Prophet or Clerk?

  Rabbi Rami Shapiro

You should visit Rami's Toto blog  


During my first year of rabbinical school I was told that a rabbi could be a prophet or a clerk, and that most of us would turn out to be clerks.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of Conservative Judaismís rabbinical association, chose to be a prophet when he claimed that his colleagues lacked missionary zeal, adding, ďWe want to get paid. We donít believe.Ē The clerks revolted, and Rabbi Wernick was forced to recant and apologize.

Are rabbis really in it for the money? No. There isnít enough money to be had. But we do have families, and mortgages, and college tuitions to pay, and that takes money, and money comes from people who like you and who think you are a good rabbi. And most people think rabbis are good because they say what the people want to hear. People like clerks. True, clerks donít inspire us, but they donít upset us either. Prophets ruffle feathers, and people with ruffled feathers rarely pay to support the ruffler. So if you want to survive in the congregational world you learn to be a clerk.

And it isnít just in the congregations that money matters, denominational power is also determined by money. The most powerful rabbis in any movement are those who raise the most money for that movement. And to do that you need to build a large congregation willing to donate to that movement. And to do that you have to cultivate people with money. And to do that you have to be the rabbi they want you to be, you have to be a clerk.

In the process of building a wealthy congregation, of course, the rabbi too becomes wealthy, and the more rabbis earn the more they are expected to give to their seminary and their movement, and the more they give the more say they have in shaping the policies of that movement. Whether we are talking about Congress or congregations, it is always all about the money.

But what about Rabbi Wernickís other claim, that liberal rabbis donít believe? What he meant was that they donít believe enough to live in near poverty as so many Chabad rabbis do who gladly set out to serve Jews in the remote outposts of world Jewry. We liberal American rabbis didnít sign up to serve the Jews of Calcutta, especially if we have to live in Calcutta in order to do so. Chabad rabbis go where they are sent because they believe saving a single Jewish soul is worth any sacrifice. They believe they are doing Godís work. Do liberal rabbis believe this? I donít know. But even if they do, they have a hard time imagining that God wants them to do Godís work in a place that lacks proper sanitation, air conditioning, and cable television.

Not that liberal rabbis donít sacrifice. Anyone burdened with the task of clerking middle class American Jews with a strong sense of personal entitlement knows about sacrifice.

Anyway, I wish Rabbi Wernick well in his job, and I applaud his moment of prophetic zeal. I fear, though, that he has learned a sad lesson: if he wants to keep his job he has to abandon any pretence of being a prophet. The clerks have won again. They always do.


Other Rami posts that I've loved!  Why Are Jews Liberals  God Knows  The Danger of Difference  Blaming the Jew$


posted by Brian Worley   November 25, 2009    All rights reserved

To Return to the Main Page