“Aren’t you awfully cynical to be a rabbi?”
The question came from a fellow in a Torah class I was teaching in Nashville.
“You say religion is all about power. How cynical is that? I would think a rabbi would have something far more positive to say about religion in general, and certainly about Judaism in particular. Perhaps you shouldn’t be a rabbi any longer.”
It’s true: you would think that. Who wouldn’t think that? Rabbis are supposed to say things like: The Jews are God’s Chosen People; The Torah is God’s one true revelation; Israel is the Promised Land. I, on the other hand, can’t help but see such statements as marketing propaganda.
If you’re going to imagine a god who chooses people, it isn’t surprising that you imagine this god choosing you. If you’re going to imagine a god who reveals truth in a book, it isn’t surprising that you would imagine this book is your book. And if you’re going to imagine a god who dabbles in real estate, it isn’t surprising that you would imagine that your land is in fact the Promised Land.
What would be surprising—and perhaps far more convincing—would be if the Jews thought God chose someone else, wrote something else, and lived somewhere else.
And what about my notion that religious institutions are all about power? Can they be about anything else? By and large, religions are patriarchal hierarchies that demand do whatever it is that the clergy’s god wants. And what their god wants most of all is for them to do what the clergy say.
I’m not saying that religions cannot and do not do good in the world; they can and they do. I am only saying that doing good is not why they were created. Is this cynicism or honesty? I think it is the latter. So should being honest drive me out of the rabbinate? Not just yet.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are iconoclasts, shattering the past against the sharp rocks of creative imagination.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are heirs to the prophets and their passion for justice, and not the priests and their obsession with ritual and purity.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are meaning–makers.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis reinvent the past as a means of creating the future.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are willing to kill the old gods and invent the new gods by rewriting the old stories to make them new stories.
I am a rabbi because, at our best, rabbis are willing to speak truth to power, even when that power holds their financial future in its hands.
True, we are not always at our best. But many of us are, and the rest can always hope.
So I will continue to do what I think rabbis are supposed to do: teach truth as best we can regardless of where is leads us.