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Rabbis then and now

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Writing perceptively about Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut of blessed memory, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein concluded her last CJN column with a pertinent question: “Who would you consider a giant who can stand in the shadow that Rabbi Plaut cast?”

I’m between the generations of Plaut and Goldstein. In fact, as Rabbi Goldstein, just out of rabbinic school, became one of my colleagues at Holy Blossom Temple at the same time as I joined the congregation, I feel challenged to offer a response to her important rhetorical question.

I believe that the time when rabbis cast shadows has passed. Although we may all remember the spiritual leaders we encountered in our youth as giants, in previous generations, such memories had some basis in reality. That’s rarely, if ever, the case today.

Then they represented an age when hierarchy in worship services, in synagogues no less than in churches, could be illustrated by a pyramid, with someone high above who was well positioned to cast a shadow. Even the architecture of places of worship promoted it.

It was a time when scholarship was appreciated and active engagement in the community at large expected and applauded. Recent history can point to many examples across the denominational divide when rabbis seemed to matter more as leaders than as friends.

In our time, the pyramid has been replaced by a circle in which everybody is an equal. When all are on the same plane, casting shadows is well-nigh impossible. Rabbis aren’t expected to be leaders in the traditional sense, but counsellors, facilitators, fundraisers and promoters.

Look at the way worship services are organized in many communities. A friend just told me of a debate in her church about whether to keep the pews or exchange them for movable chairs as a tangible way of replacing hierarchy with democracy.

Many rabbis are, indeed, still greatly appreciated, but not because they stand in the pulpit above the congregation to proclaim the Truth, but because they aspire to be lovable human beings and everybody’s friends. That’s not how I remember the rabbis of my early years and, I’m afraid, that’s probably not the way I was perceived by many.

Yes, I, too, wanted to be loved, but I settled for being respected. My aim was to help Jews to know Judaism and sense the sacred by looking up to Heaven in awe, humility and gratitude. By contrast, in the modern synagogue, with or without pews, the intention is to look at each other in search of spirituality, which, however desirable, is very different from holiness.

Religious life has moved from the vertical to the horizontal, from the theological to the sociological. That’s also why conventional sermons have ceased to be of much consequence.

Rabbi Plaut was a consummate preacher and a commanding personality. Some younger rabbis have recently speculated whether he, and rabbis like him, would find employment in today’s congregations. The outcome was by no means conclusive.

What communities now seem to be looking for are individuals who can combine affability with pastoral skills and organizational acumen. When I started out in the rabbinate, people wanted to know the subject of my next sermon and what classes I was teaching, even how much I had published. Nowadays, I surmise, rabbis are asked at how many life-cycle events they’ve officiated and how much money they’ve raised.

When congregants believe that their rabbi hasn’t visited them enough or see that the synagogue finances are down, they may decide to fire him or her. If you always fear that your job is on the line, you’re not likely worry about how much shadow you cast but how to survive.

Before readers come to the erroneous conclusion that this is the rant of a disillusioned old rabbi, let me assure them, first, that I look back on my five decades of service to the Jewish people with humble gratitude, much satisfaction and totally without rancour.

Second, I’m by no means sure that the hierarchic system in which I was reared and which Rabbi Plaut reflected was preferable to the democratic nature of contemporary religious life that seeks to reach out and connect with individuals and thus find the presence of God.

Every age has its own way. The present way is appropriate for this time. I salute its exponents and celebrate with them, whether or not they cast shadows.

This column appears in the March 29 print issue of The CJN

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