Rabbis in recent times have attained a level of celebrity usually reserved for movie stars. Rabbi listicles seem to be ubiquitous in the Jewish media these days – from the world's sexiest rabbis, to America's most inspiring ones. If the attention is any indication, the rabbinate is an important, even critical, element of 21st century Jewish life.
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But the facts on the ground are that rabbis are increasingly finding themselves outside the evolving landscape of religious life. One example was recently chronicled in a New York Times article about the difficulties same-sex interfaith couples face in finding a rabbi who would officiate their wedding. Moreover, my colleagues and I get weekly calls from friends and congregants who may seek help with the "Jewish part" of their weddings, but don't plan on having a religious officiant at all.
On top of that, recent scandals involving rabbis behaving immorally and criminally have tarnished the respect and admiration people may have had for religious leaders, and put rabbinic leadership in a precarious position.
The intersection of these phenomena indicates a crisis facing the rabbinate. Rabbis just aren't speaking to or reaching the masses that might be moved by Judaism.
My teacher, Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, asked a group of Rabbis Without Borders fellows recently: Do people see us as necessary – conduits, guides, connectors for them in their Jewish life? Do people come to rabbis and ask deep questions they are struggling with? Do they seek us in times of need and celebration? And I am not only talking about the Jews in the pews – I am wondering about taking Judaism out into the larger marketplace of ideas.
Certainly, some rabbis are meeting the needs of their communities. But rabbinic leadership needs a dynamic new model which is effective and resourceful in bringing Judaism into the world in a broader way.
One organization reimagining a new kind of religious leader is Rabbis Without Borders, seeking to radically shift how we think about rabbis and rabbinic work. At a recent retreat, a new vision was offered containing three elements:
1. Rabbis who are engaged in disruptive innovation (a phrase coined by Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen about economic markets). In our case, rabbis would be innovators seeking to create new “technology" – a Judaism in and of the 21st century, which is also rooted in our ancient wisdom.
2. Rabbis who practice a deep pluralism, maintaining their own beliefs while accepting other people’s perspectives and views.
3. Rabbis dedicated to service to others, helping those in need, from Jewish communities which have little or no rabbinic leadership, to war-torn countries, and everything in between. Rabbis must be in service to repair a broken world.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, the grand projects of the Rabbinic Period focused on whether Judaism can survive disaster – the loss of its central building block, the Temple. Can we build a community without a Temple? Can we re-create Judaism to respond to the needs of the modern Jewish world, and embrace new ideas without losing the heart of Jewish wisdom?
The same kinds of questions are now being asked once again. Can Jewish leadership envision a Judaism that responds to people’s deepest needs and the globe’s most difficult adversity? Can rabbis speak a Judaism of disruptive innovation rooted in Jewish wisdom – radically changing religion’s role in modern life? Can rabbis preach and practice a radical pluralism? Finally, can Rabbis live in deep service to others in a world, Jewish or not, beset by economic, social and moral challenges?
One thing is certain: Patchwork fixes and lists of great rabbis are simply not enough.