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Is the Rabbi an Endangered Species?

Is the Rabbi an Endangered Species?

Scrubs is one of my favorite TV shows. I’ve seen the episodes over and over, but each time I watch, I find something new – much like when I read the Torah!

Recently, I watched an episode called “My Boss’s Free Haircut,” in which Dr. Kelso, the hospital’s chief of medicine, decides to see patients again after years spent behind a desk doing paperwork. Soon afterward, he encounters a young patient who, instead of listening to him, stares at her phone as she Googles diagnostics of her own case. She asks him, “Why am I paying you to tell me things I’ve already figured out on my own?” Dr. Cox, a veteran doctor, tells Dr. Kelso, “Today, people think of us as drug-dispensing, walking lawsuits who are, in fact, less informed than their internet phones.”

Though it’s easy to dismiss this exchange as simple television fodder, it’s also a satire of life in the 21st century, when all information, both true and untrue, is available to the public. Wikipedia, Google, and WebMD have given humanity the impression that all knowledge is at our fingertips. Most people are no longer interested in long essays with theses, but rather explanations on life in 140 characters or fewer.

I can only imagine the frustration doctors feel when their patients believe they themselves know the complexities of the human body and their diagnostic process simply because they have looked up a few things on the Internet. Unfortunately, doctors are not alone in this situation.

In fact, all those who train for years to become experts in their field come out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to find that they face both skepticism and ageism. They may feel that people are disinterested and unappreciative of the work they put in, the sacrifices they’ve made, and the years of study they’ve spent to become experts – all in an effort to help humanity.

Rabbis are a prime example.

These days, congregants don’t base their arguments on websites or Google searches; rather, the answers lie in what they already know, what they have learned, and the minhag (tradition) they have incorporated into their own lives. Rabbis are subject to broad generalizations, frequently hearing variations of “This is what Judaism says,” “This is how I grew up,” and the inevitable, “This is what we’ve always done.”

In the fall 2015 issue of the CCAR Journal, Isa Aron, Ph.D. wrote, in reference to resistance to change,

“Synagogues are, by definition, immersed in traditions. Even the elite, who are knowledgeable to distinguish between mitzvoth and minhagim, sometimes find it difficult to alter cherished traditions that have no basis in Halacha.”

I’d like to take Dr. Aron’s argument a step further: Congregants find it difficult to alter Jewish rituals or beliefs that are sometimes based on outdated teachings or nothing except their own understandings. In essence, congregants can hold onto their individual or congregational minhagim so tightly that rabbis may feel squeezed.

We need, however, for our congregations to trust us. They, like us, need to see the value of a rigorous, five-year seminary program that allows us to use historical knowledge and understanding to guide decisions that would otherwise be made based only on personal views and emotions. Congregants, like patients or clients, seem to crave easy, 140-character answers and unfortunately, just as in medicine, law, and so many other fields, religion is not so simply expounded. It falls on rabbis, then, to meet congregants where they are and show them the value in smichot (ordination).

At the end of the aforementioned Scrubs episode, Dr. Cox says,

“If you even want to have an outside chance of reaching someone nowadays […] you damn sure better speak from your heart.”

Too often, rabbis submit to the wills of their congregations, allowing them to keep their minhagim even if the movement has removed it or altered it. Rabbis argue that they do so because, after all, it is the congregants’ congregation.

That is true – and yet, rabbis put themselves on the endangered species list by doing so. Congregations hire rabbis to keep the communities alive, to show Judaism to their members. A teacher who does not teach becomes irrelevant; a rabbi who does not fight against conformability becomes unnecessary.

Rabbis, try your best. Speak from your heart and encourage your congregants to see the value in your years of study. For despite what technology might sometimes make us think, a rabbi simply cannot be replaced by an iPhone that can sing prayers, search the Talmud, and provide pastoral care.

Rabbi Michael E. Harvey is the rabbi of Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, he served congregations small and large in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.

Rabbi Michael E. Harvey
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