His Rabbi’s Face

There’s a midrash (ancient rabbinic story) that when Joseph was tempted by Potiphar’s wife, a vision of his father’s face came to his mind and that stopped him from sinning.

There’s a strong tie many Jews feel with their rabbi that constrains their behavior. Their rabbi’s face comes to mind… Hasidic Jews might have photos of their rebbe up in their home.

Is there anything like this in Adventism and Christianity? I’m sure a vision of Jesus coming to mind has prevented many Christians from sin, but I’m wondering about ties to a particular priest or pastor? Is this language used? I was about to do X, but then a picture of my pastor came to my mind. Or, I didn’t want to let my pastor down, and so… Do ties to a pastor constrain behavior? Is this language used?

I remember that many people felt intense loyalty to my father the preacher. I’m trying to remember the language they used to express this tie.

For almost all of the Christian clergy I knew, their primary concern was whether or not I was saved (for the next world). I’ve never known a rabbi with this concern. Instead, they’ve been worried about whether or not I was receiving adequate medical care and mental health care. Had I investigated psychotropic medication? Was I in psycho-therapy? What were my relations like with my family? Did I have a job? How was I holding up financially? Where was I going with my career? Was I interested in getting married and having kids?

For my rabbis, whether or not I had a good doctor was of more importance to them than my relationship with God. I don’t recall my rabbis expressing much concern about whether or not “I was right with God.” They certainly never used that language. If they were Orthodox, it was important to them that I acted according to Jewish law (primarily in public).

I don’t recall any of my rabbis pulling me aside to talk about my spiritual life (which was the primary concern of my Christian clergy). Instead, they’d pull me aside to ask about my health, my work, my relationships. If they were Orthodox, they’d pull me aside and speak to me privately if my public violations of Jewish law with my writing and speaking were disrupting the community.

Only one rabbi ever inquired about the state of my soul. That was Danny Landes and I once ran into him at an event at Westwood’s Sephardic synagogue in 2000. It shook me up and contributed to my choosing to visit Israel that year.

Before I officially converted to Judaism, no rabbi encouraged me to make such a move. Instead, they all discouraged it. They talked to me about my health, my relationship with my parents, and other such prosaic matters. They wanted to make sure I knew the consequences of converting. Did I know that God did not need me to become Jewish? I could get to Heaven more easily without converting. No rabbi wanted to save my soul. No rabbi wanted to win me for their side. With most of the Christian clergy I knew, I was just fodder for Christ. By contrast, the rabbis related to me as a shrink does to a troubled soul. They were concerned about my well-being in the here-and-now, not in where my soul would go in the next world. They had no concerns about my becoming a soldier in their army.

I was not used to this. I was not used to clergy who spent their time finding their congregants jobs and doctors and apartments and shiduchim (matches). These concerns seemed so worldly. What about my theology? Perhaps I had incorrect beliefs? What about reincarnation? Well, so long as I had no beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, my rabbis seemed unconcerned with how I thought about God. If they were Orthodox, they were much more concerned with my visiting the sick, distributing gift baskets on Purim, and showing up to help make a minyan (prayer quorum).

I never had a Christian clergy try to find me a job or an apartment or a doctor or a match.

In Orthodox Judaism, people tend to develop close ties to their rabbi or they become lax in their observance. Christianity focuses more on theology than behavior, so I suspect there may be less of a behavioral tie to a particular clergy. And you don’t have the daily prayers and rituals that bind an Orthodox Jew to his rabbi.

When you go to shul every day, you see your rabbi’s face. He leads Torah study. He may lead the prayers. And you’re right there together. You eat meals together at shul and at people’s homes. There’s drinking and dancing and weddings and brises (circumcisions) and funerals etc. I feel like these ties you develop as an Orthodox Jew to your clergyman are stronger than the ties I remember as a Christian to my pastor because then I saw my clergyman maybe once a week. You didn’t drink together and you didn’t dance together and you didn’t pray together every day. The religion was more theological than ritualistic.

A Christian friend tells me: “1. because Christians believe in the priesthood of all believers (no hierarchy since Christ came, direct access to God, &c.—though this is not always clearly understood) and 2. because Adventist ministers tend to move every couple of years and not be an abiding influence, this would not generally be something that is taught in Adventism. Humans are fallible, so best to look to Christ as a mentor. The title of that old book, Practicing the Presence of Christ has often been urged as the principle Christians need to live by. What would Jesus do? That latter phrase was often used in Adventism in my day (remember, we don’t attend). Lots of people, Christians or not, would think of their parents and not want to let them down (ideal). Certain races like the Japanese are more likely to think this way, and they, of course, are largely Buddhist.”

I recall no Adventist parallel to the Hasidic practice of getting kiddush wine from the rabbi’s cup and pieces of bread and other food from his hand in a tish. Our pastor’s touch of food and drink held no power.

There’s no Adventist notion of praying at a revered leader’s grave (as in Hasidic Judaism)? I don’t think so but there are prayers at graves and words spoken about the person’s good traits. Christians rarely say, I’ll follow my pastor anywhere. If he moves to Sydney or Los Angeles, I’ll go with him. People didn’t move to be near my dad and he had a fanatically loyal Christian following.

I don’t recall many Christians moving so that they could be close to their priest. Rather, they generally accept the priest the church sends them.

Few Protestants go to church every day (unless they’re employed by the church) while about a third of Orthodox Jewish men do. A Protestant who goes to church once a week is considered religious while an Orthodox Jew who goes to shul but once a week is considered a slacker (even though the center of Judaism is the home, not the shul).

I’m thinking about Reb Moshe Feinstein (greatest halachic decider of the 1960s – 1980s). I think that much of his community left Russia in the 1920s and followed him to America.

Growing up a Seventh-Day Adventist, I was never upset by a change in my pastor. Moving on from my rabbi, by contrast, has often been wrenching. It felt like my world was coming apart when I moved on from Ohev Shalom in Orlando, from the Mountaintop Minyan at Stephen S. Wise, from Ohr HaTorah, from Aish HaTorah, Young Israel of Century City, Beth Jacob and Bnai David-Judea, sometimes choosing a minyan with no official rabbi to lose because my heart could handle no more.

However close I’ve grown to my rabbis, however, I’ve always put my blogging before my relationship with them.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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