Thursday, August 23, 2012

Parshat Shoftim: The Role of Rabbi

As I so often do when it comes to the weekly Torah portion, I'm looking into the archives for inspiration because this week -- nay, this month -- has been busy and I'm finally feeling the strangle-hold loosen. One major event and one major project at work have come and closed (well, except the project, which was my baby of online course registration for the first time at my job, but it's up-and-running, which is all I really wanted).

Even still, as Shabbos nears, there are a million and one thoughts pouncing around in my braincage, so hoo-rah for the archives of this here blog. These thoughts come from 2006, believe it or not, just a few months after this blog got legs and started walking. Back then, I was wholly devoted to the weekly parshah. After a late night of copy editing at The Washington Post, or on a quiet day off, I'd wander to a Dupont Circle coffee shop with my chumash and read the entire portion, taking notes along the way in a steno notebook. Those were the days. Straight from August 2006, I give you ...

One: Some Elul thoughts, or A month of rabbis on Elul

From (probably my MOST favorite site):
"It is like a king who, before he enters the city, the people of the city go out to greet him in the field. There, everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him; he receives them all with a cheerful countenance and shows a smiling face to them all. And when he goes to the city, they follow him there. Later, however, after he enters his royal palace, none can enter into his presence except by appointment, and only special people and select individuals. So, too, by analogy, the month of Elul is when we meet G-d in the field..." (Likkutei Torah, Re'ei 32b; see also Likkutei Sichot, vol II p. 632 ff.)
"In Elul, teshuvah is no longer a matter of cataclysmic 'moments of truth' or something to be extracted from the depths of the prayerbook. It is as plentiful and accessible as air: we need only breath deeply to draw it into our lungs and send it coursing through our veins. And with Elul comes the realization that, like air, teshuvah is our most crucial resource, our very breath of spiritual life."
Note: Reading this last line made my eyes well up. I know that most of you don't know me, and I don't know you, and that the web is a place where we come and go as we please in and out of the lives of others -- nameless and faceless -- so I don't expect you to understand how powerful the idea of teshuvah is for someone like me. But if you have the slightest notion of what it means to truly need something, to need hope in order to even imagine carrying on another day, then you understand this idea of the "very breath of spiritual life."

Two: Parshat Shoftim

Shabbat Shalom. This week, Moses instructs the appointment of those who will pursue and enforce justice. In every generation, according to Moses, there will be those entrusted with the task of interpreting and applying the laws of the Torah. This parsha has quite the place in modern Judaism, and an article I read last night in Tikkun really makes this hit home. The article discussed the modernization of Judaism, the evolvement from priests to rabbis to lay people. The latter, of course, being the modern application of those entrusted with leading services and minchas.

It wasn't rare at my shul back home [Referring to South Street Temple in Lincoln, NE] to have a lay person lead services, delivering the sermon and bringing the Torah out. It was strange, to me, though it also was relaxing, as I could paint myself in that picture up on the bima. At the same time, I worry about the future of the rabbi in modern Judaism. Orthodox and Hasidism seem to have a pretty tight rein on the idea of the rabbi -- they are, as Moses foresaw, those entrusted with "interpreting and applying" laws of Torah. The article stressed the importance of an academic Jewry that could serve as lay leadership, interpreting and applying the laws. Analyzing them to bits for blogs and sermons on Saturday mornings. Is this the next step of the teacher evolution?

There's nothing wrong with lay-led services, but the rabbi's purpose is ever so important. Rabbis (those trained, anyhow) serve as encyclopedias of every cubit (har har) of Judaism, from Rashi to Maimonides to the Baal Shem Tov to Moses. Rabbis I've encountered may not know everything, but their passion for exploring and teaching and interpreting the laws of Torah are astounding. Lay leaders are often very involved in shul activities, serving on trustees boards and donating large sums to the local Yeshiva or Birthright foundations. They often have a deep-seeded need to participate in the community, Torah studies and shul choirs. But lay leaders also tend to be businessmen/women, journalists, artists, computer scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. Rabbis have the chance to hone their skills and focus on one thing -- Torah, Judaism, halakah. Lay leaders already have so much on their plate without tossing responsibilities of rabbinic duties on top.

Maybe it is preemptive, but the article made me wonder. Is this the evolution of our sages, scholars and teachers in modern Judaism? Are rabbis an endangered species, not from a lack of interest but because lay leaders are taking the reins?

Note: This piece of the post was interesting to me especially after a rather tenuous conversation that occurred on Facebook last month (or was it earlier this month?) where I posed the question of a rabbi's role outside of Orthodoxy, where rulings on halachic matters require an almost constant attention of every moment of every day in a frum person's life. Perhaps I answered my own question without even knowing it.