A Crisis of Rabbis


Fr. Neuhaus, in the last issue of First Things, points out that there is a vocation crisis among Jewish clergy. It seems there are several factors contributing to the impending shortage of young people entering the Rabbinical field, but primary among them is the loss of respect among Jews for Rabbis. Quoting an article by Jack Wertheimer in Commentary magazine, Fr. Neuhaus points out that Rabbis themselves are to blame for this.

"With particular reference to the rabbinate, Wertheimer notes trends contributing to the diminished appeal of the religious calling: 'Several other developments contributed to the erosion of the rabbis' status. One was the society-wide assault on authority, of which many rabbis were simultaneously victims and initiators. Catering to the newly modish disdain for formality, rabbis refashioned themselves, trading in their suits for leisure wear, abandoning the title 'Rabbi Cohen and dropping formal sermons in favor of free-flowing discussion that might include an exchange of views with congregants.'" There was, however, another, larger, problem. Fr. Neuhaus quotes Wertheimer, "More critically still, many relinquished their roles as authorities in matters of Jewish religious law; to quote Daniel Jeremy Silver . . . by the mid-1980s, rabbis were making 'a virtue of being nonjudgmental.'"

One hardly needs to point out the two primary trends for the loss of the respect one given Rabbis by Jewish people, loss of formality and fear of being "judgmental" are a problem not only among Rabbis but in society at large. For example, I happened to be at church one day when one of the kids, an 8 or 9 year old boy, walked into the room. I was standing with a gentleman who is perhaps 10 years my senior (he's old, man) and the boy greeted him with "Hi, Joe." When I was a boy, that greeting would have gotten the young man a cuff on the ears because of the disrespect implied. Yet no one thought anything of it, nor paid any attention. This exemplifies a trend today of not only a loss of respect for one's elders, but also of a loss of respect for ourselves. We no longer want to be taken seriously and as a result, we do not take anything or anyone seriously. Nothing is worthy of our respect, and traditions that are centuries old can be discarded at the drop of a hat.

I think part of the reason that we do not want to take ourselves seriously is that we do not want to accept the responsibility that inevitably accompanies such an outlook. If we take ourselves seriously, it means we must accept that our actions have consequences and that we must take responsibility for those consequences. It means that it makes a difference if our actions are good or evil. It means there is such a thing as, dare I say it, sin! It means that we cannot determine the moral quality of our actions solely on the basis of whether or not they please us or make us feel good. It also means that there is a need for forgiveness and redemption from Someone external to ourselves, Someone who is able to mitigate the effects of our sin.

The second factor, the fear of being judgmental is another relatively recent and troubling trend. Being judgmental, making judgments, is a fact of human life. There is good and evil. There are things and ideas and philosophies that are good and those that are bad. The bad ones generally are harmful and should either be avoided or condemned. But today, no one it is not fashionable to believe in absolutes, truth, or good or evil, is relative and it is "mean-spirited" to believe otherwise. This attitude has become pervasive, even among those who might generally be thought to be religiously orthodox and socially conservative. For example, in the November 10 issue of Newsweek even George Will falls into this trap. After giving a brilliant analysis of the problems the ECUSA is facing with their new, avowedly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire and, in the process showing why the magisterium of the Church is important, he concludes with a remarkable statement.

"This is not to say that homosexual behavior is inherently wrong, let alone that it is a great intrinsic evil like slavery. The analogy with the popular-sovereignty argument is intended to underscore the fact that although tolerance is a virtue, it is never sufficient as a nation's, or institutions, animating principle. If a nation or institution is limitlessly inclusive, then citizenship or membership is meaningless."

One might counter that if homosexuality is not, in itself, inherently evil, then there is no reason why Gene Robinson should not be bishop of New Hampshire. Yet Will seems to believe it necessary to add this caveat in order to avoid the appearance of being mean spirited.

It should be pointed out that this is not the traditional Christian view of things in two ways. One, in judging the propriety of an act you are not judging the person themselves, only the moral rightness or wrongness of the act itself. Second, the judgment is made out of love, to try to help the person improve the moral rightness of their lives -- help them see the right way, and also to help ourselves in avoiding similar difficulties in our own lives. There are times when properly judging an act can be a matter of life and death, as in the case of mortal sin, and not making a judgment about such acts is foolish and indeed, is the unloving course of action.

FR. Neuhaus quotes Werthiemer’s solution to the problem of the shortage of vocations to the rabbinate:

"Rejecting defeatist advice from among their own colleagues, they would need to gird themselves to combat the present solipsistic moment in American Judaism, reeducating their congregants to think beyond their immediate personal need, their inchoate yearnings for 'spirituality,' and their consumerist notion of religious life. They would need to insist on synagogue ritual focused on communal rather than privatized concerns, and they would need to reorient the synagogue itself as an institution focused on the transcendent needs of the Jewish people. Above all, they would need to take their own role seriously, accepting the burden and the challenge of their calling as individuals who speak with authority not only for themselves but for the Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and God."

In short, it will take a dramatic shift in "worldview" for the rabbi problem to be solved. People will to return to an understanding that this world is not all there is and that there are things that we do not completely understand that should be taken seriously.

I believe there are lessons here for the Church. While it is true that Jewish clergy can marry, they are still experiencing a “vocation” crisis, just as the Catholic Church is (at least, in some places). The crisis is not brought on by an excessively stringent code of celibacy, rather it seems to have occurred because of a loss of meaning. No one pays any attention to rabbis anymore, so who wants to be a rabbi? In the Church, many folks think they can function in exactly the same way a priest can, so who needs priests? The nuns in certain orders started wearing street clothes and living in apartments 30 years ago – no one wants a vocation in those orders today, as a result, they are rapidly dying off. In this environment, no one wants to be a priest, and make the sacrifices entailed, unless it makes a difference. The crisis in vocations has resulted, I think, not because priests are deprived of the right to marry and have sacrifices, rather it is because those who might have vocations do not understand that there is a real reason to make the sacrifice.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on November 23, 2003 9:39 AM.

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