by Rabbi Burt Schuman,
, Warsaw, Poland
One of the ongoing challenges we face within our world Jewish community in general, and in the Progressive Jewish community in particular, is that of finding the right balance between lay and rabbinic leadership.
On one hand I, and many of my colleagues, must contend what are at times unrealistic expectations regarding our role as teachers, scholars, counselors, mentors, and communal leaders. Too often, it seems that we are expected to be omniscient with respect to Jewish tradition and Jewish text, models of perfection on the Bimah, an endless font of inspiration and creativity, and capable of solving every personal problem and every issue confronting our congregations and communities. At times it seems as if our role is a priestly one: to perform all of the rites and rituals on behalf of the congregation, indeed to be Jewish on their behalf.
On the other hand, there are times when we are perceived as mere employees whose role is simply to do the bidding of the lay and communal leadership and not to exercise our role as
. If our approach to text and ritual is considered too traditional or not traditional enough, if we attempt to set limits or expand boundaries with regard to what is permissible in our kitchen, marriage and civil commitment ceremonies, standards for religious school, B’nai Mitzvah or confirmation, or take exercise freedom of the pulpit with respect to controversial issues, this often arouses anger and resentment within the congregation or the community and the attitude that the rabbi “does not know what she/he is doing.” The truth of course, is that we rabbis are flesh and blood with our own strengths and our own imperfections, for we know the latter all too well and wrestle constantly with our growing edges. Our relationship with congregants and the community must be one of partnership, of Covenant, of learning and struggling together, and of being sensitive to the needs of a new generation.
In reflecting on these challenges I was struck by a series of verses found within this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim. In this Torah portion, which many biblical scholars refer to as the “Book of the Covenant”, God reveals to Moses a very extensive array of Mitzvot related to personal status, societal relations, civil and criminal law, Shabbat and the Festivals and sacrificial laws. In Chapter 24, Verses 1-11, Moses repeats these laws to the entire community of Israel, who reaffirm together that they will obey all that God had commanded. An elaborate ceremony of sacrificial offerings follows during which Moses again repeats the record of the Covenant and the people reaffirm their commitment to obey the Mitzvot, after which Moses sprinkles the Israelites with the blood of the sacrifices as a symbol of the Covenant between God and Israel.
Then a truly remarkable event takes pace. Moses, Aaron and his sons Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel all ascend the mountain and experience a glimpse of Divine Presence, namely the pavement of sapphire under God’s feet. Rabbi Gunter comments, in notes to “
The Torah: A Modern Commentary
”, that in this instance God was not hidden or covered by a cloud and that there is no distinction between Moses and the other leaders. In verse 11 the leaders who ascended the mountain beheld God without punishment and celebrated their experience with a
, a Covenantal meal. The Ramban (Nachmanides) comments that the tradition of organizing a feast when a tractate of Talmud was completed was derived from this verse.
What insights do we gain from these verses? First, that rabbis and lay leaders are bound together by the same Covenant. In fact, during the previous decade there was much discussion within the Union for Reform Judaism about the notion of a “Congregational Covenant” between lay leaders and clergy that is sacred as that which exists between God and Israel. That relationship must combine the principles of
, true respect and honor due to the rabbi, with
, true respect for the community and its lay leaders and a genuine understanding that what exists between us is indeed a divinely-inspired partnership.
The second is that in order to experience this glimpse of the divine, we must participate actively in the process of prayer and study, the equivalent of the sacrificial ritual described in Verses 4-8. We cannot rest upon fixed subjective opinions, fleeting and superficial experiences or questions of convenience, personal comfort and personal interest. Knowledge of the challenges and knowledge of the questions must precede our search for the answers.
Third, we need to study and dialogue together in a spirit of humility and work hard to let go of the urge to protect our egos or exert power over others. Moreover, the work of struggling together with a text or an issue, of sharing understandings and insights will bring any community closer together and make it possible to glimpse God in the process. Here the rabbi is a guide and an active partner in the search, “first among equals” but not the source of all knowledge and wisdom. The age of the internet and rising levels of lay education have indeed changed this dynamic.
Like our ancestor Jacob, let us wrestle with these issues together to extract a blessing for indeed we are Israel.