Presenting directly after me at a recent conference in Malaga, Spain, was legendary Apple Macintosh promoter Guy Kawasaki, who said something memorable and counterintuitive about marketing: Seek to polarize your audience. Stated differently, that means never fear factionalizing your public into those who love you and those who don’t.
It’s something today’s rabbis might take to heart.
As I visit Jewish communities around the world I constantly hear, “Our rabbi is the nicest guy.” Or, “He’s not my rabbi, he’s my friend.”
Often the comments come from people who see the rabbi in synagogue perhaps three times a year. Yes, our rabbi is amazing. He never creates the discomfort of making us question our vacuous lives. He never lectures us to spend less on ourselves and more on the needy. Rather than rebuking us for squandering our potential on crass TV and mindless celebrity gossip, why, he can actually join the conversation about the latest movies.
Welcome to a generation where rabbis have been defanged and declawed. The days of the rabbi as a weighty moral conscience are behind us. The rabbi as irritant has been replaced with the rabbi as ego-massager. The rabbi’s the with-it guy with whom you watch the ball game. Yep, that’s one swell guy, our rabbi.
Ah, you say, the Jewish community is sinking into an ever-deeper pit of material consumption and over-the-top bar mitzvahs? Fear not. The rabbi knows where his bread is buttered. He’s not going to anger the board by admonishing the congregation about a life bereft of Jewish values.
Which explains why rabbis have next to no influence in the Jewish world.
You heard me right.
Go to any of the major Jewish conferences like AIPAC or the federation movement’s General Assembly and you’ll see the rabbis rolled out to say the blessing on the bread. They are seldom, if ever, consulted on issues of activism or policy. Birthright Israel was dreamed up by two businessmen rather than even one rabbi.
The rabbi is there for ceremony. We train him for five years to announce page numbers in synagogue and present your daughter with a leather-bound Bible for her bat mitzvah.
But has it profited the Jews to have rabbis confined to telling a man to break a glass under the wedding canopy rather than to cry out that our community is becoming more religious but less spiritual?
Through our desire not to offend, we rabbis have reduced ourselves to a caricature, the full vitality of our souls sandwiched into the extremely narrow bandwidth accorded to us by a community that calls on us primarily for lifecycle events.
I constantly hear myself being described as “controversial,” as if that’s an insult to a rabbi. Yes, I am a rabbi who is loved and hated. A preparedness to be unpopular is what I have learned from Judaism, not to mention the world’s most influential figures. No one experiences greater rejection from the Israelites than Moses, who made uncomfortable demands. Mordechai spares the Jews a holocaust but is described as being admired only by “most of his brethren.” The Lubavitcher rebbe saved the Jewish people from spiritual annihilation, yet even today his legacy remains “controversial.” No American was more hated in his lifetime than Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, and Winston Churchill was immediately fired by the British right after helping to defeat Hitler.
The most influential rabbis in the world today are those like Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles who aren’t afraid to take verbal jackhammers to anti-Semites, notwithstanding the discomfort it breeds among some less-vocal Jews.
The always agreeable rabbis? I would mention them, but you would never have heard of them.
Rabbis must begin broadening their roles away from the ceremonial and toward the provocative. You’re given a pulpit. Use it. Get up there on Saturday morning and belt out a sermon about the high rates of divorce in your synagogue and how you expect husbands to be gentlemen who compliment their wives daily. Tell the women that dignified dress has always been the hallmark of the classy Jewish woman. Announce that outrageously lavish weddings violate Jewish values, since they make those who can’t afford one feel like they’ve let their children down.
Stop being merely a rabbi and become an organizational entrepreneur. Put on world-class debates in your synagogue that make people take a side on intermarriage, women’s roles, and softening support for Israel.
Last week I called three New York synagogues to partner on a public conversation I am hosting with Rick Sanchez, the CNN TV host fired for an alleged anti-Semitic comment in October. I thought he was treated appallingly. Disagree? Let’s talk about it. But only the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan, forever unafraid to be controversial, agreed to host (the event is on Jan.13). It’s no wonder that Carlebach is also the most authentically spiritual synagogue in Manhattan.
Rabbis, write weekly provocative pieces. Get under your congregants’ skins. Polarize your audience. Seek influence rather than popularity.
And stand up for yourself. Rabbis deserve to be appreciated, respected, and compensated for their work and their time. They have families too, often quite large.
I wrote recently about how I had agreed to have my upcoming Los Angeles debate with Christopher Hitchens on the afterlife taken over by the American Jewish University after they offered to host it and add two more speakers. But when I found out that the atheist side was being paid about 10 times what the rabbis were getting – even though both rabbis have national profiles and regularly draw hundreds of listeners – I objected, even though it led them ultimately to cancel my participation from an event my organization conceived and had earlier staged in New York. Of course rabbis should speak pro bono for worthy organizations with little funding. But if you can pay other speakers their full honoraria, why should rabbis be treated differently or be penalized for protesting?
I have worked throughout my life to broaden the definition of a rabbi. No, I have not always succeeded and yes, I have made mistakes. But I have pushed the boundary because the title is too august to be a straightjacket and the Jewish message is too defiant to simply breed an innocuous Mr. Nice Guy.