Few columns I have written have generated as much heat and as many responses as
the last two about rabbis. The first dealt with the failures of the British
Chief Rabbinate in curbing the sewer of anti- Semitism that has erupted in
Britain, especially on campuses. The second addressed the growing irrelevance of
the American rabbinate to mainstream Jewish and American life. Few rabbis have
any impact on wider American culture, and even within the Jewish community, it’s
mostly secular writers and lay leaders who are determining the future.
my column I maintained that we rabbis are becoming nice guys, popular among our
flocks specifically because we refrain from dishing out discomfort. The
modern rabbi is your tennis partner and drinking buddy, but never the guy who
criticizes your lavish bar mitzva. The rabbi rarely makes himself unpopular with
the board by taking controversial stands, like insisting that all weddings he
performs be kosher-catered. The net result is that rabbis have been declawed,
which accounts for why at major communal conventions like AIPAC or the
federations’ General Assembly, rabbis are reduced to such niceties as a
monotonous invocation or the grace after meals.
means allowing yourself to be treated derisively, and I shared how, although the
American Jewish University website boasts that it was given $33 million for
adult education, it offered me a fraction of what I later learned it was paying
two atheist speakers for a debate on the afterlife that I had proposed, and
which I had earlier staged with Christopher Hitchens in New York in front of 800
I regularly accommodate organizations with no funding, but I
objected to this insulting double standard on principle, even as the AJU moved
to cut me from the event.
RESPONDING TO my argument that rabbis have been
neutered, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a lion of our local community, agreed in part,
but said my Hollywood associations risked the same trivialization of the
rabbinate that I decry.
His words have merit. I have yet to fully become
the man or rabbi I wish to be. But I know who that man is – an exponent of
Judaism who brings the glory of our tradition to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences
wherever they may be. I have one overriding desire: to make Judaism relevant.
And I live with endless frustration at how the world’s first monotheistic faith
seems to take a permanent backseat to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and secular
humanism. We rabbis are guilty of allowing what is arguably the world’s
foremost repository of wisdom to be confined to .003% of the earth’s
There is a spiritual thirst in America, just not for Judaism.
There are Jew-Boos (Jewish Buddhists), Jews who practice yoga and meditation,
Jews who study Kabbala, and millions of Jewish women who watch Oprah to quench
their spiritual thirst. They just don’t come to synagogue. I believe the
principal reason is that rabbis have become bland by refusing to be
opinionated. We fear balkanizing our audience.
But people want
hear something compelling, whether they agree with it or not. CNN is being
destroyed in the ratings because, unlike Fox and now even MSNBC, it will not
take a stand. Sarah Palin is relevant because she is unafraid to speak her mind.
Vastly talented hosts such as Anderson Cooper have seen their audiences shrivel
because of their neutrality, and his producers are now encouraging him to get in
the face of his interviewees.
Not long ago I vouched for a man who wished
to convert to Judaism, and told the beit din he was Sabbath observant. A few
weeks after his conversion, he had Friday night dinner with us and then drove
home. I knew I was risking our friendship when I told him he owed those who
vouched for him more. He took the admonishment to heart and stopped
BUT SOME in the Jewish community still believe that rabbis must
win popularity contests. A case in point was the response to my criticism of
British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks by Saul Taylor (“A tough act to follow”
January 4), who apparently believes that the staggering anti-Semitism and
Israel-bashing that has erupted under Sacks’s leadership is irrelevant because
“his recent appointment to the House of Lords is an indication of the high
esteem in which he is held.”
Indeed, he added, “the whole community
joined to congratulate him on joining the House of Lords.”
seemingly blind to how his bizarre “defense” condemned the chief rabbi to being
a perfect caricature of the toadying court Jew who will allow himself to be
muzzled to placate his non-Jewish overlords. Taylor put the nail in coffin of
the chief rabbi’s reputation by saying: “We were very proud when it was our
chief rabbi who was chosen to address Pope Benedict during his recent trip to
Ah, non-Jewish acceptance at last.
Is Taylor right, that
British Jews are so enamored of vacuous titles – polls show that a majority of
Britons would like to see the stodgy House of Lords abolished – and empty pomp
that they would applaud a oncecourageous rabbinic institution falling silent
even as the Jewish state has become more reviled in the UK than North Korea?
Taylor’s fixation with non-Jewish legitimacy conjures images of past Israeli
prime ministers glowingly raising the Nobel Prize in Oslo for the “peace” they
achieved amid the din of thousands of Israelis being blown up by suicide
But Taylor is not done yet. Sacks has been a paragon of moral
courage because he “welcomes [homosexuals] at [British] synagogues.”
yes. Valor indeed.
How tragic for our community when leaders become
heroes for simply welcoming equal sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
back to their rightful home.
We all like to be loved. We all desire to be
admired. I myself am no stranger to the inner demons that draw one to the
limelight. But we rabbis must resist the urge for mainstream approval and
promote the interests of our people, at whatever price. We rabbis must serve as
lights unto the nations, whatever the cost.The writer is founder of This
World: The Values Network, which promotes universal Jewish values in the
mainstream culture. He was the 2000 Times of London Preacher of the Year.
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