Few columns I have written have generated as much heat and as many responses as the recent two on rabbis. The first concerned itself with the failures of the British Chief Rabbinate in curbing the sewer of anti-Semitism that has erupted in Britain, especially on British campuses. The second dealt with the growing irrelevance of the American rabbinate to mainstream Jewish and American life. Few rabbis, if any, have any impact on wider American culture and indeed even within the Jewish community it is mostly secular writers and lay leaders who are determining the Jewish future.
Truth regardless of consequences In my column I maintained that we rabbis are becoming nice guys, popular among our flock 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 son’s lavish bar mitzvah. The rabbi rarely makes himself unpopular with the board by taking controversial stands, like insisting that all weddings he performs be kosher-catered. The result is that rabbis have been declawed, which accounts for why, at major communal conventions like AIPAC or the Federation’s General Assembly, rabbis are reduced to niceties like 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 advertises on its website 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 has moved to cut me from the event.
Responding to my argument that rabbis have been neutered, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a lion in our local community, agreed in part but said that 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 in life: to make Judaism relevant. And I live with endless frustration at how the world’s first monotheistic faith takes 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 for human living to be confined to .003 percent of the earth’s population.
There is a spiritual thirst in America, just not for Judaism. There are Jewish Buddhists, Jews who practice yoga and meditation, Jews who study kabbalah, and millions of Jewish women who watch Oprah to quench their spiritual thirst. They just don’t come to synagogue. I maintain 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 like Anderson Cooper have seen their audiences shrivel because of their neutrality, and Cooper’s 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 bet din he was Sabbath-observant. A few weeks after his conversion he had Friday night dinner with us and drove home. I knew I was risking my friendship with him when I told him that he owed those who vouched for him more. He took the admonishment to heart and stopped driving on Shabbat.
But some in the Jewish community still believe that rabbis should win popularity contests. A case in point was the response to my criticism of British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks by Saul Taylor, who apparently believes that the staggering anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing that has erupted under Sacks’ 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, Taylor added, “the whole community joined to congratulate him on joining the House of Lords.” But seemingly blind to how his bizarre defense condemns the chief rabbi to the perfect caricature of the toadying court Jew who will allow himself to be muzzled in order to placate his non-Jewish overlords, Taylor puts 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 Britains would like to see the stodgy and ossified House of Lords abolished – and empty pomp and circumstance that they would applaud a once-courageous rabbinic institution falling silent even as the Jewish state has become more reviled in the UK than North Korea? Taylor’s obsession with non-Jewish legitimacy conjures images of past Israeli prime ministers glowingly praising 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. 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, in particular, am no stranger to inner demons that draw one to the magnetic glow of the limelight. But we rabbis must resist the urge for mainstream approval and promote the interests of our people at whatever price and serve as lights unto the nations at whatever cost.