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What is a Rabbi? Hint: Not a Priest

We have a problem in American Judaism. A big one.

We do not share a common sense of the role of the rabbi.

"The rabbi should not wear that, say that, do that, touch that, eat that, drink that, think that, go there, meet that person, associate with that group...."

American Jews have lots of opinions about what rabbis should or should not do or say.  And they let the rabbis know. And our jobs are constantly held over our heads based on the opinions and preferences of the people who hire us to be their teachers and guides. This inhibits us from teaching our true Torah and sharing our deepest wisdom. And it is destroying the rabbinate in this amazing open society.

Being a rabbi is one tough job, one tough life!  Every year I see good and great rabbis leave the pulpit because of this major cultural and ethical lack of agreement about the role of the rabbi within the American Jewish community.  And in all of  this--there is something really important being lost. We are corroding ourselves from within.

Historically, the rabbis emerged from the civilization crisis brought about by  the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. First century Judaism was even more fraught with crisis and sectarianism than we Jews are today. Jesus arose out of that time period. As did the Dead Sea Sect. As did the predecessors to what we understand to be our modern day rabbis. We were the Pharisees. We were the leaders who INTUITED that the form of Israelite religion we had practiced since our people-hood moment at Sinai, was coming to an END.

The Pharisees, the proto rabbis, were the smart ones. They saw what was coming. They started to adapt, in a variety of ways, to make up for the crumbling Priestly leadership and power. Whatever had worked in the past was no longer working and so the earliest of the early rabbis transformed the Israelite religion. What was once a Temple-based cult of animal sacrifices, tithing and the Priestley service into JUDAISM, into a religious civilization that is Torah-based, interpretation-based, community-based, home-based, legalistic, adaptive and portable, And this is why Jews are not on the list of civilizations lost to history. We adapted. We survived.

The ancient priests inherited their power. Leadership of our people was passed father to son. They did not need to be kind or wise or smart or even be leaders. All the Priests needed to do was follow the rules. There was no there, there. The priests were pre-programmed religious leaders. The laws of Leviticus were their inherited code. No opinions. No moral or ethical judgments. And they were allowed to make all kinds of political alliances with outside forces. There was a lot of power with the priesthood but no demand for virtue. And that entire system was burned to the ground.

Rabbis are completely different. Virtue is at the core of who and what we are. A rabbi is not an inherited position. You have to earn your role. #6yearsofgraduateschool A rabbi is not a cleric. There are many religious leadership roles in Jewish life. The Shamesh keeps the synagogue going, makes sure the ner tamid is always aglow. The Mohel performs ritual circumcisions. The Sofer writes the Torah and other sacred texts. The Shochet ensures the purity of the meat we eat. There is the Mikvah lady and those who run the burial society too. In all of these roles in Jewish life there is a right and a wrong way to do things. These people help our community stay on course in terms of  ritual purity, if that is something you care about. But the rabbi? The rabbi plays a different role.

There is no tamudic tractate that outlines what a rabbi can or cannot say from the bima.  No rigorous laws of conduct specifically for rabbis. We are no more or less holy than anyone else. We are special ONLY in that we are sacred carriers of Jewish knowledge and wisdom. We carry within us: Judaism. We ingest our stories and teachings, our texts and commentaries. We eat them all up, just like the prophet Ezekiel, and the words and wisdom of the Jewish people, from Genesis to the dvar Torah of every bnai mitzvah student, become a part of our spiritual and intellectual DNA.

We hold the laws in our grasp of knowledge (even when no one in the community actually has any interest in following them) but also we hold voices from the past, stories, ethical teachings, spiritual practises, folklore, customs, history, musicology, geography, poetry  and so much more. Law is but one aspect of Jewish civilization. For liberal rabbis, we have had to learn how to be much more than transmitters of the law: CEO, social workers, staff manager, therapists, preschool teachers, community addition to what we learned to do in rabbinical school.  Rabbis interpret the laws, customs and the texts, all the while helping Judaism adapt to meet the needs of the Jewish people.

A rabbi is a guide. A teaching guide. A teaching guide who leads. A teaching guide who leads the Jewish people. A teaching guide who leads the Jewish people towards a very specific vision of what and how our world can be as outlined in our sacred texts: to a day when ALL THE WORLD is as ONE and God's name is ONENESS.

A rabbi offers the whole of their knowledge and wisdom in transmitting the faith. Sometimes that comes in the form of political statements (not partisan because that is illegal and should stay that way). I am talking here about opinions, views, perspectives on social issues--the social reality that exists at all times and permeates all we think, know and do. It is profoundly disrespectful to the role of the rabbi to tell them what can and cannot be said from the pulpit. These efforts to silence the rabbinic voice are truly attempts to turn rabbis back into priests. Clerics. Robot rabbis who just do and say what they are told. You do not tell your teacher what they can and cannot teach.  This is not a consumer relationship. The fact that a salary is paid does not give anyone the right to constrict the Torah that comes from a rabbis soul.

Rabbis do not exist to teach Jews what they already know or what they want to hear. Rabbis are here to expand our knowledge and understanding, to guide and  to lead the people.We did not endure years of rigorous learning to be told what to say, to be told what is and what is not an appropriate Torah to be teaching. We are not on the bima to simply lead the liturgy and do the TASKS associated with a rabbinic job description. Being a rabbi is not a job. It is a life dedicated to the Jewish people.  The title can not be taken away from you, even if you are fired, even if you are put in prison. To ask, to demand, that a rabbi not teach their truth, their most honest and important Torah,  is an insult to Judaism and to the strength of our tradition. The rabbi  does not exist in the life of the community to simply make the members feel good about themselves. My best guess to why this happens so much in the American community is because money is involved and therefore people feel that if they pay they should get EXACTLY what they want. That is a bastardization of Judaism. It is like Catholics paying for absolution. It is poison. It is making Jewish communities toxic.

I find myself sometimes humming as I do my prep work for teaching..." you can't always get what you want, but you find sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need." A teacher teaches for growth, not comfort. A leader leads for the future, not the past. A rabbi  functions to bring knowledge and wisdom to the community and to share all that they know with the next generation.

We are losing something in the way we sometimes treat our rabbis. We are losing a sense of moral and ethical humility. We are losing our ability to be students. In order to be in a healthy relationship with a rabbi you need to be able to accept them as YOUR TEACHER. If you attempt to delegitimize your teacher, someone you came to learn FROM or at least WITH, you are not coming as a student, you are coming as a supervisor at best and a consumer at worst. And neither are holy relationships. The lack of sanctity in the relationship between rabbi and congregant might be our next downfall. I know we can do better by our rabbis and for ourselves in cultivating a humility towards the role of the rabbi and allowing us to do our work unencumbered by fear.

Rabbi Kinberg


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