Growing up I had fond respect for the senior rabbi of my congregation. I learned much from him, but I never truly connected with him on a personal level. Other rabbis around town were the ones with whom I had more meaningful discussions and the rabbis I would later point to as influences for my own path toward the rabbinate.
I was thinking about this recently when I was asked what a successful rabbi looks like in the 21st century. Certainly, rabbis today must be intelligent, engaging, personable and funny. That hasn’t changed since the time of the Mishnah. The questioner found my response intriguing when I included that a successful rabbi today watches popular television shows and goes to the multiplex to see the latest movies everyone’s talking about. What did I mean by that?
Pop culture unites us. An office environment in which both the rank and file employees as well as the boss not only watch the same television shows but also gather around the water cooler (or Keurig) to discuss them the following day will enjoy a camaraderie that leads to more collaboration and productivity. A school teacher who can engage her students by discussing the latest trends in Hollywood will earn their respect and show she is able to talk to them about their interests. A politician who doesn’t only talk to his constituents about politics, but also connects by talking about the latest sports story will remove the barriers that often exist.
So too it is with rabbis, or any religious leader for that matter. I’m not suggesting rabbis should ease up on their scholarship or reference jokes from How I Met Your Mother in all their sermons. Rather, in the 21st century I think people are looking to connect with their spiritual leaders through different access points. A generation ago if people felt their rabbi was there for them in their time of need or was a kind presence during a family celebration, then that was enough. Today, rabbis score points if they can connect to the teenage youth group by discussing the latest Twilight movie or recount the best highlight from that morning’s Top Ten on SportsCenter. If they open a sermon with a reference to last week’s episode of Homeland, they will grab everyone’s attention.
When people say they love how easy it is to connect with their rabbi, they don’t just mean that “rabbis are just like us” in an Us Weekly sort of way. Rather, they appreciate how their rabbi is able to connect a message – ethical, spiritual, historical, ritual, etc. – to pop culture. A few years ago, together with an Orthodox rabbinic colleague, I created PopJewish.com. The focus of this blog was to give rabbis a forum to connect Jewish teachings with the pop culture of the day. Essentially, it takes what people are talking about anyway and brings in the Jewish message.
The times when a rabbi wasn’t considered a regular person who took out the garbage, had cereal for breakfast or binge watched an entire season of House of Cards are over. There might be some negatives to rabbis letting their guard down and schmoozing with congregants about a mindless fiction book they just downloaded to their Kindle or what they thought of the Oscars last week, but ultimately it makes us more human and more relatable. And that’s a good thing.
As a rabbi and an activist, I often get called upon to speak at interfaith events of various sorts. Over the years, I’ve been jealous of the fact that clergy from other faith groups are easily recognizable.
Run a list through your head: what does a priest or minister wear? A Buddhist monk? a nun? OK, then think rabbi. Often rabbis will wear a tallit. And that bugs me.
Initially, I just thought to myself, that it “looked funny.” But the more often I saw it, the more it bothered me. A tallit isn’t a rabbinic garment. It’s a Jewish garment. All Jewish adults should be wearing their tallit daily.
So, if we don’t wear a tallit, what should a rabbi wear to identify herself? Perhaps the answer is that we ought not to be trying to single out the rabbis. Although the Jewish tradition views the rabbi (or at least the tzadik, which is, as well know, not necessarily the same thing) as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel, a rabbi is not really supposed to be different from the rest of the Jewish population. She is someone who, yes, models behavior for the community, but her primary role is to be deeply immersed in the laws and traditions of Judaism, and to teach them. Rabbis are just people who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law and practice and the attitude should be “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” But she is not apart from the community – anyone can be that person, if they are willing to put in the time and study, if they are willing to make their life a holy vessel.
At the same time, our tradition does recognize that the rabbi should be respected for the role they play. But it seems to me that perhaps the way to do it is not to repurpose a garment which during prayer serves the purpose of making the individuals wearing it almost anonymous – when one looks up after completing one’s prayer of Amidah and sees a sea of wool tallitot around one, there is a certain sense of being a single part of a larger organism. And perhaps this should instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate our importance- look, I’m a leader! – maybe we should reconsider, and as clergy, instead of pointing ourselves out, maybe we should take off the tallit, and when we represent the community to the world, be just another Jew, without a special costume, to represent that we could indeed be any Jew, that all of us should be working toward a more perfected world, and that anyone who wants to do so, can, just by stepping up.
And if that doesn’t work, well, when I proposed this on facebook, a friend told me he’d get me a mitre. But I have to say, I’d really prefer a tiara. Or maybe a cape.