to permit public disagreement.” In Ben-Ami’s opinion Aipac is run by paranoid schizophrenics who fear another holocaust striking at any moment.
On Israel’s recent offensive against Hamas in Gaza, which J Street strongly criticized, the Times relates, “Ben-Ami… acknowledges that moments of crisis for Israel tap into the ancestral impulses… ‘There’s their grandmother’s voice in their ear; it’s the emotional side and the communal history, and it’s the fear of not wanting in some way to be responsible for the next great tragedy that will befall the Jewish people.’”
Get it. If you support Israel’s right to defend itself against missiles raining down on its kindergartens and nursing homes it’s not because you believe in a country’s legitimate right to defend itself against attack but because you’re reptilian Jewish brain has still not gotten over your great-grandmother being disemboweled by Chemielnitzki.
Talk about delegitimizing the other side. And all this from a man who started J Street because right-wing Jews stifle debate!
Is this the way to conduct an honest discussion about Israel’s future, by painting those with whom you disagree as a bunch of loons who see Nazis about to storm Brooklyn?
The truth, of course, is that many people, myself included, who support the organizations that J Street seeks to demonize – AIPAC, the ADL, the ZOA, and others – do so not because we fear the imminent mass extinction of all Jews but because we seek to prevent the cold-blooded murder of even one Jew. In the year 2009 there is no reason that we should have to put up with any anti-Semitic or anti-Israel prejudice, even if it doesn’t lead to gas chambers. Israel shouldn’t have to tolerate any bombs going off in its midst, even if they kill only a handful of Jews. And we support Israel not because it’s the final bunker when the skinheads finally conquer Miami Beach but because, like all proud Americans, we love freedom and democracy and we’re thrilled that the Jewish state is the bastion of those precious values in a region that utterly repudiates them.
I am not one to get easily offended, but reading Ben-Ami’s words, in the New York Times of all places, borders on the anti-Semitic. His caricature of leaders of major Jewish organizations – heroes like Malcolm Hoenlein, Howard Kohr, and Morton Klein – as mistrustful cranks who seek to hijack American foreign policy is deeply troubling, as is his contention that Jews who believe that a tough military posture, after all the terror Israel has experienced in response to two decades of land-for-peace-deals, are paranoid brutes stuck in the past.
I am prepared to accord Ben-Ami the benefit of the doubt, that his left-wing posture on Israel and his strong support of President Obama’s pressure on its government stems from a sincere desire to bring peace to the Jewish state. Ben-Ami is the scion of Israeli patriots and while I strongly disagree with his politics I do not question the nobility of his motivation. Will he not afford me the same benefit of the doubt?
And I would ask Ben-Ami to at least be consistent. On the subject of Israel talking with Hamas, the Times reported that although the United States classifies the group as a terrorist organization, “J Street takes the cautious view that while we should not speak directly with officials, we should engage through intermediaries with the goal of finding interlocutors willing to live in peace with Israel.” But surely Ben-Ami should then, at the very least, publicly advocate that the United States do the same with Al Qaida. Rather than hunt them down in Afghanistan we should be reaching out to them through the Swiss.
I am not here to attack J Street but to make a point. We need many voices in the Jewish community and if J Street feels that left-wing Jews were not being heard in the halls of Congress then by all means let it be remedied by the establishment of an alternative lobby. That’s what democracy is all about. But J Street’s cheap tactics of creating its name by attacking Aipac, the ADL, and the ZOA is shameful. There is room in our community for many voices without creating a civil war. We can be a community of one heart even if we are not of one mind.
Finally, amid Ben-Ami’s cutting words about how we who are disturbed by Obama’s unrelenting pressure on Israel are just a bunch of unreasonable fossils, will he really overlook those whose stated intention is indeed the destruction of Israel, like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Ahmedenijad? Would he argue that the Iranian President’s bark is worse than his bite even as he slaughters his own protesting countrymen in the streets?
No doubt just seventy years after the start of World War II there are still Jews who have not forgotten that when dictators say they want to wipe a nation off the map, and build weapons with that very capability, they ought to be taken seriously. As the great baseball legend Yogi Berra once said, “Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published his newest book ‘The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger,’ a man selection of the Sony EBook Store. www.shmuley.com.