Only moral courage can make rabbis relevant

We've become bland by refusing to be opinionated; we should understand that people ‘want’ to hear something compelling, whether they agree with it or not.

Rabbi 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Rabbi 311
(photo credit: MCT)
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.
In 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.
Rabbi-as-nice-guy also 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 people.
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 population.
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 to 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 driving.
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.”
He was 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 the UK.”
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 bombers.
But Taylor is not done yet. Sacks has been a paragon of moral courage because he “welcomes [homosexuals] at [British] synagogues.”
Oh, 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.