Monday, February 15, 2010

The Role of the Rabbi

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.


Barry said...

A lovely piece. I will to share it with my husband, the rabbi at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Cheers! said...

I used to wonder why you were a Rabbi. I mean you show much tolerance for other religion, people, etc. Now I get it. You are the next generation Rabbi, way ahead of your time. I also think many of the things you described are those of any spiritual leader. I mean, a real spiritual leader, not one just titled so. I wish I had one. I am a recovering catholic and yogi wannabe, suffering and surrendering to my additions, I know that with persistance, I will find this suffering will lead me to transcendence.
Love and hugs,

Avi Baron said...

I'm really happy you wrote this. I wish more Rabbis these days abide by the guidelines you have laid out to being a great 21st Rabbi.

One aspect my previous rabbi had (and you have as well) that I'd like to add:

The role of a Rabbi is a _____ - to offer intellectual and thought provoking discussion. To allow for debate of religion, spirituality, life, and day-to-day obstacles.

Unlike most other religions, Judaism offers the unique ability to question. A Rabbi is a guiding hand in an individuals quest of wonder.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for the comments. Please don't mistake me for the rabbi I described.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Gut Gezogt and Bravo!!

This post as well as others such as"Prophet or Clerk," "Who Decides What is Judaism?"and "Have You Seen This Missing Jew?", are why I continue to enjoy your blog.

You know I'll always challenge your thinly veiled (at best) anger when it masquerades as ranting sarcasm, as well as forays into left wing politics. Posts like today's speak most authentically to me.

Too bad for all of us that you feel your job is that
of a writer (noble as that is) and not of the Rabbi you describe.

Be well and rav todot (many thanks) once again,


Raksha said...

Re: >>Please don't mistake me for the rabbi I described.<<

Why not? It seems to me you come pretty close--as close as a very few others I've known in my life. And the title "rabbi" is not enough to win instant respect from me by a long, long way, as you might have guessed.

Maggid said...

Oooh Rami - Thank you -
I've decided to understand this as "The Role of This Person" - and reach into these ideas - the best I can . . . okay, so it's a really big reach . . so? It's so terrific, I'm gonna try - it's a good model. Thank You, again & again.

vbdb said...

Once again you lead with clarity.

I believe the role of the rabbi is to question everything, especially when we follow without question.