Take Four

“Aren’t all religions alike?” people want to know. “Isn’t the point really just to be a good person?”

Well, yes and no. What makes any religion great is indeed its commitment to human goodness. But religions approach that goodness in their own distinctive ways. They all serve up the idea of how properly to respond to the human condition, but they slice it differently.

The issue arose most recently for me when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s definitive exhibit entitled, “The Plains Indians” – the culture of a large grouping of tribes ranging from the Cree and Ojibwa in western Canada to the Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux nations scattered southward all the way to Texas.

One of the items on display references four basic values of these Plains Indians: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude.

As it happens, I had just discovered elsewhere that over in England, Jane Austen’s 1817 tombstone praises her for charity, devotion, faith, and purity (see Roy and Leslie Adkins, Jane Austen’s England).

Hmmmm. Generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude, on one hand; charity, devotion, faith, and purity, on the other.

Every culture, said pioneer sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), establishes its own “ideal type,” the recipe for perfection that its adherents strive ideally to emulate. What we have here, then, are two examples of ideal types: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude (for the Indian Peoples of the plains) and charity, devotion, faith, and purity (for Christians like Jane Austin).

The attributes are gendered. The tribal culture’s selection is largely male, the model for tribal braves; Austin’s set was prescribed for pre-Victorian women. But even so, they tell us a lot about Native American religion on one hand and Christianity on the other.

The tribal traits are weighted toward the competitive (even warlike) life on the plains, where tribes contended with the need to hunt and fight for control of their environment. High on their list are courage and fortitude, what every young man was asked to demonstrate in the grueling vision quest that marked his transition to manhood.

With Austen, by contrast, we get a feminized version of recognized Christian virtues: faith and devotion, certainly, but also charity and purity – traits found in monastic culture for men as well.

Native American religion inculcated attributes of bravery, its ideal type being the Indian Brave. Christian religion accented faith, but also selflessness (even self-abnegation) and the challenge to remain pure in a world filled with temptations of the flesh; its ideal type was the solitary monk, devoting days and nights to the veneration of God while avoiding worldly pleasures.

What about Jews? What would the four Jewish attributes be? As with Native Americans and Christians, the Jewish ideals too were intended originally for men, but have nowadays been generalized to women also. What are they?

To some extent, any four terms are an arbitrary selection – just as the Indian and Christian examples here must be. But their general orientation is not. What is the Jewish ideal type? If not the Native Brave or the Christian monk, what does classical Judaism prescribe as ideal?

I suspect the Rabbis would have advocated learning, justice, righteousness and making peace. Their ideal was the learned judge who dispenses justice, acts with righteousness, and makes peace between warring parties. These four traits figure prominently in such manuals of behavior as Pirkei Avot (second century) and they recur throughout rabbinic literature. They epitomize the Jewish exemplar of talmid chakham.

So back to the original question: aren’t all religions just cases of being a good person? Not really.

To be sure, they all admire the good; and there is much that they share. Whether expressly mentioned here or not, for example, peace is valued by all three cultures; so too is generosity, which appears expressly in the Native list and is reflected in monastic vows of poverty. Similarly, all three religions esteem living in accord with the divine; offering part of our bounty back to God (or the gods); and learning the wisdom of the past. I make no inveterate distinctions here: as I said, all great religions are great for a reason – they all raise us up to be our highest selves.

But they approach the good differently; they slice the ideal in different ways. In identifying with a given religion, adherents learn to value that religion’s particular slicing. Judaism’s signature path to the good is through learning and study, by which one becomes a scholar; scholarship must lead to action, however: lo hamidrash ha’ikar ela hama’aseh (“not learning but doing is the main thing”). And the highest form of action is to act justly and rightly so as to bring peace where there is strife.

From Great Sabbath to Great Seder: From Getting the Word Out to Getting the Message Through

It’s Shabbat Hagadol again, the “Great Shabbat” that precedes the seder, and time for my annual plea to make this year’s seder something worthy of being called great. No one knows exactly why this anticipatory Shabbat is called “great” – the term appears first in the Gospel of John (of all places) and no Jewish source uses it until the Middle Ages, by which time, no one knew any more what it meant. Among the possibilities, however, is the realization that it precedes the greatest holiday in our calendar: Passover, which gave us our birth as a People and introduced freedom from slavery as a supreme value for all humanity.

Unless we rise from our annual seder convinced of Passover’s “greatness,” we miss the mark. It must echo with this year’s news, not just antiquity’s events. The “Great Shabbat” was established to rehearse the Haggadah in advance, anticipating moments for our seder to make old words sound entirely new.

Just think of all change that our Haggadah has undergone in attempts to retain its freshness. Originally, there was no printed text at all – in an oral age, people made it up as they went along. Originally too, there were three, not four cups of wine, and some rabbis even added a fifth cup, because the ones they had represented God’s acts of deliverance in the past, but they wanted a cup to remain unconsumed on the table unless God appeared to save us once again. By the late Middle Ages, that became an Elijah’s Cup. And nowadays, some people have added a Miriam’s Cup as well.

The meal didn’t come only half way through the night either. People ate first, originally, using the foods to prompt discussion. When people began to “eat and run,” however, the meal was postponed to make hungry diners sit through the discussion before satisfying their appetites.

There were not four questions originally either; and a child did not ask them until the Middle Ages. Since people ate first, children asked genuine questions prompted by the meal. Our “four questions” are just rabbinic examples of what to say to a child who cannot think of anything to ask. Without a meal coming first, and with nothing to prompt a child’s curiosity, these became standardized questions that children delivered by rote, the way we do today.

No one sang Dayyenu in the early years either. It was still optional in the tenth century.

At first, the Seder’s high point was an opaque midrash about some “wandering Aramean” who was worse than Pharaoh. Traditional seders still have that midrash, although those who say it are unlikely to know that it was a veiled reference to Roman domination – change the vowels and the Hebrew aRaMi (Aramean) becomes RoMi (Roman). After the Crusades, a new climax was added: opening the door for Elijah, and hoping for the messiah. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we began saying.

A slew of new Haggadahs appear annually about now. Some are just glitzier rewrites of the old; others provide commentary with contemporary interpretations; some update our story to reflect the realities of slavery still rampant round the world. More than a new Haggadah, however, consider the need to be a genuine leader of the seder, not just its facilitator. Ask people for a new question that we ought to be considering. Take time for them to express what slaveries they feel, what freedom might look like this year.

Feel free to skip readings that make little sense to you. The book we use for a holiday of freedom should not be oppressive! The point of the seder is not its readings but its message: the Jewish People’s mission is to see a world redeemed from degradation.

Do whatever you can to apply that message to our time. Just rereading the same old script of the centuries may get the word out; but only pausing to make the script come alive we get the message through.

 

What Business Are We In?

Synagogues should be asking, “What business are we in?” That may seem obvious, but it isn’t, and most synagogue leaders get it wrong – with disastrous consequences.

The usual answers are things like Jewish education, Shabbat and holiday services, social action, or even all of the above, in the tried and true triad of religion: Torah (study) avodah (prayer) and g’milut chasadim (good deeds).

Religion may be what we do, however; it is not our business. The two are not the same.

The question arises compellingly in Peter Drucker’s 1954 classic, The Practice of Management. Drucker’s 1950s example is Cadillac. What it did was manufacture cars; its business, however, was not automobiles but status. Recognizing its business aright led to the realization that its competitors were not Chevrolet and Ford but high fashion and diamonds.

So what is the synagogue’s business?

During the years following World War II, we were in the continuity business. We had lost 6,000,000 and Israel was beleaguered. Challenged by anti-Semitism without and assimilation within, synagogues implicitly guaranteed Jewish continuity. So too did UJA and Federations, but explicitly, and when they proved better at raising huge sums of money to build up Israel and rescue Jews from the Soviet Union, they surpassed synagogues as the dominant Jewish organization. Wrongly so, synagogues complained, thinking the proper Jewish business was study, prayer and good deeds. Rightly so, said average Jews – whose passion was saving Jewish lives and who belonged to synagogues mostly to educate their children, another sign that what they wanted to invest in was continuity, not religion.

What made continuity our business was the fact that the customers (the rank and file Jews) wanted it enough to “buy” it. The business is not necessarily what the entrepreneurs running the show think it is. It is what the customers want. And from the 1950s to the 1990s, the fear of Jewish discontinuity was enough to galvanize the troops.

It isn’t any more, much as Jewish leaders may wish otherwise. Lots of Jews identify as Jews but not enough to insist on raising Jewish children, paying for Jewish education, supporting Jewish causes, and joining Jewish synagogues. Continuity is no longer a sufficient business to be in – not if we want to stay in business.

But neither is religion – not by itself, that is. Witness the Pew study where people increasingly say they are not religious, even though they may spiritual.

Still, religion deserves a closer look, not for what it is but for what it delivers. In the post War years, it succeeded as long as it delivered continuity. What does it (or can it) deliver now?

Religion was once what sociologist Peter Berger famously called the Sacred Canopy — the overarching reality that drove everything people did. To abandon your religion was to trade in the very essence of who you were. Not any more, however. A moment’s observation reveals that religion has become discretionary – what we do (if we wish) with our discretionary time, money and attention. I attend Sabbath services; you play golf; she gardens. I drop $3,000 as synagogue dues; you join the country club; he buys season tickets at the Met. I go to Torah study, you attend lectures on art; others take classes in American history.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is.

But not all discretionary activity is of the same consequence to consumers. Movie-going on the odd Saturday night ranks lower than what we can call “committed pursuits,” the discretionary choices we make about matters of commitment. In the good old days when religion was a sacred canopy we knew who we were: we were Jewish or Lutheran, or Catholic or Episcopalian. Without a sacred canopy, it is not clear just what counts as our identity.

When the canopy first began to unravel (with the advent of modernity), people thought nationalism would take its place: and for many, it has. We pay taxes to, obey the laws of, and are most dependent on our countries. But the wars of the twentieth century showed us just how horribly, terribly, wrong nation states can become. “Moral man” is subject to “immoral society,” warned Reinhold Neibuhr way back in 1932. So as much as we may value national citizenship as primary, we hesitate to adopt as the deepest motto of our identity, “My country right or wrong.”

And, in any event, with the religious canopy gone, we have room for multiple identities, not just our nationality: I may be an American, a Jew, a professor, and a serious violinist; you may be an American and Jew, but also a feminist, judge, and artist. Whatever we say we “are” requires the committed allocation of discretionary time, money and attention.

Synagogues compete for these resources, the symbolic tokens of people’s inner identities. We are ultimately in the identity business. The Age of Continuity has become The Age of Fractured Identity.

A great deal follows, most particularly, how synagogues make themselves known to the world. Synagogues in the Age of Continuity advertised programs that would keep Jews Jewish: a better religious school, a guaranteed bar/bat mitzvah, or Sunday afternoon lectures on Israel. In the Age of Fractured Identity, these still matter, but for different reasons. If identity is the issue, we need most to demonstrate that we are a serious candidate for people’s deepest selves, their aspirations to matter, their pursuit for meaning, and their desire not to have lived and died in vain.

As it turns out, religion is profoundly (even uniquely) suited to this venture. That’s why synagogues matter more now than ever.

Why We Study Sacrifices: A Happy Case of Collusion

“Collusion” is usually a dirty word denoting police brutality, government corruption, corporate price-fixing, and everyone on the take. But collusion can equally describe the unsung cooperative venture that is life itself: how plants absorb carbon dioxide and exchange it for oxygen, allowing humans to breathe oxygen and give carbon dioxide back, for instance. All of life is about giving and getting in happy collusion.

The Torah calls it sacrifice, and devotes a whole book of Torah to it. We miss the point if we think this week’s Torah reading (the beginning of Leviticus) introduces just a picayune and lengthy treatment of how to offer animals on an altar that has not existed since the Romans destroyed it almost two thousand years ago.

Moses’ opening instruction provides a broader picture: “When you offer a sacrifice from yourselves to God….” The peculiar placement of mikem (“from yourselves”) implies more than the rote offering of animals. Sacrifice can be anything, as long as you really own it, says Ibn Ezra; better still, it must be something “from within yourself.”

The point is this: we study the sacrifices not because we expect to offer up animals again, but because sacrifice is only tangentially about animals in the first place. On a deeper level, it is about the human passion to give up even what we hold dearest, if our doing so will further life’s larger purposes. It is about self-sacrifice or it is about nothing.

Other animal species sacrifice themselves also, but only through instinct. We humans operate with similar instincts, but having stretched the instinct into conscious choice, we need guidance on how to make our choices. How do we know when self‑sacrifice is in order?

If you think that is an easy question, think through all the bad “Jewish mother” jokes that revolve around Mother’s stereotypical desire to sacrifice herself unduly. (“How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? None; “I’ll just sit in the dark.”) Studies of Jewish culture do demonstrate that Jews have been taught to give, not to receive, and to that extent, there is some truth to the humor. Though a caricature, it reflects the possibility that not all self-sacrifice is desirable.

The thing is, sacrifice is a fancy word for “gift.” It requires a giver and a receiver. What happens if you spend the day cooking a beautiful dinner for the family, but the family runs off for evening activities without bothering to eat it? How do you feel if you choose a birthday present for the one you love, only to find it lying around unused and unappreciated for months afterward. So this opening reading of Leviticus cautions further, “The person bringing the sacrifice should offer it up according to his will before God.” But whose will are we describing here, the giver’s or God’s?

The likely answer is, “Both!” Sacrifice works only when giver and receiver are in collusion.

The key may be the rabbinic concept of et ratson. Et means time; but what is et ratson – literally, “a time of will,” a time that is propitious, presumably? But what is that, if not a time when two wills intersect? It takes a relationship to establish et ratson, a moment when two wills intersect so that gifts become gifts to both giver and receiver.

Synagogues and the Demise of Jewish Ethnicity

I have practically made a career of saying that for American Jews, at least, the secular and ethnic option is dead or dying. Some of my best friends disagree with me. Secular Jews themselves, they draw on the same sources I do to make their point – classic sociology, for example, which demonstrates conclusively that identity is much deeper than belief systems, so that if Judaism were to go the route of becoming fully a religion, it would also go the route of liberal churches that lost their ethnicity a long time ago and are now a faint echo of their original selves. The decline of mainline Protestants by fully a fifth since 1950 is a serious long term trend. There are still about 20 million of them, mind you. But we Jews — we start out so tiny in the first place!

I have never said, however, that Judaism is only a religion, and insofar as ethnicity means logging time together in all the many ways that produce solidarity of peoplehood, I am all for it. My point, in any case, is not what they (or I) are for (or against); it is the need to face up to what is happening regardless of what we think of it, and what is happening, inevitably and resolutely, is the disappearance of the sort of ethnic solidarity that prior generations enjoyed as a matter of course.

All Americans were once solidly ethnic, even the so-called WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), insofar as they maintained the kind of customs and community that marked them off from later arrivals like Italians and Jews. Catholicism was as much Irish or Italian or German as it was Catholic; in the 1890s, for example, German Benedictines in Minnesota fought their Irish bishop in St. Louis because he objected to their steady use of beer (not even the Trappists drink water, their Abbott Wimmer complained) – an ethnic, not a religious, matter.

And the point is: that is all gone now. We Jews are a latecomer to ethnicity’s demise but we are not immune to it.

Need this be the case elsewhere in the world? Perhaps not. It all depends on surrounding society. Canada has a better chance of sustaining Jewish ethnicity because of its multi-culturalism; Argentinian ethnicity is not in trouble. Alas, the presence or threat of anti-Semitism helps!

But here, at least – and eventually in Canada too, I suspect (for reasons I will not go into here) – the ethnicity of peoplehood without profound purpose is doomed. Yiddish is by now a distant memory. Traditional “Jewish” food (really Polish and Russian) is nothing to yearn for and no one is doing the yearning: young Jews eat sushi and go out for beer. Except for Israel, Hebrew never was the language of the folk, and shows no signs of becoming so. If anti-Semitism in America remains low to absent and if Israel continues its current policies, the next generation will not even identify automatically with Israel the way their elders do. I pray that will not happen, of course, but even if it doesn’t, Israel is insufficient to maintain Jewish America.

Finally, our high intermarriage rate (which is not going to go away) means that Jews of the next generation will increasingly be people with no childhood Jewish memories and no obvious reason to maintain Jewish friends, associations, and causes at the expense of non-Jewish ones.

We are not the first to suffer increasing marginalization from Jewish ethnicity. The process set in by the nineteenth century. French intellectual Edmund Fleg virtually gave up on Judaism, trading it in for an education in the western classics. Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his father recalling, “As a young man, I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me for not making an effort… to cling to a similar insignificant scrap.” They remained Jewish by identity, because the nineteenth century was saturated by anti-Semitism and racist to its core. But they too looked for something deeper – Kafka in Hasidic lore and Fleg in a combination of the Zionist story and universalistic Jewish values.

To be sure, if “religion” meant simply disembodied belief — a set of doctrines or tenets about God, an afterlife, and such — the ethnicists would have a point. Ever since Emil Durkheim (another alienated Jew), we have known that identity follows from eating together, mixing together, and generally putting in time together with the people one considers one’s own. Proponents of ethnic Judaism are not wrong to advocate a variety of cultural activities that draw Jews together in many institutional venues.

What differentiates my position from theirs is Durkheim’s further point: the decisive nature of ritual, especially religious ritual – most especially (I might add), here in America. When I say religion, I mean all that the ethnicists do, but with regularized ritual affirmations of the transcendent religious purpose justifying and demanding it.

Living in the Third-Republic anti-Catholic France, Durkheim yearned for national ritual to take the place of the established Church’s. One hundred years later, we have seen how nationalist ritual can indeed engender identity, but strong though American nationalism may be, it has built a culture in which religion is still a bedrock. Religions with powerful ritual succeed here, just as Durkheim predicted.

Such rituals require regularity and an inbuilt sense of obligation. They must reach the mind and touch the heart. They convince us of truths we never knew we knew; and retain our loyalty even in the rational aftermath where we wonder once again if we really believe them. They give us purpose, demand that we be our better selves, and root such quotidian pursuits as job and parenthood in a web of deeper meaning.

Our Jewish problem is that for most of us, certainly in non-Orthodox synagogues, our ritual life does none of that. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, people attend synagogue on the High Holy Days and for a bar or bat mitzvah, but otherwise, go shopping.

When I say religion must be at the center of Jewish life, then, I do not mean some rationalized code of belief. It is not the case that we worship because we believe – huge numbers of people have trouble with disembodied cognitive belief. Rather, we find cogency in those beliefs that come to life through what Durkheim called ritual effervescence.

Only synagogues are capable of providing the healthy life of ritualized Jewish belonging. We require communities rooted in a network of synagogues that offer ritualized engagement with the ultimate promises of Jewish tradition. Neither culturalism nor religious doctrine will succeed on their own. In a post-ethnic era, we need an alternative pathway to solidarity: in America, that pathway is a growing set of synagogues that offer compelling religious ritual for adults.

Mind, Conscience and Soul: What Are They?

“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand
It’s just our bringin’ upke that gets us out of hand
Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks”

 
When Steven Sondheim wrote these lyrics for West Side Story, he was satirizing the liberalism of the post-war years. The play (and the song) appeared in 1957, just two years after Bill Haley introduced Rock ‘n’ Roll with Rock Around The Clock. Nine years earlier, Dr. Spock (the psychologist, not the Vulcan) had revolutionized child-rearing by insisting that children be treated with affection.

The issue broached by Sondheim goes much deeper, however, than some west -side “punks.” A slew of post-war theorists were on their way to demolishing the Enlightenment notion of human beings as the autonomous agents we think we are. Social-work theory was explaining deviant behavior as an understandable reaction to forces beyond the individual’s conscious processes – a trend that began with Freud. A lesser known influence, rooted largely in Marxism, gave us a giddy glob of “isms” — post-modernism, structuralism, deconstructionism, postcolonialism, and certain strands of feminism, all of them schools of thought that cast doubt on the possibility of any kind of certainty whatever. What once seemed like truths were redeployed just as “narratives,” ways of seeing the world that served certain interests rather than being objective description of facts. These “narratives” attracted less savory titles in the various “isms”: rationalization (Freud), epiphenomena (Marx), discourse (Foucault) and so on.

Meanwhile, scientific materialism was reducing us to reactive animals anyway – human versions of Pavlov’s dogs who might think we had undergone quantum leaps of evolution but who were just a more complex version of the stimulus/response mechanism.

Under the onslaught of these attacks, it seemed we didn’t have to die to decompose. Only our bodies waited that long. The rest of us – the human mind and conscience — were being decomposed already, exposed as mere illusions.

The real issue isn’t whether the West Side Story punks are autonomous agents but whether any of us are. What is the point of religion in a system where we are all just victims of psycho-social forces beyond our control or just bundles of neurons salivating at psychological bells?

What an about-face this is from the Enlightenment’s insistence on human beings as responsible individuals: with rights, reason, and responsibility. We believe we have minds that think, consciences that make moral choices, and souls that somehow define us as we ultimately are. Are any of these ideas salvageable?

We should start by taking seriously the critique that says we are very much the product of forces beyond our ken. We ought similarly to admit that none of the three terms (mind, conscience, soul) are scientific entities – that is, none of them are material objects capable of being affirmed in a laboratory. Indeed, some scientists would reduce all human endeavor to brain function: the exchange of electrical impulses over synapses that separate neurons.

So here’s the question, restated: How can we believe in a “self” with a “mind,” “conscience” and “soul” when social science and philosophy of the last fifty years demolishes personal objectivity and science reduces our sense of human elegance to brain function alone?

The answer lies in understanding the levels at which we regularly speak of complex phenomena. Philosopher John Searle (Minds, Brains and Science, p. 20) uses the example of a desk with a glass of water on it – like the one I am using now. On the one hand, he says, we have the obvious “solidity of the table [and] liquidity of the water.” On the other hand, we know that “actually” (= scientifically), both table and water are made of micro-particles that are neither. Any particular atom of water is not itself “wet,” and the atoms that constitute the desk have more empty space within them than they do solidity. Individually, that is, the micro-articles explain the larger systems that we call desk and water, but reducing the desk and water to their micro-particle essence does not do them justice.

Similarly, if we limit our understanding of human beings to the physicality of our brains, we do the larger system of “selves” an injustice. “Brains” are to people as atoms are to desks and water. When we want a scientific approach to human existence we speak of the way that brains operate within us. But there is still the larger system to account for, the “us” in which our brains function. In that case, we expand the topic to include mind, conscience and soul, each of which says something extra about the larger entity that we label a sentient individual.

As individuals, we are subjects of our own identity, our own story (if you like), the life we lead that someday gets a eulogistic summary by those who remember us. Literary theorist Jonathan Culler (Literary Theory, p. 110) notes the dichotomous way we speak of a person as “subject.” On the one hand, we say we are “subject to” influences – exactly what Freud, Marx and the others have been insisting. On the other hand, when we say that something is the subject of a sentence, we mean it is the independent focal point about which we rightly attribute actions and characteristics. An individual is a subject in both senses: we are indeed formed by influences beyond ourselves; but we are equally autonomous subjects with stories of our own.

Religion is the system of thought and practice that tries to find meaning in the larger systems that we know ourselves to be. It transcends the Freudian or Marxist systems that explain our foibles and our fashions; even as it does the scientific system that describes our brains.

Each system generates its own set of concepts with which to think its topic through. Freud and Marx need rationalization and epiphenomenon. Brain science needs neurons. Religion needs minds, consciences and souls. The language we choose reflects the system we have in mind. All three systems are real.

 

Answers to Rabbinic Critics: More on “The Disappearing Pulpit”

Some rabbinic readers have rightly objected that the weight and breadth of their ongoing responsibilities leave little time for regularized pulpit messages that address issues in the depth that I am demanding. They are right, of course – the way things stand. But my point precisely is that we need to make things “stand” some other way. The issue is not the rabbis: it is the system. But the system can change.

Let’s first dissect the objection: the many rabbinic roles that readers have elucidated. Rabbis must be:

  1. pastoral (hospital visits, counseling people, and the like);
  2. managerial (keeping the place going, supervising staff, and so forth);
  3. relational (the endless meetings, usually one on one, that establish loving and lasting relationships with and among members). In addition, they spend endless time with
  4. life-cycle events, which have virtually hijacked the synagogue – bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, and the like. They also must be
  5. liturgical (not just show up for services and go through the motions); and
  6. educational (the primary rabbinic task of teaching Torah – to adults and to children); for which, of course, they need, themselves, to practice
  7. regularized study of Jewish tradition – not just the weekly sedra, but (ideally) a daf yomi (a page of Talmud daily) or its equivalent in some other Jewish discipline (the latest book on Jewish history or theology, perhaps), Then too there is a role we can call
  8. communal, meaning the important task of being a Jewish voice to the public, appearing on panels, and the like – not to mention
  9. the purely symbolic (but time consuming) task of going to communal dinners just to put in an appearance. And they need, these days, to have a sense of
  10. the programmatic (organizing programs that are not just frontal presentations and that engage people interactively — something their predecessors didn’t worry about).

I could cite other things as well – I limit my breakdown to ten (a Decalogue was enough for the “commandments” so ought to suffice for me). It all varies, of course, depending on congregational size (for example).

The point is, I do understand the way the rabbinic role has grown through time and the impossibilities built into it.

But over and above all of this, there is the task of leadership, something that  transcends mere management. It has aspects that are political, relational, organizational, symbolic, and visionary. “Leadership” is a relative newcomer to rabbinic-school curricula, so most rabbis in the field have never encountered it formally. If rabbis lack anything, it is probably leadership.

Rabbis, however, are not altogether different from corporate CEOs, who also have a ton of tasks but must exercise leadership anyway. Without leadership, we end up drowning in the endless barrage of demands; we run from task to task, without ever setting our own long-term agenda and charting a sustained path to its accomplishment.

Of course there are differences between corporations and synagogues. Synagogues are dependent on volunteers with varying degrees of expertise; synagogue boards encroach on management in ways that corporate boards do not; also synagogues are regularly starved – both for funds and for competent professional personnel; and incompetent personnel cannot easily be fired — we exercise compassion in ways that corporations don’t because our bottom line is not primarily the quarterly financials. I get all of that.

And yet, and yet…

Corporate leaders manage to set aside time to do the visioning, thinking, and imagining that situates the corporation on a course toward a future. Rabbis need to do that too, but for that to happen, both rabbis and their boards have to set priorities among the items that rabbis are expected to do.

I believe some things take priority. Pastoral work may be first: people in crisis, congregants facing pain or even death, grieving families – these need attention. But not necessarily from the senior rabbi all the time! A megachurch pastor tells me that he regularly ponders his church’s mission, but almost never (!) does funerals. His congregants (parishioners) do not expect it. They prefer being eulogized by another pastor whom they know personally. The entire system there is geared to building relationships with other pastors so as to alter expectations of the pastor who leads the entire enterprise.

Second on my list of priorities is a tie between building relationships and managing competently. But there again, rabbis should not have to do it all, even though they have to lead it and inspire it.

My original point, however, is that rabbis also need to think and to speak their minds with gravitas.

To do that, I maintain, they have to renegotiate the implicit contract with the synagogue about what a rabbi is – a matter that almost never even gets discussed. Rabbis are simply held responsible for everything, and they then scurry to do it all – and wonder why they are run down and burned out. Rabbis and lay leaders need conversation about the ultimate nature of the rabbinic role, not for the rabbis’ sakes but for the good of the Jewish People who are shortchanged without serious and ongoing rabbinic attention to the matters that matter.

It’s “the matters that matter” that matter!

Please note also: when I described the pulpit as important, I did not mean  addressing only (!)  the ethical dilemmas of our time, although I surely include them in my prescription. I meant thought in general: conversation on the quality of life and the dignity of the individual; theological issues like the difficulties of believing in God, the purpose behind being Jewish, the reality of the soul (in a way that is consistent with science); and so forth. I mean larger perspectival issues from a Jewish point of view, ways of thinking differently that people can carry with them as  touchstones to finding meaning amid life’s complications.