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The challenge of being a rabbi in the 21st century

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We must move beyond comfort in our search for the spiritual. But how do we do this in the 21st century?
We must move beyond comfort in our search for the spiritual. But how do we do this in the 21st century? SCREENSHOT

What do you do at your new job?

I have been asked this multiple times since moving to New York. The curiosity is quite understandable. What rabbis do is always a bit mysterious, so much so, that a favourite rabbinic joke is the story of the student who is thinking of becoming a rabbi and asks to meet his rabbi to ask a few questions. When the meeting starts, the young man turns to the rabbi and asks: “Rabbi, I know you give a sermon for 15 minutes every Shabbat morning. But what do you do the rest of the week?” The rabbi immediately retorted:

“Young man, with questions like that, you don’t want to be a rabbi. You want to be a synagogue president!”

What fills a rabbi’s schedule is a grab bag of responsibilities far from the public eye.
But all joking aside, there is one question I’ve started to think about again since I’ve started my new job: what is a rabbi’s mission?

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One answer, attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is that a rabbi is supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I was disappointed to learn that the quote is actually from the film Inherit the Wind, but whatever the source, there is great wisdom to the quote, and it describes the mission of a rabbi perfectly.

A colleague once pointed out a similar pattern in prophetic literature.

Before any catastrophe, the prophets would rebuke, warning the people to change their ways. But afterward, when the people were exiled and hurt, the prophets would offer comfort and hope. The prophet’s job was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and this is the mission of the rabbi as well.

But this mission is paradoxical: how can prophets and rabbis do two opposite things at the same time? One way to decipher this paradox is to recognize that parents are also called on to do two opposite things at the same time.

In their research on parenting, John Martin and Eleanor Maccoby noted that there are two elements to parenting styles: how demanding the parent is and how responsive the parent is. Permissive parents are responsive, but not demanding, while authoritarian parents are demanding but not responsive. But the ideal parent is authoritative, both responsive and demanding, and someone who knows how to comfort an afflicted child while at the same able to afflict the comfortable child and lead him or her to excellence.

The job of a parent and a prophet are pretty much the same: they lead their charges to excellence through a combination of demandingness, compassion and inspiration.

But we live in an age when the thought of demanding anything is foreign. It is difficult to speak about standards, as most people prefer to indulge and be indulged. The question for the modern rabbi is this: can you afflict the comfortable?

Even 2,000 years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud noted that “no one can rebuke, and no one can accept rebuke,” and since then, afflicting the comfortable has gotten far less popular.

In 1902, William James noted: “We have now whole congregations whose preachers, far from magnifying our consciousness of sin, seem devoted rather to making little of it.” Whatever the merits of what James calls the religion of the “healthy-minded”, it is clear that an undemanding Judaism ceases to inspire, and at times ceases to be authentic.

As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out, “Kedushah [sanctity] is not a paradise, but a paradox.” Without the demands and challenges of kedushah, Judaism dissolves into a meaningless mush of nostalgia, a cultural artifact ready to be forgotten in the attic.

So we must move beyond comfort in our search for the spiritual. But as I run out of space, I must leave you with a simple question: how do we do this in the 21st century?

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