Are rabbis no longer influential Jews? - opinion

What is missing is a cadre of rabbinic leaders with universal vision, towering souls whose very presence inspires and motivates us to better ourselves.

 WHERE ARE the rabbis – the Rav Kooks (pictured), the Aryeh Levines? (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WHERE ARE the rabbis – the Rav Kooks (pictured), the Aryeh Levines?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Well, the (Jewish) New Year has come and gone, and with it all kinds of quaint customs (most of them of the culinary type).

The most famous of these, of course, is the tradition of New Year’s resolutions – what I promise to do, what I promise not to do.

Must confess, I’m not a big fan. In fact, the only New Year’s resolution I make, year in and year out, is not to make any New Year’s resolutions. Because, let’s face it, you soon won’t remember them, and even if you do, they’re bound to be broken. I prefer the rabbinic advice to avoid vows, pledges, promises and promissory notes.

And then there are the lists: Your Top 10 favorite movies of the year, your most (or least) memorable dates (yes, happily married people also can go out on dates!) and, sad to say, the list of old friends, celebrities or athletes who have died since last Rosh Hashanah.

The Jerusalem Post has its annual list, too, the “50 Most Influential Jews,” subtitled “our brightest stars.” This year’s selection included a slew of politicians, medical personnel (thanks, COVID!), various and sundry mega-business leaders both male and female, army higher-ups, a judge, an oligarch, organization heads and major philanthropists, a couple of TV stars and Israel’s two Olympic gold-medal winners.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country on Tisha Be'Av. (credit: SHUKI LERRER)Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country on Tisha Be'Av. (credit: SHUKI LERRER)

All deserving, I’m sure. But what’s glaringly missing from this august collection of movers and shakers? The rabbis! Only one clergy-person, a female Reform rabbi from France, made the grade – and she just barely, in the very last spot on the list. In a Jewish world and a Jewish country teeming with rabbi-types – as the old saying goes, “you throw a stick in Israel and you’ll hit either a dog or a rabbi” – these folks are incredibly conspicuous by their absence. In this glossy book of “brightest stars,” they barely produce a twinkle.

It’s perplexing: we have yeshiva heads by the hundreds, synagogue rabbis on almost every corner, kashrut specialists, ritual circumcisers – they really don’t appreciate not making the cut! – chief rabbis, municipal rabbis, rabbi educators galore, rebbetzins and more, but they couldn’t crack the top 50. What’s wrong with this picture?!

Now, your first reaction may be to blame the Post; maybe it has something against rabbis, so it just plain left them out. After all, rabbis have gotten a ton of bad publicity this year, what with them screaming like banshees at the Knesset, waffling on COVID regulations and running off to Uman while so many thoughtful others stayed safely at home. But the folks here at the paper don’t seem to be biased against the order of the ordained; they even let a mild-mannered rabbi write in the Magazine on a regular basis.

Could it be that there are no deserving rabbis out there? Not a chance. There are legions of talented, caring, erudite, charismatic rabbis throughout the Jewish world. We read their books and divrei Torah, we enjoy – generally – their sermons, we eat confidently from their food supervision and we call them with any and every halachic question. So why in God’s name (pun intended) aren’t they on the list?

I WANT to humbly suggest that maybe, just maybe, it is time to put our pride on hold for a moment, stifle our egos, contain our tempers and take a long, hard look at what we rabbis are accomplishing on a grand scale.

Yes, we are doing commendable work, God’s work, and, by and large, have strong moral values – midot, we call them – and a commendable commitment to our communities. But – are we changing the world? After all, we are meant to be spiritual leaders who inspire, guide, motivate and direct the Jewish people to a place of glory, beacons of light that illuminate a dark planet and move all humanity closer to the Creator.

Where are the rabbis who will courageously address the problems of aguna, mamzer, child molestation and battered women? And solve the conversion crisis?

Where are the rabbis who will stand up and tell world Jewry, in no uncertain terms, that its place is here – and only here – in the Holy Land of Israel? Who will unabashedly proclaim that millions of our coreligionists are squandering the momentous opportunity with which we have been Divinely blessed, that they are spurning the blessing we pleaded and prayed for throughout the millennia?

Where are the rabbis – the Rav Kooks, the Heschels, the Aryeh Levines, the Jonathan Sackses – who were selfless role models, in word and deed, for anyone and everyone, not just their partisan followers? 

What is missing is a cadre of rabbinic leaders with universal vision, towering souls whose very presence inspires and motivates us to better ourselves. Rabbis who are not interested in their own self-aggrandizement; who don’t use the words “I” and “me” profusely, shamelessly tooting their own shofar and their supposed accomplishments rather than looking to heighten the holiness of the others around them. The talent is there, the brains and training are there, but their dominating presence on the world stage is not.

Maybe, after all, they’re not the only ones who need musar, chastisement. Maybe we, too, have to look inward and share part of the blame. If, as they say, society gets the leaders they deserve, then we need to step up, too. We need to be more demanding about the scholars and theologians we put up on the pedestal, refusing to settle for just anyone or anything but the very best.

It’s a tall order, but as the world becomes more complex, more dangerous, more demanding, more difficult, those who strive to be closest to God need to take their game to a new level. They need to raise people up while simultaneously bringing the Almighty down to meet them.

At the very least, let’s try to break into the Top 10 of next year’s list. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. 

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