Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm a Rabbi Because...

“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.

10 comments:

Jess, of the bugs said...

These are many of the reasons I'm a priestess. I might add that I consider it my job to help those who ask for my help to see the path they're already walking. It's not so much that I know the "right way" because I don't, but rather that at my best I can help someone see where they're going.

rbarenblat said...

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.


Me too. Thanks for this.

Judy said...

I am grateful you are a rabbi because you inspire questions rather than answers.
I am grateful you are a rabbi because you teach respect for doubt.
I am grateful you are a rabbi because you see the humor in everything.
I am grateful you are a rabbi because you convey the seriousness of not taking most things too seriously.
Thanks for being Rabbi Rami.

TheNote said...

yep. ditto what Judy said . . .
-g-

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks to all of you. Very affirming.

Denucho Attarian said...

How can a Universe be bad that would produce such a Rabbi?

Charles Kinnaird said...

Great post, Rabbi! I shared this with some other bloggers, "On the Fence with Jesus: A Skeptical Screenwriter and a Christian Pastor Talk About Faith" It just so happened that they were discussing the topic, "Is Religion Ludicrous" (http://onthefencewithjesus.com/?p=3583 ) Your comments were very apropos.

I am also looking forward to meeting you at the Alabama Writer's Conclave in July!

Barry said...

Significantly, you are not the Rabbi at a mainstream congregation. At Beth Or in Miami (not exactly mainstream) in 1983-4, the congregation would follow you anywhere, because you brought up different ways of looking at the world.

My spouse, a Reform rabbi, gay and ordained in 2009 at age 47, is enjoying his work at Pelican Bay State Prison, where he teaches Talmud to tattooed gangsters who knew nothing about Judaism. He says he has had to reinvent himself as a rabbi. I went with him on some interviews in 2009. Most looked askance at him and at us.

Claire said...

If I were to be a rabbi, I'd be a chanting rabbi, an ecstatic dancing rabbi, a meditation-teaching rabbi. You would come to my shul, and we'd spend major portions of our time in silence.

I'd be a piss-poor counseling rabbi - my temptation would be to slap people and say, "snap out of it!", which is not what you're supposed to do when people are sad and lonely.

I might be a better death-bed rabbi than I would have been a few years back. But I would again spend most of my time in silence. If I were dying, I'd want someone maybe to sit with me, but not yammer about anything, much less a bunch of prayers.

But I'm not going to be a rabbi because I'd have to learn a butt-load of Hebrew, wade through a lot of tradition that doesn't personally speak to me. And if I wanted to be a Reform rabbi, I'd have to live in LA or Cleveland or NYC, and I don't want to live in any of those places.

So I guess I will have to continue to follow my existing meditating and ecstatic dancing rabbi that I've got, and not create a similar sort of shul elsewhere.

forrest said...

Religious institutions are about power... but religions are also about God. The power stuff gets added because certain human beings like power, but the real Subject of religion can use those human glitches, as It uses everything else.