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Rejecting the rabbi as spiritual sissy: A response to R. Steinsaltz

What the Jewish people needs is bold, practical leadership, not sympathetic tears

I have been a student and admirer of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz for 25 years. While I was rabbi at Oxford University it was my privilege to host him several times, including at a historic debate with atheist Richard Dawkins which I moderated. Years later, in 2009, Rabbi Steinsaltz was one of the keynote speakers at an International Conference on Jewish values which I hosted in New York. In 2012, Rabbi Steinsaltz was honored by Israeli President Shimon Peres with the Presidential Award of Distinction for his monumental commentary on the entire Talmud. Peres praised Steinsaltz “for his unique and extraordinary contribution to Jewish culture and education.” I agree wholeheartedly. Steinsaltz is a rabbinic giant of our time.

Which just makes his recent column, “Who will be our rabbis?” all the more bizarre. In it Steinsaltz essentially argues that rabbis today need to embrace the Bill Clinton model: they have to feel the community’s pain. It doesn’t’ much matter whether or not they have answers for the Jewish community’s problems. Indeed, Steinsaltz seems to prefer rabbis who are blissfully clueless, so long as they can admit to their ignorance and cry along with their congregants.

Drawing upon the analogy of the rabbis as “the head” and the Jewish people as “the physical body,” the heads feels the pain of the other organs. “Similarly,” he writes, “the leader is supposed to sense the problems and feel the pains of everyone.”

He illustrates his point with a lengthy story of a rabbi who was approached by a young man, a mamzer who was prohibited by Jewish law from marrying because he was illegitimate. The rabbi could do nothing for him. But “… the young man [was] sitting in the rabbi’s lap and both were weeping.” Rabbi Steinsaltz says, “This is the kind of rabbi I am looking for.”

I bet it’s not the kind of rabbi the young man was looking for.

Does anyone really believe that this poor adolescent was comforted by a life of loneliness because some rabbi with a rainbow vest felt his pain? Judaism is a religion of action, not empty emotion.

People are not looking for rabbis to mirror their agony – they are looking for someone to give them keys to redemption and to direct them out of the labyrinth of life. A rabbi, as its Hebrew name implies, is a teacher. Rabbis today need to be problem solvers. CEO’s of their communities and synagogues. They have to arrive in a city, see the empty pews, and figures out how to fill them up. If the service needs to be shorter and more explanatory, if the yodeling of the Cantor has to disappear in favor of a question and answer session, than do that. But sitting and weeping the death of the community will be seen by his congregants as cowardly and pathetic.

A rabbi is a man on a mission. His purpose: to rebuild Jewish life. To establish schools, mikvahs, adult education classes, debates, seminars, weekend retreats, and stimulating communal events. He is not empathizer-in-chief but programmer in chief.

Of what use does a man whose wife wants to leave him have for a rabbi who sits and weeps with him? Will that heal the man’s shattered heart? Will it stop his children from being yoyo’s pulled between parents on alternate weekends? Will his rabbi hold him tight at night and erase his agonizing loneliness? Is that the rabbi’s role or the role of a spouse?

Rather, the rabbi’s purpose in that situation is to counsel the couple and find out what went wrong. Perhaps the man never gave his wife a compliment? Maybe he paid more attention to other women than her. And if so, then the rabbis’ role is not warmth and comfort but tough love. He has to tell the man directly and forcefully that women marry men to feel special. That they give up everything – including their very names – to become a wife. And what they ask for in return is to be the one and only. And you’re job is to make her feel that way and win her back. And if you haven’t done it yet, then get off your lazy derrière and do it. You will not sympathy from me for allowing your family to fall apart.

It’s true, as both Socrates and the Zohar state, that a truly wise person knows how much he doesn’t know. That being said, we are not free to shirk our responsibilities to fix problems in the world. Neither Socrates nor the great Kabbalistic text implied that in our ignorance we could absolve ourselves of the responsibility of offering guidance where it was warranted. It just means that such advice has to always be offered with humility and a keen awareness of our own limitations.

Since I was a teenager, I have strived to follow King Solomon’s advice in Proverbs (3:5), “Betach el Hashem b’chol libecha, v’el binat’cha al tisha’en.” “Trust God with all your heart and do not rely on your own understanding.” In high school, I borrowed the passage for my yearbook entry, using the original Hebrew as a play on my own name (Betach/ Boteach).

Today’s rabbis aren’t being asked questions in Jewish law, like whether a chicken’s broken wing renders it unkosher, as Rabbi Steinsaltz rightly states. Today’s rabbis are expected to act as marriage and family counselors. They’re expected to help resolve questions people have about God’s goodness when they suffer. They’re expected to guide people as to how to find purpose and meaning in life and overcome feelings of emptiness and depression.

When I first started writing self-help books in the early 1990’s I was criticized by fellow rabbis. Such criticism became outright condemnation with the publication, in 1999, of Kosher Sex. But the book stemmed from all the dysfunctional sexual relationships I witnessed in counseling married couples. People trashed the book as something outside the remit of a rabbi. Rabbis should be teaching the Parsha, not teaching couples how to sustain erotic desire.

Such criticism was ridiculous, as time would bear out and as the book, and those that followed, garnered international audiences and mainstream embrace. And why? Because if Judaism cannot demonstrate that it has real-world guidance on how to have passionate marriages, raise moral and inspired children, overcome deadening materialism, and countless other real-life matters, then it has no shot at survival. Aside from a small band of the orthodox, it will die.

People in the West want guidance to overcome emptiness and lust for money that has come to define Western culture. They want more than investing in stocks and bonds. It’s why thousands of Americans still decide to go to college and study humanities and not business. Even in a world where Wall Street, in your first year, will pay you a million bucks, students study history, art, philosophy, and language. Many of them look to religious leadership and religious texts to find that same inspiration but walk away empty and frustrated.

I reject Rabbi Steinsaltz’s view of the rabbi-as-emotional-co-traveler, the rabbi who feels but does not guide. On the contrary, I want to see precisely the opposite. The muscular rabbi who, firm in his convictions, offers a definitive moral philosophy to his congregants. Who, armed with the facts, offers a robust defense of Israel. Who, having earned the respect of the men and women in his shul, tells them, directly, that infidelity is beneath them and that they must electrify each other in bed.

I reject the rabbi as spiritual sissy. The rabbi who cries while Jews die is a moral coward. He is guilty of abrogation of leadership. Jewish life is a living drama, not a soap opera.

The reason why Judaism is waning today, as revealed in this past fall’s Pew Research study on American Jewry, is because Judaism isn’t being shown to work for people. IPhones can make phone calls, surf the net, and give you hundreds of apps to make life easier. But why would anyone go to shul unless we can show that religious attendance makes us less materialistic, less stressed, wiser, more accepting of others, and more content?

“Which rabbi or rabbinic organization in the State of Israel cares about the young prostitutes at the Tel Baruch beach?” Rabbi Steinsaltz asks his audience. “Most of them do not even know what is happening there.” Yes, Rabbi Steinsaltz is courageous in calling on rabbis to care for those Jewish society has forgotten. It is paramount for Israeli rabbis, who are often aloof and detached from the fringes of Israeli culture, to know about the problems in their own backyard. We need to care about the myriad of problems that promotes these awful circumstances – poverty, destitution, drug addiction, and the breakdown of the family. But in invoking the prostitutes of Tel Aviv as one of the first callings of a rabbi, Rabbi Steinsaltz sounds like he wants us to emulate Jesus who famously tried to save prostitutes like Mary Magdalene, even as the Jewish people as a whole went to pot. Romans were torturing and murdering Jews by the tens of thousands. The priesthood was corrupt. Israel was under foreign occupation by a brutal power that suppressed their faith. But Jesus was focusing on saving the prostitutes. (And incidentally, I reject this view of Jesus utterly in my book “Kosher Jesus”). Yes, those seemingly smaller challenges are very important. Every individual counts. But let’s also have a sense of proportion and priority.

Rabbi Steinsaltz is an exalted spiritual leader and a giant among men. But his calling seems so much smaller than the grandness of his once global vision. The Jewish people are suffering on a global scale. On campuses throughout the Western world Israel’s reputation is nearly as bad as North Korea. Our shuls are empty except for the Yom Kippur appeal. The Jewish community is approaching a 50 percent divorce rate. According to the recent Pew Research Poll, a third of Jewish Americans own Christmas trees. The same number believe that Jesus is compatible with Judaism. The rabbis at Hillel and Chabad are losing the battles for Israel on campus because they are often afraid of appearing right-wingers and alienating the largely left-wing student body.

The last thing we need is rabbis to weep over this stuff. Empathic rabbis are nice. But give me a real leader any day over some mushy, emotional sissy-man who feels my pain. Give me a Martin Luther King who is prepared to march. Give me a Billy Graham who fills stadiums with a call to Christians to return to the gospel. Give me a Pope Francis who sees his Church obsessed with gays and abortion and says, finally, enough, let’s rescue the Church from terminal decline.

We need rabbis of courage and gumption to go out and fight the battles of the Jewish people, not a bunch of warm-hearted flower children who cry while the Jewish people go to the grave.

Above all else, give me leaders like my own teacher, and that of Rabbi Steinsaltz, the great, wise, and incomparable Lubavitcher Rebbe, who saw the Jewish people people in cardiac arrest and applied defibrillators. He was a man with answers and transformed the Jewish world because he had solutions. Yes, he offered comfort to the bereaved and hope to the afflicted. He helped single mothers raise proud Jewish children (I am an example) and extended his tender heart to all in need. But above all else, he flexed his muscles and transformed the Jewish world as we know it. He did not ask, but demanded of his students to leave the comforts of New York and Jerusalem and travel to Katmandu. Witnessing the ravages of the Holocaust and the destruction of assimilation, he didn’t weep, he didn’t wail, he didn’t mourn. Rather, like a brazen lion, he went into action. He sent his followers to Vietnam and South Africa, Kentucky and Australia. He told them they would live there and if need be die there. But the one entity that would not die is the Jewish people, into whom they would breathe new life.

When the world condemned Israel for holding on to its ancient lands of Judea and Samaria, conquered in wars of annihilation launched by Nasser and Hussein, the Rebbe railed and thundered that returning these lands would invite further aggression and more dead Jews.

He did not care for the price he paid in popularity. He did not care if he was labeled immoderate. He had seen too many dead Jews during the Holocaust to simply cry over more. He made up his mind that, so long as he led them, the Jewish people would live.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.