During my first year of rabbinical school I was told by one professor that a rabbi could be a prophet or a clerk. A prophet is one who spoke truth to power. A clerk is one who catered to the needs of the powerful. A rabbi must choose, I was told: prophet or clerk? Most rabbis, the professor concluded, choose to be clerks.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Association, chose to be a prophet recently when he claimed that his colleagues lacked missionary zeal, adding, “We want to get paid. We don’t believe.” The clerks revolted, and Rabbi Wernick was forced to recant and apologize.
Are rabbis really in it for the money? No. There isn’t enough money to be had. But we do have families, and mortgages, and college tuitions to pay, and that takes money, and money comes from people who like you and who think you are a good rabbi. And most people who like their rabbi and who think their rabbi is a good rabbi do so because their rabbis says want they want to hear. People like clerks. True, clerks don’t inspire us, but they don’t upset us either. Prophets ruffle feathers, and people with ruffled feathers rarely pay to support the ruffler. So if you want to survive in the congregational world you learn to be a clerk.
And it isn’t just in the congregations that money matters, denominational power is also determined by money. The most powerful rabbis in any movement are those who raise the most money for that movement. And to do that you need to build a large congregation willing to donate to that movement. And to do that you have to cultivate people with money. And to do that you have to be the rabbi they want you to be, you have to be a clerk.
In the process of building a wealthy congregation, of course, the rabbi too becomes wealthy, and the more rabbis earn the more they are expected to give to their seminary and their movement, and the more they give the more say they have in shaping the policies of that movement. The circle is closed and inescapably geared to clerkdom.
But what about Rabbi Wernick’s other claim, that liberal rabbis don’t believe? What he meant was that we don’t believe enough to live in near poverty as so many Chabad rabbis do who gladly set out to serve Jews in the remote outposts of world Jewry. We liberal American rabbis didn’t sign up to serve the Jews of Calcutta, especially if we have to live in Calcutta in order to do so. Chabad rabbis go where they are sent because they believe saving a single Jewish soul is worth any sacrifice. They believe they are doing God’s work. Do liberal rabbis believe this? I don’t know. But even if they do, they have a hard time imagining that God wants them to do God’s work in a place that lacks proper sanitation, air conditioning, and cable television.
Not that liberal rabbis don’t sacrifice. Anyone burdened with the task of clerking middle class American Jews with a strong sense of personal entitlement knows about sacrifice.
Anyway, I wish Rabbi Wernick well in his job, and I applaud his moment of prophetic zeal. I fear, though, that he has learned a sad lesson: if he wants to keep his job he has to abandon any pretence of being a prophet. The clerks have won again. They always do.