Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “Faith is a blush in the presence of God.” Put another way, the purpose of a synagogue, or any house of worship for that matter, is to alert congregants of the gap between who we are and who we should be — an awareness that often induces us to blush. The paradox embedded in all synagogues is that at one and the same time they seek to embrace Jews “where they are,” yet also direct them towards “where they ought to be.”
All of which makes the job of a rabbi really interesting. Because if the project of religion is to inform, admonish or inspire individuals toward bettering themselves and the world in which we live, then it follows that a rabbi’s task must be the same. From the time of the Prophets to present-day congregational life, sound religious leadership is marked not by parroting the choices Jews would otherwise make, but rather in inspiring Jews to live the lives they would otherwise not lead. Be it feeding the poor, supporting the State of Israel, or preaching the value of endogamy — a rabbi’s job is prescriptive in nature — to reach beyond what everyone else in secular society tells us is inevitable and unavoidable.
We live in an age of radical autonomy and permeable social boundaries. Ever since the Enlightenment, rabbis no longer possess the political authority, inclination or time to check up on what Jews are and aren’t doing. The only thing a rabbi or any religious leader can command in this day and age is respect. Every rabbi knows that that the choices of his or her congregants make are ultimately their own. We all understand that as congregational leaders what we say or do may result in a congregant leaving our community. As leaders called on to serve a community, we are all aware of the tipping point whereby the gap between us and our congregants may widen to the point of finding ourselves out of a job.
But just because the dynamics of the playing field have changed doesn’t mean the values have. Even in modernity, especially in modernity, the unique, sensitive and critical nature of rabbinic leadership must be affirmed. Rabbis and congregants must understand that the statement of Jewish values can never be contingent on the assent of the Jew in the pew. Do you treat each other kindly? I don’t know, but our tradition makes clear that you should. Do you give charitably? You may or may not, but I am here to remind you of your obligation to do so. Are you faithful to your spouse? Statistically speaking, odds are that not all my congregants are, but it should come as no surprise that I preach that they should be. Do you keep kashrut and Shabbat? I have no intention of ever “spot-checking” families, but the message from the pulpit remains constant week in and week out. The whole point of rabbinic leadership, as the saying goes, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
My colleagues and I think very carefully about what we do and don’t affirm as values. What we say (or don’t) about same-sex relationships, the importance of Jewish camping, day school education, Israel advocacy, endogamy or any other sensitive issue is never a decision made lightly. And no matter what we decide, we are all aware that no matter what we say, many in our community have chosen and will continue to choose otherwise. We preach these things because we believe them, because we believe our stances are justified by the tradition and because we believe that these behaviors offer the greatest possibility for the growth, strengthening and defense of the Jewish people. But we do not preach these things because we assume you will agree with us. The explicit or implicit social contract between rabbi and Jew is based on love, trust and dialogue — with or without accord. As Rabbi Israel Salanter stated: “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.”
All told, the most important thing a rabbi can model for congregants is his or her own struggles. I have no idea who my children will or won’t marry. I have no idea how long I can keep sending my kids to shul, Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp before they hit system overload. I can’t even claim to know for sure what combination of Jewish educational experiences holds the greatest promise for a child’s Jewish future. I have stayed up more nights than I can count wondering if in this day and age if it is conscionable for me to live anywhere but Israel. There are a lot of ideals that I believe should be held sacred, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t live up to all of them. And while some may call that hypocrisy, the words I would choose are authenticity and integrity. In other words, the most honest and effective form of leadership a rabbi can provide is not to pontificate, but to share his or her humanity. Even rabbis don’t have it all figured out — so we certainly don’t expect other Jews to have done so. Our commitment is to wrestle with God’s will — every day of our lives.
One of the most moving passages offered by the tradition comes towards the end of the Torah when Moses enjoins his people to live a life of mitzvot. “It is not in the heavens … neither is it beyond the sea … No, it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:12-13) We do not live in the world as it ought to be; synagogues remind us of that fact. But synagogues also inspire us towards leading the life we long to lead and remind us that our ideals are not as far away as we think. It is altogether doable. Most of all, synagogues remind us that we are all engaged in this struggle — clergy and laity together. Each one of us reaching out for truth even as we admit to being unsure of where it lies, all of us seeking to make real God’s will here on earth.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue.