I recently read Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s article, The End of the Rabbi as Mr. Nice Guy. I follow Mr. Boteach’s website on a regular basis as I think he has a lot to offer American society. In general, I respect his opinions and find his writing to be thought-provoking and philosophically sound despite our theological differences. However, I find a serious fault in Mr. Boteach’s estimation of what a rabbi should be.
A little more than midway through his article, Mr. Boteach articulates his estimation of a good rabbi:
Rabbis must begin broadening their roles away from the ceremonial and toward the provocative. You’re given a pulpit. Use it. Get up there on Saturday morning and belt out a sermon about the high rates of divorce in your Synagogue and how you expect husbands to be gentlemen who compliment their wives daily. Tell the women that dignified dress has always been the hallmark of the classy Jewish woman. Announce that outrageously lavish weddings violate Jewish values since they make those who can’t afford one feel like they’ve let their children down.
Pulpit? Sermon? Mr. Boteach, in this paragraph, betrays the all too common view that a rabbi is nothing more than the Jewish version of a pastor. Jews should not co-opt their idea of a spiritual leader from Christianity. Why? We aren’t Christians! We are supposed to get our guidance from the TaNaKh–G-d’s Word, not someone a seminary says is qualified to tell us what to do. A good Jewish leader should assist congregations in a close study of the Torah and TaNaKh, leading subsequent discussions as congregants examine their own understanding of the Word and its application to modern life.
We need leaders who will help and lead us as we examine–repeatedly–biblical interpretations and Jewish traditions to decide whether they adhere to Jewish Law. We already have all the instruction we need, if we would only put it above the instructions of men. Jews don’t need a rabbi, living or dead to tell them how to be decent people. What we need is someone to act as a role model, someone with a knowledge of biblical Hebrew and history, who can re-blaze a long-abandoned trail to creating in the Jewish people a population of thoughtful, industrious individuals, eager to do what is right as they understand it.