What is the rabbi’s role in modern America?
This was the big question Moment Magazine put to a panel of rabbis in its January/February issue. I love questions like this, and was genuinely excited to read the responses of my colleagues. That is, until I actually read them.
I was hoping to read something new, something bold, daring, and radical; something that spoke to the 21st century rather than the 19th; something that made me want to be Jewish or to learn what Judaism has to offer. What I found from most of them was the same old clichés about God, Torah and Israel.
Maybe these old notions are just fine. But I doubt it. Few Jews attend synagogue regularly, and fewer still study Torah or engage in Jewish contemplative practices. Rabbis still seem to be curators of a museum fewer and fewer Jews bother visiting; still willing to train up kids in a religion few will rarely grow into and most will grow out of.
Of course I’m jealous of the collegues that were asked, and hurt that I was not among them. But that is why I write this blog: to right the wrongs done to me by those who don’t even know I exist. If I had been asked to answer this question, I would have said the following:
• The role of the rabbi is to be a shaman—to offer people the tools for ecstasy, self-transcendence, and God-encounter, and a safe community in which to use them. (When I use the word “God” I mean the nondual source and substance of all Reality.)
• The role of the rabbi is to be a storyteller—to offer people a grand narrative that weaves together the best of Torah and contemporary science, a story that liberates people from the false gods and their corporate sponsors/creators that posit a zero–sum worldview, and pits people against one another and against the planet as a whole.
• The role of the rabbi is to be a prophet—to offer people a way to resist the idolatry of American life by adapting a counter-cultural Judaism rooted in ancient Hebrew iconoclasm—a god that cannot be named or imaged or marketed—and Hillel’s understanding of Judaism as compassion for others.
• The role of the rabbis is to be spiritual friend—to offer people a partner with whom to walk and share their quest for meaning and purpose without imagining that they (the rabbis) have found the answer.
• The role of the rabbi is to be an educator—to offer people both a Judaism of compassion and justice that celebrates tribe without devolving into tribalism, and a distinctly rabbinic pedagogy rooted in argument, doubt, and finely tuned questioning.
• The role of the rabbi is to be a liberator—to offer people a means of escape from the self-serving fetishes of contemporary Jewish life: Chosenness, Holocaust, and Israel, and toward a fresh understanding of tradition and mitzvot that is creative, liberating, and intrinsically compelling.
In short, the role of the rabbi is to be a spiritual revolutionary imagining the future, and not, as all too often is the case, corporate apologists for the past.