A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Clergy and Public Respect

Dennis Prager is a Jewish commentator, and while he speaks specifically of rabbis in this particular piece, his words are also relative to Christian pastors and priests. I must say that I agree with Prager when he writes, "I understand the desire of some rabbis to be seen as real and human. But acting on a higher plane in public comes with the job description. You cannot have the reward of great communal respect without acting accordingly." However, I also wonder if he confuses some issues in the process of his argument. I am also not convinced that the issue he wants to highlight represents a conservative/liberal divide. What do you think? Read, ponder, and feel free to comment.

April 12, 2011

On April 3, under the auspices of the American Jewish University, in its Gindi Auditorium, five Los Angeles rabbis competed with one another in an evening titled "Dancing With the Rabbis." As reported in this newspaper, the sellout crowd loved the evening.

May I respectfully suggest — and I do mean respectfully, as I know that good intentions prompted the evening — that this be the "once in a lifetime" event that some who attended called it. It should not be repeated.

I say this in order to preserve the dignity of the rabbinate. When I was a child, the rabbi was an esteemed figure, by far the most esteemed figure in our Jewish community. Even though it was part and parcel of Jewish religious life to criticize the rabbi for what he said or didn't say in his Shabbat sermon, we would stand up on those occasions when the rabbi walked by our row in shul. And not only did we not address our rabbi by his first name when we spoke to him, we never referred to him by his first name when we talked about him.

I have preserved this custom to this day. I address all rabbis by their title. In public, I do not even make exceptions for close friends who are rabbis, and in private I only make exceptions when the person is a close friend. I also call my physicians "doctor." One of the characteristics of conservatism is conserving, and this is one of the many past values conservatives such as myself seek to preserve.

Beginning in the 1960s, this attitude, like so many other values in American, Jewish and Western life, was overthrown. Many non-Orthodox rabbis adopted the liberal egalitarian spirit and sought to end hierarchy wherever possible. They, their congregants and their students were to be on the same level. "Don't call me 'Rabbi,' " Jews were admonished. "Call me 'Joe.' " And, so, the rabbi went from above us to one of us.

I guess one can say that with "Dancing With the Rabbis," the movement toward "the rabbi is just one of us" reached its apotheosis. Our rabbis — or at least the rabbis who participated — are just one of the guys or girls. They, too, are hip. No more ivory tower rabbi. Our rabbi is so with it, he will dance with a 22-year-old swimsuit model: In the words of The Jewish Journal, the rabbi "twirls across the dance floor. His beautiful young partner reaches out her hand, and together they do a quick step and spin into each other’s arms."

Had the rabbis danced with Jews with special needs, I could understand the message sent. But what was this message?

Though I was not present at the event, my opposition is to the concept, not the execution. I don't think I am alone in the Los Angeles Jewish community in thinking that this was well-intended but not wise. Not only did no Orthodox rabbi participate — and not only for halachic reasons, I suspect — but some non-Orthodox rabbis also refused, and not because they were afraid to dance publicly. When I asked one of the country's leading Reform rabbis, Rabbi David Woznica of Stephen S. Wise Temple, whether he would have participated had he been asked, he responded that he was asked, and refused.

If nothing else, what we have here is a learning moment. Good people can differ on the wisdom of the evening. But, as I believe that clarity is more important than agreement, it seems clear that we have a liberal-conservative divide here.

The liberal mindset is, first and foremost, one of egalitarianism. The notion of hierarchy is largely rejected. Thus, the rabbi is just like us, and we'll prove it by having him or her dance with sexy professionals. The conservative mindset is that the rabbi is not, or at least should not be, like everyone else. This is no way means that a rabbi should lead an ascetic life. I would defend any rabbi's decision to go with his spouse to Las Vegas, gamble and even see a Vegas show there. As regards a rabbi's private life, I have nothing to say. That is between him and God. But what he does as a rabbi publicly should matter to any Jew who cares about Judaism and about the rabbinate.

Some will see this as an attack on the participating rabbis. It is not. It is a disagreement with their decision to participate and with the American Jewish University's decision to sponsor the event — an event that ended with a performance by the professional dancers that The Journal described as "so racy that it may have had more than a few members of the audience wondering whether they should clap or head home for a cold shower."

Moreover, my disagreement emanates solely from a desire to see these and all rabbis guard and preserve the prestige and dignity of their title. When Jews elevate rabbis, the whole Jewish people benefits.

I feel the same about teachers. We need to honor teachers and preserve their prestige. When they come into class wearing shorts or ask students to call them by their first names, they may be hip, but their profession loses prestige.

I am sure the evening was fun. But it was not the kind of fun a Jewish seminary should have sponsored, nor the kind of fun that its rabbis should have engaged in.

I understand the desire of some rabbis to be seen as real and human. But acting on a higher plane in public comes with the job description. You cannot have the reward of great communal respect without acting accordingly. And there are innumerable ways to humanize oneself — had the rabbis, for example, decided to put on a Shakespearean play or even a humorous skit, people would have had at least as much fun, and the rabbis would have just as successfully shown another side to their personalities. That, in at least one Jew's opinion, would have been the wiser choice.


Anonymous said...

"Conservative" in this context is not a reference to conservative/liberal political views but is a term that means "Orthodox" in their religious beliefs/practices.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I've actually been thinking about this lately. I work primarily with University Students and young adults and it seems that many of them (even egalitarians) are interested in having conversations with monks or cassock-wearing Orthodox priests, or even Buddhist monks. I believe part of the reason for that interest is that all of these religious figures have a sort of mystique about them. Their lives are quite visibly "set apart."

We Protestant and Methodist clergy, on the other hand, have tried hard to shed whatever mystique we once had. Many of us have abandoned the clerical collars that were once common among us and which were actually designed by and for Protestant clergy (according to the wikipedia article "clerical collar"). Some of us are even shedding our preaching robes and stoles. All the while we eschew any titles, such as "Reverend," "Brother," or "Father," asking parishoners to call us Joe instead. We have done everything we can to not appear 'set apart,' but rather to 'fit in' - to be 'just one of the guys (or gals).'

It may be that there is a false or mistaken humility behind this, if I confuse someone's respect for the office with respect for me personally.
I believe that all of us who are clergy should be invested in preserving the mystique and prestige of the pastoral office, and preserving its symbols may be one good step in this direction.

Our bishops and prominent clergy could be leaders in this direction, I think.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Of course, I should add that large numbers of clergy living a lifestyle that actually is 'sanctified' would help a great deal as well in terms of upholding the dignity of the office.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Anon: Thanks for your comments. It just appeared to me that with the way Prager draws out conservative vs. liberal, he had something wider in mind than conservative vs. reform Judaism

Allan R. Bevere said...

Daniel, I agree with you that lifestyle makes all the difference when it comes to respect. I'm not sure that all the other stuff matters a whole lot.

PamBG said...

I have no idea what "the answer" is.

In British Methodism, I was "Pam, our minister".

I've been told in the CPE context that this is absolutely and utterly wrong and is an abdication of authority and responsibility. I don't really understand why anyone should make that presupposition but I put it down to cultural issues.

I just don't know if there IS "a right answer" other than I'm happy to be what makes people feel safe, free and as if someone is taking the flack if need be. In British Methodism in this generation (and I could also be reading that culture wrong since I belong nowhere!) insisting on "Reverend G" or "Reverend Pam" just seems snobbish and pretentious (there is no working title of "pastor")