Tzimtzum, Hubris and Two Types of Rabbis

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 3rd, 2017 – 7 Shevat, 5777

It was in my homiletics class. That’s one of the several classes we took in the art of sermonizing and our instructor was the great Rabbi David Wolpe. At one point, he said to us, “I’m a cat rabbi. There are dog rabbis and cat rabbis.” By this he meant that he ran cool and lived at a bit more of a remove.

I’ve been thinking about that metaphor a great deal over the past couple of months. There are prophetic rabbis and there are judge rabbis; both are needed. The prophetic rabbi looks at the state of the world and cries out in pain or outrage and takes on the mantle of society’s moral conscience. The dayan, or judge rabbi, remains an impartial observer, carefully parsing the world to move us closer to truth.

Until a couple of months ago, if someone had asked me which type I was, the answer would have run:  in my earlier days, I more easily fell into the prophetic camp, while in the second half of my rabbinical career, there’s been a tendency towards the dayan role. Part of that’s a natural tzimtzum, a contraction of the ego that comes from hard won humility. Another part is that as the center of my rabbinate has turned to building community and relationships, my commitment to people outweighs my attachment to ideas.

I don’t think in those terms anymore.

Let’s return for a moment to the prophets of old. It was a lousy job for most of them. People didn’t listen, and plenty of times they might be thrown in jail or banished. And if you happened to live in Jezebel’s era, you were more likely to be murdered than to stay alive. So the prophet’s success, if I can be slightly wry, was measured by how fully he was rejected–or killed, to allow him to be the more easily ignored.

It’s such an interesting criterion for moral success. The problem is that it doesn’t translate into today’s society. We are all so divided, that any contemporary prophet would be adored by half the population and detested by the other. As I’ve pondered this election and the campaign year before it, as well as the many changes it has wrought in the fabric of our nation, some things have become clear to me.

First, today’s prophet rabbi needs to be someone who EVERYONE disagrees with at times, not someone whose views fit easily into one of the pre-existing camps or thought bubbles. After all, such rejection is the hallmark of success in the dismal business of prophecy. (I hope you hear the humor in this).

Second, I’m neither a prophet rabbi or a dayan rabbi. Rather, I’m a strange mix, and I’m beginning to think that might be the prophet of today. A few of my friends on the left imagine I am being too cautious, or feel like I haven’t provided a rudder or clear moral direction or am taking too much time. A few more friends on the right, particularly after my very public rejection of the executive order on immigration, feel that I am being unbalanced or self-destructive. Check–prophetic mission accomplished–people across the spectrum are upset!

So what does the prophet-dayan look like, and what are his ultimate goals? What are my ultimate goals?

Here’s where I stand. We need a new national narrative that binds us together, and such a tale cannot be crafted while everyone remains in their corners telling the old stories over and over. If we cannot create such a story, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine civil war–or something worse and yet unseen. If we refuse to each relinquish some of our treasured fables, darkness will come. Our tradition teaches that the plague of darkness was that state where we cannot feel one another’s presence. Are we there? How much light remains?

My role in this is to be a bit of a gad fly, bothering left and right equally alike in an attempt to wake us up to generosity. Generosity? Yes, for renouncing a bit of our private histories and our morality camps to better make a unified tale is the most generous act a human can offer up. It is a greater sacrifice than one’s life; for in this we are asked to give up that part of us which has created meaning in the uncertain hope that together we can write a better and more meaningful common history.

Hopefully, you know that by now I try to accomplish this by deep, responsive but also straight on dialogue. I believe the most sincere compliment you can offer another person is the chance to reflect and sharpen their own thinking and their own feeling. During these days that so many in our nation are muddling through, I am trying to still offer those challenges but its a trying struggle for me to recalibrate how to best do that in a compassionate and deeply real way.

Here’s how my stand plays out. I am a rabbi and I am a private citizen. Managing those two roles is a fascinating endeavor. As the dayan-prophet, I will peer down our tradition as fully as I know how. When a social issue seems to be addressed by halakhah, by our moral-legal tradition, I will analyze what the predominant legal tendencies are within our Jewish tradition. In cases when the tradition speak loudly and with little equivocation or with a clear thrust, I will speak with the voice of the prophet.

For the last week, since the release of President Trump’s immigration order, I have been acting in prophetic mode. My careful, rigorous and well-rounded examination of our Jewish sources left me no room to doubt. Our sources ring out loud and clear to me that we must err on the side of protecting the powerless–the orphan, the widow and the stranger. The marginal gain in safety as I analyze it is legally and morally insufficient to override the Torah’s dozen of positive injunctions to provide one law for stranger and citizen alike and to welcome in the alien. In matters such as these, and knowing some will not like it, I feel it is still acceptable to speak for the community. After all, I am speaking for our shared tradition, whether someone happens to agree with that part of it or not. I’d add that abortion is another such area where Judaism has a definite perspective.

Yet in other cases likely to come, such as the selection of cabinet members, a wall with Mexico or trade agreements–in other words, when the Torah does not provide clear or unequivocal guidance, you will hear very little to nothing from me as a rabbi–even if as a private citizen I have my own informed and biased views as to what is best for America. This may also demand more time than some people want to wait before hearing from their rabbi. Nonetheless, there can be no prophecy without truth, and parsing the truth in our post-truth world takes time, particularly when we are all partial to only a sliver of it. So I will endeavor to be a non-anxious presence during those periods, even as that is a trait I am still developing.

In the meantime, my focus on dialogue and kindness will continue. Because in the long game of saving our country’s soul, I see no exit if we can’t learn to speak to one another across our many divides fabricated by fear, scarcity and an unwillingness to walk in one another’s shoes. Our grandchildren are depending on us.

 With love and concern, 

Rav D