Provocative Analysis of Position of Rabbi in American Jewish Community Offered
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Provocative Analysis of Position of Rabbi in American Jewish Community Offered

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What is the position of the Rabbi in the life of the American Jewish community? Is he a teacher, a preacher, a scholar, a business manager, a money raiser, a social worker? Is his hunger for publicity justified? Is it not natural under the circumstances that he should become a prima donna, a careerist?

Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen, former President of the Philadelphia Branch, United Synagogue of America, and of the Philadelphia Board of Jewish Ministers, and Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom poses these pertinent questions in a provocative analysis of the American Rabbinate, in an article to be published exclusively tomorrow in the “Jewish Exponent.”

“The thoughtful Rabbi faces these difficult days distressed,” Rabbi Cohen declares in this article. “His distress is not principally material—though he is not escaping that—his distress is from inside himself, in his soul, spiritual. Deep down he feels an ache that torments him, for that ache is symptomatic of the decay of his life’s foundations. He is weighted down with a disheartening sense of the unreality of his work, an unreality that stamps his profession as futile and himself as negligible. He is beset with the haunting fear of a lost personality; he doesn’t know who he is, or what purpose, as rabbi, he serves.

“Not that the rabbi only today has discovered this inner uncertainty about himself. He has been aware of it for many years, but the post-war prosperity with its feverish activities pressed down the lid upon his inner questionings. Today, however, the outer noises are silenced, and up from the depths come the inner voices, tortured and torturing. Insistently they demand that the rabbi know himself. ‘Rabbi, What Are You’?”

Characterizing the present day critics of the rabbi as inadequate and superficial, Rabbi Cohen maintains that it is unfair to consider these criticisms lightly. “Baiting the rabbi may bring huge amusement to the crowd, ” Rabbi Cohen declares, “and fat royalties to the critics, but it brings no permanent gaiety to the Jewish scene.”

Under the general caption, “Rabbi, What Are You?” Rabbi Cohen analyzes the various aspects of the ministry and points to the lack of definition from which the rabbi labors.

In answer to the question, “Is the Rabbi the business manager of the Synagogue?” Rabbi Cohen says: “The Synagogue represents a large investment of funds. To be sure there is a board of directors. We often hear board members speak of the synagogue plant in terms of a factory. Like a factory it has its overhead expenses; it has its labor force—choir, teachers, religious functionaries, janitors; it must also have its manager. Is the rabbi the money raiser for this religious factory? Mut he organize balls, bazaars, banquets, drives to raise funds? Must he create schemes by which to snare the unwary dollar?

“Is that the rabbi? That is what large numbers of rabbis must do today.”

Touching upon the educational aspect, Rabbi Cohen adds, “Education is a highly technical field of human activity. Not only are there techniques to be mastered, but also, since the techniques are the results of certain theories, the theories too must be studied and understood and evaluated. Is the rabbi to be a technician of this type? Both in general and Jewish education, because of the developments in psychology and its discoveries about the learning process in man, education has created the specialist—the educator. Is the rabbi to be the educator?”

Continuing he says: “This absence of a clear understanding of the place of the rabbi in Jewish life today has given rise to grievous results both in the attitude of rabbis to themselves and in the attitude of the Jewish community toward the rabbi.

“On the rabbi this overwhelming uncertainty of function produces definite psychological effects which become more apparent as the rabbi possesses greater personal ability.

“The rabbi becomes a careerist. Whereas ideally he is the servant of a great cause in whose ranks he enlists to fight, willing to make sacrifice for it, realistically he finds himself facing the uncertainty of his task. He finds the service of his cause is lost in a multitude of activities for which he has not been trained. He finds himself overwhelmed by the demands of a congregation that itself does not know what it seeks in its ‘spiritual leader.’ In dismay, he seeks some one steady factor in his immediate environment, and finds his own needs and wants and desires to be most permanent and stable. He become the cause he serves, and unconsciously or consciously becomes the man who seeks to achieve a career. His attitude to his work becomes that of the average man towards his job. He begins to accept the standards of the careerist. He measures himself and his colleagues in terms of the rewards of career; money and power. He may have silent admiration for his more pious colleague, or his more scholarly colleague, but that admiration is mingled with a certain contempt for the colleague’s poor salary and his lowly position. He will not, if he can help it, leave the big cities where his power can find field in which to play and where the publicity is city-wide, even nation-wide. He wants no modest corner in which to do God’s work—such corners are symbols of the unsuccessful, or but temporary stopping places on the high-road to prestige and place and power. Legitimate ambition aside, does not the careerist spirit in the rabbinate betoken a defect deeper than an individual’s character? Does it not show forth a fundamental trend of circumstance in which the rabbi is victim, driven by forces that stand beyond him?

“Another trait of the rabbi in consequence of his lack of bearings in the seas of Jewish life is found in the psychology of the prima donna that develops in him.

“The rabbi, shifting his center of gravity from outside him to himself, is possessed by the spirit of the prima donna. He is jealous of his center stage position. He wants the spotlight in the community, and his self-concern is a rock upon which much communal unity and Jewish endeavor have been shattered. Where there is an opportunity to shine—regardless of another’s better equipment for the purpose—the prima donna rules and becomes an obsession, it is pathologic and is revelatory of empty realms within.”

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