This has not been, to say the least, a banner year for the rabbinic profession.
Almost every month – or is it week?! – some new scandal hits the headlines, giving rabbis – and by extension, all of Judaism – a black eye.
And these are not just minor offenses, like getting a bit tipsy at the Shabbat kiddush, or forgetting if the eulogy is for a man or a woman or even taking a few liberties with the discretionary fund. No, these are actually culpable crimes we are talking about, peccadilloes that scrape the bottom of the cholent pot, from voyeurism to adultery to larceny for stealing synagogue funds to pay off blackmailers ready to reveal an illicit liaison with an underage male congregant. With an occasional game of naked squash thrown in for good measure.
The net effect of these incidents, while they certainly represent the vast minority of the clergy, is to cast a shadow over the rabbinic profession specifically, and create an air of cynicism regarding religion in general. After all, if those who purport to be God’s messengers have such failings and foibles, how can they preach to me as to how to live my life? So I thought this would be a good opportunity to focus on the role of the rabbi and to offer some thoughts on what, in my opinion, ought to constitute the essential qualities and convictions we would hope to find in our spiritual leaders.
Now, many people would put the art of speaking at the top of their list. I wouldn’t.
While it is, of course, important for the rabbi to be able to get his point across and hold his congregants’ attention at sermon time, I consider this to be a minor qualification.
Public speaking has become more and more about theatrics than theology.
The rabbi is often turned into an entertainer rather than an enlightener, seeing his role as one who must cheer his audience far more than challenge them.
Oratorical ability, then, is somewhat overrated. Let us remember that the greatest of all rabbis in history, Moshe Rabbeinu, was, by his own admission, among the poorest of speakers. And yet he remains the rabbinic standard-bearer.
Next is the issue of scholarship. We expect our rabbis to be talmidei chachamim, well-versed in both Torah and rabbinic literature, as well as experts in philosophy, psychology and history, adept in ancient texts as well as the vernacular of the day.
After all, we want to learn from them, and so their classes must be clever, creative and contemporary, all at the same time.
This is indeed a valuable attribute, and it certainly will assist the rabbi in attracting a large flock and achieving an admirable reputation. But what with so much information being available today on the Internet – with literally hundreds of lessons on virtually every Jewish subject at our fingertips – this is no longer the crucial sine qua non of the pulpit as it once was. Moreover, many cities boast institutions of higher Jewish learning where gifted teachers and study sessions abound, often eclipsing the rabbi in scope and substance.
And, I would sadly add, some of the most sordid stories now making the rounds are being told about some of the most brilliant clergymen.
I therefore suggest that there are three areas which rank as the most important qualities to look for in a rabbi: 1. PERSONAL EXAMPLE.
The rabbi is first and foremost a spiritual role model. He embodies the personality traits – middot, we call them in rabbinic language – that one should seek to emulate, that we want to give over to our children. He is human, not superhuman, but he has worked hard to master the moral, godly behavior that defines what a good Jew represents.
It’s hard to perfectly describe exactly what these traits are, but, like all intrinsic values, we certainly know it when we see it. It’s part stately bearing, part affinity for the common man. It has a face of kindness and compassion, ever-ready to accept, but at the same time it projects a high standard and an absolute confidence that we too can reach that level of excellence.
Joy is the principal emotion that should radiate from the rabbi, reflecting an inner satisfaction with being a Jew. If there is any anger, it is directed at injustice and corrupted behavior. If there is sadness, it is focused on the plight of the less fortunate among us, empathizing with the hardships that life often throws at us, and the suffering we have endured as a people at the hands of our enemies.
It is not even necessary to always interact directly with the rabbi. Just appreciating what he stands for, that he is one of us and has our best interests at heart, is enough to inspire and energize us. He is a kind of Moses on the mountain, that hero who represents the community, sometimes from afar, personifying the best that we can be if we apply ourselves. Just knowing that he exists – and knowing that he knows that we exist, as well – is a singular source of strength that supports us in times of need.
Every hassid now reading this is surely shaking his head in approval.2. SURROGATE PARENT.
The rabbi should be both a father and mother figure to us. Though he cannot and should not actually replace a parent, he can often do things our parents are unable or reluctant to do. He can develop a love of learning within us; he can allow us to get a glimpse of God when he tutors, or even talks with us.
He knows how to break the bonds of apathy that often constrain us; he is adept at bringing us closer when we feel alienated, uplifting us when we are out of spiritual sorts. We instinctively trust him, because we know that he has our best interests at heart, and so we “let him in” when we are hurting and accept his advice when we are confused and searching.
When Joseph was about to succumb to the illicit advances of Potiphar’s wife in Egypt, the Sages say he looked in the window and saw a vision of his father Jacob’s face. It was a face of love, and Joseph instinctively knew what his father expected of him and so he gathered up his moral courage and refused to be seduced. Jacob became, in a sense, the “father of our nation,” and leaders like him still nurture and train us.
On a deeper level – since Joseph was said to closely resemble his father – he saw his own reflection in that window. The best of rabbis, or parents, open a window to our souls so that we can see ourselves for what we are – or should be.3. LEADERS AS LADDERS.
Speaking of Jacob, one of the most evocative images in all of the Torah is Jacob’s Ladder. Commentaries abound as to the meaning of this marvelous and mysterious dream.
But I believe one interpretation is that Jacob himself is the ladder! He is being shown his mission in life, to be the ultimate “connector” between Heaven and Earth, to facilitate the ascension of everyone with whom he comes into contact, so as to form a closer relationship with God. After all, this is the “endgame,” connecting to the Creator, is it not? Otherwise, what the heck are we doing on this planet; the goal cannot simply be to “break even.”
Therefore, the principal task of the rabbi is to take each and every person, wherever he or she may be at that moment on the spiritual ladder, and raise him or her to a higher level. That means he must become involved with people, get to know their family, their history, their unique personality. In short, he has to care and care mightily about other human beings – no less than he cares about himself - and truly want them to achieve their spiritual equilibrium. Not for his sake, but for theirs. He has to be motivated by the knowledge that he can make a difference in every person’s life.
And his reward? In the process of changing others, they will change his life, too.
Are there such rabbis out there? After all, the model I have outlined is a very tall order. The answer, as many of you reading this will agree, I am sure, is a resounding “Yes!” – there are indeed such gifted individuals.
I know, because I was blessed to have such rabbis in my life. I sincerely hope you have them, too. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org