Faith Expectations- “Jews want their Rabbi to be the kind of Jew they don’t have the time to be”

Rabbis and Cantors are known for reusing material for sermons, songs, teachings, concerts, what have you.  I usually try to avoid that if I can absolutely help it; sometimes, though, if I get in a bind, I will bring something from one presentation and use it with another group.

That being said, this throwaway line from “Keeping the Faith” ,a turn of the millennia comedy starring Ben Stiller and Edward Norton ( guess who played the Rabbi?) , sparked quite the discussion in my final Scolnic class this past Wednesday night, and I felt it warranted a bit more exploration.

Well first off, is it true? In the liberal Jewish world, do congregants see their clergy as a sort of stand-in for their own lack of ability, willingness, or determination to be completely observant?

Is it ok for us to live in that paradigm, where we know that the clergy, and the institution of Beth El as well, is just more religious than the average congregational member?

The truth is, I have no idea, but here are a couple thoughts about it.

  1. Just to clarify, Rabbis and Cantors have no special role as holy emissaries. I know that we are perceived to function as such, and that many people may understandably and justifiably derive a lot of comfort seeing us in such a way, but strictly speaking, we are no more holy or closer to Hashem than any other Jew.
  2. I think the reason we ascribe a holy emissary appellation to the clergy, is partially due to the Catholic Priest model, which of course is based on the Cohanim of the Holy Temple. Catholic priests DO serve as messengers between lay people and God, just as the Cohanim did in the days of the Temple. There was also a Hassidic tradition of one’s Rebbe functioning as an intercessor between Jews and their creator.
  3. We are not those things. We are not Cohanim, and we do not assume the roles of a traditional rebbe, who might carry your deepest wishes to God.

Needless, to say, we don’t function in those roles any longer.

Just think about it this way, we are happy to be there for you in whatever capacity you need us, for whatever you struggle with, to pray with you, to learn with you , to experience all of life’s tumult and provide advice along the way if we can.

But….we are all Jews. I am no more Jewish than the many readers of this blog post. If my presence on the bima gives you pride, warmth and helps you feel connected that is a wonderful thing, but much as I serve as the congregational Shaliach-messenger- I cannot be Jewish for another Jew. My relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Huh is my own, and so it is with all of us.

So as we enter this Shabbat, just keep in mind that God searches for each Jewish soul to open to itself to Torah. May we all take the time to nurture our Jewish selves each take the time to be the Jews we yearn to be.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted by Hazzan Asa Fradkin

Hazzan Asa Fradkin is the hazzan at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, MD. He is a native of Baltimore.

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