Speaking at a Rabbinical Conference in the American South this week, I made myself instantly unpopular by pointing out how irrelevant we Rabbis have become. How many parents push their kids to be Rabbis? Sure. If the kid flunked science and math. Perhaps. But to choose it over law or a job at Goldman Sachs?
And how many people turn to a Rabbi aside from the obvious life-cycle events like Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, or, more ominously, during tragedies like illness and funerals. And to the extent that we Rabbis are becoming more popular with our communities it seems to be precisely when we act as though we’re not Rabbis but just one of the boys. How often have I heard friends tell me, “We have the coolest new Rabbi. We call him by his first name. He plays poker and basketball with us. He’s amazing.” All of this is, of course, quite kosher. But this kind of popularity is hardly the stuff of leadership.
And if we’re becoming less relevant in the Jewish community, we never had any real relevance outside our community to begin with. While evangelical pastors like Rick Warren have an appeal well beyond Christians, Rabbis remain almost completely unknown in the United States beyond their Synagogues. Not that popularity or renown is any kind of meaningful barometer of success. It’s not. But as a gauge of the degree to which Rabbis are impacting the mainstream culture, it’s clear that we remain mostly marginalized.
And it’s our own fault. We have relegated ourselves to mainstream irrelevance by allowing ourselves to mostly become synagogue quarterbacks and ritual rule-givers. The Rabbi is the man who runs the Synagogue service. He makes announcements like, “Will the Congregation please rise” and “Please turn to page 250.” He is the person you come to with questions like “What time do Kol Nidrei services begin” and “Are my tefillin still kosher?” Now, let’s not trivialize these absolutely vital functions of the communal Rabbi. Let us also, of course, never trivialize the importance of every person whom Rabbis affect, comfort, and inspire, each of whom, according to our Talmud, is an entire universe. But let us also not pretend that any of these functions will ever bring Rabbis or Judaism to have a mainstream impact on a culture crying out for redemption.
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