I was amused when Rabbi Shmuely Boteach published his latest critique of rabbis on the Huffington Post web site. (You can see it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuley-boteach/the-end-of-the-rabbi-as-m_b_801710.html) In it, he decries the pasteurization of the contemporary rabbi. Instead of being a hale fellow (or woman) well-met, Rabbi Boteach believes a rabbi should be a provocateur, seeking to polarize the community in addressing the great ethical and political challenges of the day. This, he believes, is the mandate of the prophets and the great sages of yesteryear. But alas, he laments, rabbis today seek to be buddies to their congregants and do nothing more than churn out pabulum to make people feel good. And they are far too attracted to celebrity.
(Rabbi Boteach, who is not a pulpit rabbi, also promotes his book on what parents can learn about their children from the insights of the late Michael Jackson.)
I guess if my Judaism was exclusively or primarily grounded in social justice, I would be chastised, or perhaps insulted. Rabbis indeed should be exhorting their congregants about ethical conduct, societal values and the repair of the world. But rabbis are also pastors, spiritual mentors and exemplars of what it means to be holistically Jewish. Rabbinic authority can no longer be presumed – if it ever could. It must be exemplified; concern for the downtrodden must be modeled, whether the downtrodden are half a world away or half a block away.
Above all, a rabbi should seek to spur learning among members of the community. Sometimes that learning is from the Torah itself, sometimes from other parts of the Bible, from rabbinic literature or from contemporary Jewish thought. Sometimes learning emerges from genuine relationships that open the door to conversations of the soul. Hey, even Rabbi Boteach knows that from his friend Michael.
But if you want an example of what a rabbi should be, you need look no further than some who is not a rabbi – but ought to be. Erica Brown is our community’s resident scholar and an extraordinary teacher. Her praises were sung by David Books in a column published in the New York Times (read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/opinion/21brooks.html?_r=2&ref=davidbrooks). The quality of a rabbinate is not judged by the rabble roused or the column inches of print or the ratings in television syndication, but by how close to Torah he or she can draw the Jew in the pew. Dr. Brown has that special gift that opens the channel between text and life, allowing them to flow in both directions.
I sometimes wonder how I measure up against my own standard. (That’s a personal musing, by the way, not a request for evaluation!) But when I look around for someone who models the rabbinate for me, I find that the prophetic voice is clearer in Erica Brown’s classes than in Shmuely Boteach’s blogs.