Rabbis Aren’t Rock Stars, nor Are They the Pope

Rabbis shouldn’t strive to be on the front cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, for the best Jewish leaders are those whose lessons are so great that their personalities disappear.

When I was a teenager I wanted to be a rock star. I even bought a drum set and took private lessons to help me on that path. However, we all make priorities in life, and I prioritized academics, youth group involvement, and Shabbat observance, and my drumming never reached rock star-level talent.

Now I’m 30 years old, and I have to admit, I still want to be a rock star.

Not a rock star that plays in a rock band, per se, but a rock star. As a student who frequently takes on rabbinical roles, I frequently find myself taking the stage at the center of some religious event or service. I want to get up on that stage and inspire people. I want people to walk away and say, “Arie was incredible.” I want people to want to be like me. And I want to be recognized for the work that I do: the wider the audience, the greater the measure of success.

Nothing screams rock star like making the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. So when Pope Francis made it there, it was all the confirmation we needed to confirm that he is in fact a rock star. The pope has created quite a presence for himself, inspiring many millions - Catholics and non-Catholics, religious and non-religious. He is trying to be a religious figure for all people, and, in my opinion, he is succeeding.

When Pope Francis appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, Rabbi Francis Nataf asked whether a rabbi could ever expect the same honor. Nataf writes beautifully about the work done by the pope and correctly calls on rabbis to take the task of compassion toward fellow humans as a supreme value. I could not agree with him more.

However, it’s important for those of us in the Jewish world to remember that we are not rock stars, nor are we the pope. The pope is more than just a religious leader; according to Catholic doctrine, he is a prophet with a direct link to God, charged with disseminating that special connection to all of Catholicism's followers.

Nataf decries the lack of rabbis who share the pope’s message of empathy and compassion, claiming that if more rabbis were vocal in that mission, they too might achieve Pope Francis’ acclaim.

Nataf may be correct in saying that not enough rabbis treat others with compassion regardless of religious ideology, but I disagree with his suggestion that an increased dosage of compassion among rabbis would put more of them on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Nor do I think they should be.

The cover of Rolling Stone Magazine celebrates the messenger, while in Judaism we celebrate the message.

A rabbi, unlike the pope, has no more special a connection to God than other people. Quite the opposite: A rabbi's job is to spread the word of Torah, and help Jews take ownership of that Torah to make it a part of their lives.

What is most challenging about this job is that some rabbis, myself included, want to be rock stars. We want to spread Torah, for sure, but we want to be at the center of its learning. If any of us were pope, that might be appropriate. But as Jewish leaders, we need to actively work on tzimtzum (making space for others), on making sure that our Jewish content is the star of the show, not our personalities.

The beauty of Judaism is that we insist that we are a kingdom of priests and a holy people. We must not interpret that as meaning that we are better than non-Jews, but rather as meaning that no one of us is ever the center of Judaism. Instead, each of us must strive to channel God and God’s will in a personal way. Even those who achieve fame because of the way in which they deliver their Jewish message should remember what it is that deserves the fame. We will know we are successful when we find the Torah, the Jewish people’s global message of compassion, on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Arie Hasit, a rabbinical student at Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
 

AP