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The Rabbi Facing Modernity

Even when the rabbi believes he has the answers, he must know the "fragestellung," the form the question takes. The answering text must respond to the context of the questioner's life situation. We know how often presenting questions conceal more than they reveal. The rabbi must learn to read between the lines. Who is this person who asks this question?

But, "In order to answer a question, one must have something in common with the questioner" (Paul Tillich). Here the rabbi begins his career at a decided disadvantage. The world of the Seminary is not the world of the Synagogue and neither world is the world of the individual Jew. And it is the individual Jew -- not some abstract metaphysical construct -- whose questions or silence must be compassionately understood and addressed.


For the most part, the three worlds--seminary, synagogue, individual--have non- intersecting agenda. The trichotomy of their separate spheres of interest isolates the one from the other. The task before us all--the decision makers of Seminary and Synagogue -- is to make connections; to integrate the public and private agenda of Jewish living. This, I believe, requires the cultivation of mediating structures and the development of mediating roles within the synagogue community; it calls for building bridges between the communal wisdom in tradition and the values of individualism in modernity.

The historian Jacob Katz describes the theory of traditionalism as the belief that public and private life can be regulated by law, and that meaning and values are derived from "the total reliance on the distant past."1 Despite the modernity of its scholarship, the rabbinic seminary is largely a traditional institution.

By the same token, the world of the synagogue, despite its modern dress, assumes a traditional outlook which is reflected in the manner that its ritual and liturgical life is conducted.

But the world of the individual Jew, whether within or without the synagogue, is increasingly nontraditional. He owns a private agenda of personal hopes and fears which have little in common with the traditional public agenda. His concerns range over the disharmonies of marriage, the disenchantment in raising his children, the dying of parents, the fears about sickness and death, the weightlessness of career, the unarticulated hunger for interiority. His modernity is expressed in voluntarism. Free to choose, he finds deeper pride in his choosing than in his chosenness. He is suspect of "groupism," the imperatives of Jewish law and his envelopment in the fate of the community. "Modern consciousness," Peter Berger reminds us, "entails a movement from fate to choice."2 Voluntarism, individualism and pluralism create the atmosphere which the individual Jew breathes. The rabbi breathes the same air.

Upon ordination, the rabbi is thrust into another world, sent forth with the assurance that he is "mara d'athra." He is the authoritative teacher, the decisor, the judge of "issur v'heter." He has law on his side and the law has its mandates. In a revealing paragraph of his Guide (III, 34), Maimonides characterizes the law and by implication the traditionalist model of the rabbi. Whatever the Law teaches, whether it be of an intellectual, a moral or a practical character, is founded on that which is the rule and not the exception; it ignores the injury that might be caused to a single person through a certain maxim or a certain divine precept. For the Law is a divine institution and (in order to understand its operation) we must consider how in Nature the various forces produce benefits which are general, but in some solitary cases they cause also injury...we must consequently not be surprised when we find that the object of the Law does not fully appear in every individual; there must naturally be people who are not perfected by the instruction of the Law, just as there are beings which do not receive from the specific forms in Nature all that they require...From this consideration it also follows that the laws cannot like medicine vary according to the different conditions of persons and times; whilst the cure of a person depends on his particular constitution at the particular time, the divine guidance contained in the Law must be certain and general, although it may be effective in some cases and ineffective in others. If the Law depended on varying conditions of man, it would be imperfect in its totality, each precept being left indefinite. For this reason it would not be right to make the fundamental principles of the Law dependent on a certain time or a certain place; on the contrary, the statutes and judgments must be definite, unconditional, and general, (in accordance with the divine words, "as for the congregation, one ordinance shall be for you and for the stranger"; they are intended...for all persons and all times. (Italics mine)

In this formulation, the fate of the individual is secondary to the judgment of the Law. In a traditionalist society, where obligations and practices of the rules and customs are natural, the analogy between law and Nature seems more convincing. But that is all remote from the world of the Jew of modernity. He will not submit his lot to the generality of the law or consent to suffer injuries because of the law. The ethos of modernity does not cultivate easy acceptance of the dictates of the group and the law. He may be polite enough to say nothing, to act out his unhappiness by abstention, but in confessional moments he admits resentment at being told when, where, how, and what to eat; when, where, how, and whom to marry; when, where, and whom to mourn. The rabbi in modernity cannot mandate his behavior by citations from traditional text alone. Quotational Judaism falls on deaf ears. He is more likely to persuade him of the wisdom and therapy of the tradition, of its advantage for his well being and that of his family.

A mara d'athra with the powers to bind and loosen implies a consenting community of common beliefs, settled convictions, shared practices. Without such a common network of belief and conduct, the authoritative voice loses its resonance. The rabbi feels compelled to turn ventriloquist, to acquire the talent to so throw his voice that a dialogue of "she'eloth" and "tshuvoth" appears to be going on. He finds himself answering questions never asked. Real questions emerge from real community; and the rabbi faces an audience of discrete individuals, not a kehillah of common faith and practice. His practical theology derives from Hans Vaihinger's "als ob" (as if) philosophy. Pastorally he must teach, advocate, and preach "as if" there were a community sharing his universe of discourse. But without a community of lived Jewish experience, the synagogue is fated to become theater, the "bimah" transformed into a stage, the hazzan into a vocalist, the rabbi into monologist.


The rabbi is caught between the traditional and modern worlds. He is pulled by what appear to be conflicting needs and expectations. We can perhaps illustrate the dilemma of the rabbinate and the need to frame alternative models for the religious leadership of the future by attention to the arena in which rabbi and individual inter-relate most personally; namely, the rites of passage, from birth to death. The energies and intelligence of the rabbi trained by tradition are concentrated on the performance of the rite, not on the process of the passage. De facto, the rabbinic focus is upon the proper performance of the ritual act, not upon the emotional and spiritual growth of the individuals involved in the passage. The rabbi sees himself and is seen by others as dealing with the technicalities in performing a proper "milah" circumcision, not with working with parents to understand the religious and moral meaning of the "brith" covenant; with the proper writing of the "ketubah" and the rites of wedding, not with the spiritual preparation of the marriage; with the "tevilah" and "milah" of the proselyte, not with the emotional and attitudinal changes involved in becoming a Jew by choice; with the prescriptions and proscription of the "levaiah," not with the internal dynamics of grieving and mourning. The layman has learned to approach the rabbi as he approaches the bench. The rabbi or judge hands down decision -- how, when, where the rite is to be done. What the layman receives in not the how of the passage but the how of the rite not the rite as it expressed the meaning and significance of the passage, but the mechanics of the rite itself. As for the passage itself -- that may be left outside the Jewish religious domain, to secular agencies, to psychological or spiritual groups unrelated to Jewish juridic process. The rabbi de facto deals with passageless rites. He enters the play "in medias res."

Consider how, for example, the Jew who seeks a religious divorce today experiences the rabbinic Beth Din. The entire focus of rabbinic energy and time is concentrated upon the correctness of the form, the writing of the twelve lines, the presence of qualified witnesses, the legally appropriate delivery of the "get." As far as the passage from the state of "kiddushin" to that of "gerushin," the Beth Din appears to have nothing to say or to do with helping the couple cope with the traumas of divorce. What Jewish wisdom or ethics is imparted by the Beth Din to the pained parents who are clearly in need of spiritual support? What Jewish counsel for frightened children whose fidelities are pulled in all directions and who are forced to perform heart-rending "parentdectomies?" Passageless rites are as religiously scandalous as riteless passages. They touch only the external garments.

If the emotional, moral, and spiritual dimensions of the passage remain extrinsic to the halachic process, halachah is trivialized as irrelevant protocol and derided as legalism. If, for example, the passage is not regarded organically as part and parcel of the halachic process, the "get" is impersonal and pro forma, indistinguishable from the civil divorce. In a premodern society, the expectations and needs for individual attention and personal wisdom may not have been felt as necessary, or perhaps they were simply ignored. This is decidedly not the case in our times.

I take the bifurcation of rite and passage as symptomatic of the split between tradition and modernity, the public agenda of tradition and the private agenda of the individual. To overcome that schism, tradition and modernity must not be viewed as hard disjunctives. To present them as either/or alternatives is to falsely load the options. The choice is not between Halachah and Aggadah, law and ethics, tradition and modernity. The options are not either that the people must serve the institution of the law or that the law must serve the interests of the people. The relationship is dialectical, not oppositional. The law is for the sake of the people, and the people is for the sake of the law. What is called for, I suggest, is an expansion of the domain and interest of the halachah. Not the retraction but the enlargement of halachah promises to restore the unity of rite and passage, to incorporate attention to the individual and his emotional and spiritual needs along with the more traditional legal concerns which bind him to the structure of community. Halachah and Aggadah may be intellectually differentiated; but in practice they cannot be kept apart without creating a harsh segregation of law and life.

In training the religious leadership of the future, it is not enough to tell stories of the ethical sensibilities of a Chatam Sofer, Chafetz Hayyim, or Israel Salanter. These are gifts of unique leaders, not institutional behavior. The moral, spiritual and emotional dimensions must be made intrinsic to the practice of Jewish law. Appropriate mechanisms and vehicles must be established as indispensable elements within the halachic process to address the whole needs of individual Jews. The forms and apparatus of tradition must be stretched, not shriveled.

This calls for a serious evaluation of the teleology of halachah. Maimonides' contrast of the character and function of law and the judge as opposed to medicine and the physician has to be reconsidered. Jewish men and women are bleeding. There is a need, especially in modern society, to pay attention to the individual in pain, to prescribe medicines according to the particular ailments. If Judaism is a way of life, not simply a way of rite, the practice and teleology of halachah must be greatly enlarged. Religious leaders must integrate various competencies to respond to traditional and modern demands and expectations.

The rabbi with feet planted in both worlds is himself not immune to the ethos of modernity. He may properly point out the perversions which transform individualism into privatism, expressivity into anarchy, interiority into irresponsibility. But the rabbi knows and feels that the cries for personal help, personal spirituality, and moral relevance cannot be dismissed as mere conceits of modernity. It was no anti-nomian figure but J. B. Soloveitchik who bemoaned the shallowness and mechanical forms of "the majestic community"; no anti traditionalist but Abraham Joshua Heschel who chastized the Sages for having neglected the individual in the Jew. It is not enough to demand the individual's obligation to community and tradition.

What of the rights of the individual, the obligation of tradition to the individual Jew?

To dismiss the Jew of modernity as a feckless soul fallen prey to the culture of narcissism is to turn a deaf ear to the genuine cry for attention and the disaffection with many of the public institutions of Jewish life.


"If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewishness without the Synagogue, desiring to remain such would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home." We can appreciate Samson Raphael Hirsch's frustration with the limits of the synagogue without approving of his proposal. Sanctuary Judaism is no surrogate for Jewish living. But the contemporary home is no oasis of Jewish life. The contemporary Jewish home, in the language of the sociologist Arnold Gehlen, is "under-institutionalized". The Jewish individual is left to his own devices to create his own Jewish ambiance and content. He cannot do it alone. His zayde came to the synagogue, because he was Jewish. If the grandchild comes to the synagogue it is to become Jewish. But the synagogue for him is an alienating institution, a large and impersonal megastructure which only heightens his estrangement. He neither knows nor believes nor practices what the synagogue insinuates is the belief and praxis of the congregant. Even public honor turns into private disgrace. Called to the Torah for an honor, he is embarrassed in front of family and friends. We may recall the earlier rabbinic innovation, which established the role of a professional baal-keriah (reader of the Torah) so as to lessen the humiliation of the layman who could not himself read from the Torah.

Bibliography is not the answer. Classes in adult education do not meet the needs of the individual Jew who requires more than synagogue skills. He is estranged, uncomfortable in the synagogue, filled with doubts, and most important, devoid of any real sense of belonging. As Rozenzweig understood, "Books are not now the prime need of the day. What we need more than ever are human beings -- Jewish human beings." The founder of the Frankfort Lehrhaus was expressing no anti-intellectual bias. But he knew that Jews need Jews to be Jewish. Belonging is essential to believing and behaving.

Jewishness can not begin nor end in the sanctuary. It must be experienced outside the threshold of the synagogue, in "profanum." Jewishness is brought into the synagogue from without. By contrast, sanctuary Judaism only manages to supplant the individual, organizing community sedarim, building congregational sukkoth, purchasing prayer shawls, prayer books and skull caps inscribed as public property of the temple. The individual is often turned into a passive auditor.

For the individual Jew caught in the interstices of the under institutionalized home and the over institutionalized synagogue, a half-way house must be built. The individual needs mediating structures. The synagogue havurah is the liveliest illustration of one such intermediating vehicle. It provides him with an association small enough for him to be heard and seen, large enough to step beyond his privatism. The synagogue havurah is a single evidence of what religious leadership can do to create a non-threatening environment, a peer group with whom the individual can express doubts and fears and taste the joys of decision and choice. The synagogue havurah is only one model of the way the lonely individual Jew may take his first steps towards the larger institutions of his people. Through the havurah he has an opportunity to palpably experience peoplehood, Torah, and gemiluth chasadim. It is a way towards the humanization and personalization of the synagogue.


If Jews need Jews to be Jewish, then the rabbi needs Jewish allies. He needs lay colleagues, to related Judaism to Jews face to face. Realistically, no rabbi has the time or energy to engage the individual Jew person-to-person and to sustain such a relationship. The rabbi needs to enter into a collegiality with lay leaders dedicated to serve the synagogue community as para-Judaic counselors. He needs to train "baale-batim," not as custodians of the material culture of the temple, but as Judaic counselors concerned with the spiritual life of the individual Jew.

Before the rabbi lies a significant untapped reservoir of lay people who want to do more than serve on fiscal committees or join the critics' circle of the rabbi. There are altruistic men and women in every congregation willing to learn in order to teach, to solicit Jews for spiritual contributions to their lives and the lives of their families and their community. Is there a Jewish laity functioning anywhere today in the Jewish community which approaches Jews person-to-person except as solicitors for fund- raising purposes? Is there anywhere a cadre of competent and compassionate Jews trained to serve individual Jews?

Such a cultivated cadre of men and women are mediators who create a blood and flesh nexus between the synagogue and the individual, and between the rabbinate and the laity. They enter the homes and lives of diffident individuals who are too intimated to themselves enter the corridors of the megastructure. The para-rabbinic or para-Judaic counselors help bring the Sabbaths and festivals into the home, not through classroom exercises, but personally, in the natural Jewish environment of their homes. They have been trained to help make the rite of passage more than a routinized, pro forma exercise, but a vital stage in the Jewish growth of individual and family.

The rabbi is not ubiquitous. Equally important, he is not community. But he can tap the creativity and altruism of the laity as partners in the sacred task of making Jews. George Bernard Shaw cynically announced that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity. In Judaism we have a nobler tradition of collegiality which if adapted to our contemporary needs can revolutionize and strengthen the role of the rabbi as well as the laity. "Are you jealous for my sake?" Moses answered Joshua. "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets that the Lord put His spirit upon them" (Numbers 11:29).

1 "The Sociology of Religion and the Study of American Jews", Charles Liebman, Conservative Judaism, May/June 1981.
2 The Heretical Imperative, Peter Berger, p.11.

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Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780