The Rabbi as Jackie Mason

My synagogue recently went through the process of search for a new rabbi. The committee responsible for selecting candidates ploughed through resumes in search of the ideal. They  even sent out a survey to see what was important to the congregants in the profile of their new rabbi .

To be candid, the process was greatly disappointing. The survey and the weekend interviews seemed more appropriate for hiring a weekly performer than in hiring a mentor and source for guidance, challenge  and inspiration.

On what basis did the eventual “winner” in the process claim his prize? He smiled more than the other candidates, he was friendlier, he was more relational, those were the criteria on which he won the popular vote.

No one mentioned they were inspired or motivated to make improvements or gained a new life perspective from their time with him . No one said “this is a man who will help me grow”. They didn’t because the rabbi didn’t even make an effort to accomplish that. His agenda was to be the most pleasing which he was and to get the job.

And my synagogue is not the only one who chose the pleaser and the entertainer as their new rabbi. The neighborhood is blessed with rabbis with “personality”, each larger than life. They perform to the assembled each Shabbat.  They win oohs and ahs. Everyone goes home happy, and self content. To be disturbed by the rabbi’s comments would hardly be welcome.

Jackie Mason the late famous Jewish comedian began his career as a pulpit rabbi. He would feel proud. of these latter day  reprisers  of his role. The comedian and the rabbi have much more in common than might at first glance be noticed. at least as the rabbi’s role seem fleshed out today.  The image of rabbi now is not as mentor and spiritual coach and guide as Moshe the originator  of  the position. Rather it is the rabbi as someone who makes us feel good, entertains and performs.  Talmid chacham?  Tzadik?  Provider of Musar?  what do these things matter.  The rabbi is a fine stand up character.  He does a great impression  of Jackie Mason.

Truth be told the measure of success in a rabbinic career has nothing to do with a rabbi’s popularity. To know if a  rabbi has been successful he needs to ask  has my congregation grown and matured spiritually under my  leadership? Have the men and women changed, become more loving, more honest, better to both G-d and person?  Have I been willing to take the risk  to say what was not popular and pleasing in order to effect change?

I for one would prefer a rabbi who comes off dull  but sincere, one who may not have the magnetism or charisma but has emotional and spiritual maturity, a rabbi who does not wow but who does challenge, a rabbi who makes me think about myself and my issues rather than about him and his brilliance.

But alas I am only one vote.  The popular rules. Rabbi Jackie wins hands down over Rabbi Moshe  in the social context of our day. And we alas remain the poorer for it. We are happy yes, but remarkably unchanged!

About the Author
Yisrael Ben Yosef holds Masters degrees in both Philosophy and in Education from the University of Western Ontario. He was a former Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education. He founded and served as Director of the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care in New York City. He has authored two books "Whence My Help Come:Caregiving in the Jewish Tradition" and "The Torah and the Self", both published by Mazo Press, Jerusalem.