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Mark Oppenheimer


Thursday the Rabbi Met with the Search Committee

The changing face of religious authority in America

In the late 1950s, Chaim Potok was scholar in residence at a suburban synagogue outside Philadelphia. He was charming and charismatic and identifiably brilliant. "On the side," Stephen Fried writes in The New Rabbi, "he was working on his first novel (which was never published but allowed him to learn how to write a novel) and was completing course work for a ph.d. at Penn in philosophy. When he finished his term as scholar-in-residence, he was offered three excellent pulpits, but he was ambivalent about continuing his rabbinate." Potok's wife asked him what he most wanted to do with his life, and Chaim answered that he wanted to write. The senior rabbi at his synagogue quietly gave Potok two thousand dollars from his discretionary fund so he and his wife could go to Israel for a year. There, Potok finished his doctoral dissertation and also wrote The Chosen. The story of two young Jews struggling with their religious obligations in the years after World War II, The Chosen is a classic American novel. It is not quite as good as the best Bernard Malamud or Philip Roth, but it belongs on the same shelf. And so Potok never worked at a synagogue again. He wrote books for the rest of his life.

Chaim Potok is only a minor figure in the The New Rabbi, mentioned in passing because the synagogue whose rabbi was so generous with him, Har Zion, is the setting for Stephen Fried's book. But in a sense, Potok is Fried's real subject: the rabbi that could have been.

Anyone with religious friends knows at least one or two of them who simply must become clergy: they are so bright, their faith so inspiring, that their absence from the pulpit somehow indicts God. Why do they insist on other careers? Some, like Potok, hear another calling. Some seek higher pay or more prestige. Maybe they have no stomach for congregational politics. Some find the clerisy intellectually beneath them: seminaries have become less demanding, loosening their language requirements and replacing courses in Scripture ...

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