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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 with pastoral counseling or other therapeutic disciplines. One kind and learned friend of mine, now studying to be a physician, left Jewish Theological Seminary because he found that the professors taught to the weakest students rather than challenging the brightest. The curriculum discouraged the kind of rough-edged brilliance he was capable of. "At JTS," one rabbi had warned him, "they circumcise everything that sticks out."

It may be that the good old days weren't always good; plenty of rabbis and ministers were always, as the elderly Jew might say, from hunger. But matters are, if anything, getting worse. Several recent books have documented the slide among Christian ministers. Thomas Reeves' The Empty Church (Free Press, 1996) lays bare the problems in mainline denominations; Betrayal (Little, Brown, 2002), by the staff of The Boston Globe, is a painful, brutal read, both for its depiction of the current priesthood and for how it may discourage future vocations. Along those lines, Donald Cozzens' The Changing Face of the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2000) delivers more bad news. Jews do not yet have such a book, one forcing them to confront their troubled rabbinate. But The New Rabbi, while not a broad survey, is an intriguing case study that raises the same pointed questions in measured tones.

In the late 1990s, magazine writer Stephen Fried was in need of a good rabbi. Returning to religion to cope with his father's death, he began to daven, or pray, at Har Zion, a thriving shul in Philadelphia where for three generations middle-class Jews have worshipped, socialized, and brought their children for religious training. At the time, Har Zion was beginning the search for a new rabbi. Gerald Wolpe, a scholar and brilliant preacher, was retiring after 25 years. Sensing that the search to replace Wolpe would be contentious, Fried knew he had found a good story.

The rabbi search, as Fried vividly describes it, is clogged by the factions and intrigue we expect from all church and synagogue committees. Working from his own observations—and from a key informant on the committee—Fried has crafted a vivid and funny book. As the search committee rejects applicant after applicant, deeming them all inferior goods, Fried never allows us to lose sight of either the gravity or the comedy. Fried has fun writing about the Har Zion congregants, but he never condescends to them. When they look bad, one senses that it is their own fault (as when they reject one applicant because he wears his yarmulke at a goofy angle). Choosing a new spiritual leader may be a weighty matter, but it can turn adults into real babies.

To be fair, Rabbi Wolpe set a high standard, and not just for longevity. A precocious student at New York University, Wolpe was only 16 years old when he was at JTS. Wolpe knew poetry, Wolpe knew Renaissance history. He knew Bible—well. When assistant rabbi Jacob Herber becomes the interim rabbi, the contrast is unmistakable. "In sermons," one worshipper tells Fried, "Wolpe would quote from Browning, and Jacob quotes from Sports Illustrated."

But the search committee cannot find anyone it likes better, so at last it offers the senior rabbi position to Herber. He's not brilliant, but he is genuine. He seems like the New York Rangers fan that he is (which is one reason he is so popular with the children at the synagogue). I have seen Herber preach, and I can attest that he seems contemporary and comfortable, like an easy chair. Wolpe was musty, erudite, and serious—an upright chair, upholstered in leather.

Whether the Rabbi Herbers of the world betoken decline is not a simple question. Wolpe, like so many rabbis of his generation, was neither approachable nor very pastoral. He was uncomfortable paying hospital visits. His role was to teach to the synagogue—not just about religion, but about the world. He came from a tradition in which the rabbi was likely to be the most educated man around, a university graduate speaking every Saturday to an audience of merchants and civil servants. In such a climate, the congregation craved the ringing authority and didactic certainty of a wise voice—and Wolpe's deep timbre, with its broad Boston vowels, was perfectly suited to deliver truth every Saturday morning. Tasks like comforting the sick, providing marital counseling, and organizing a strong youth group lagged in importance. The rabbi's job was to know.

Contrast that role with the job description offered by Moshe Tutnauer, a professional interim rabbi who shows up at Har Zion after Wolpe leaves as a kind of a hired big brother for Rabbi Herber. "I don't give sermons anymore," Tutnauer tells Fried, "because I don't know more than those people. So I teach Torah. In the day of Simon Greenberg [a prewar Har Zion rabbi], when much of the congregation was smart but not educated, you developed a rabbi who interpreted The New York Times for the congregation. Now the people who write The New York Times are sitting in your congregation, along with two professors of psychology and three doctors of philosophy. What are you gonna tell them? Don't be a jerk."

Herber is emphatically not that jerk. Nor is Jill Borodin, who becomes his assistant. They don't pretend to vast learning. They stand not above the people but beside them, as fellow college graduates, more spiritually inclined than most, with some nuggets of wisdom to dispense. They do not impress the congregation with their erudition. They are unlikely to inspire. But they are also unlikely to intimidate. Old Rabbi Wolpe moved his listeners by delivering an awesome sermon, while Rabbi Herber, we learn in one touching scene, moves them by standing up and sharing his own pain. People cried before Rabbi Wolpe; they cry with Rabbi Herber.

The rabbinate, in other words, has shrunk, not in numbers but in majesty—another sign of the general leveling in American culture. The most famous Jewish cantors were, in the early part of the century, like opera stars, giving sold-out performances in great halls; now, they often function as songleaders and junior rabbis. Most Americans did not know about Franklin Roosevelt's wheelchair, because the president was supposed to be aloof, and the newspapers and radio conspired in a protective silence. Now, United States presidents are expected to pal around with David Letterman. Our democratic impulse has leveled the peaks from which rabbis—and presidents, and professors—once looked down on the rest of us.

Stephen Fried has not written a big, analytic book to explain to us what it means that as American education levels have risen, the clergy's preeminence has declined. He simply offers a resonant account of that change. He occasionally stumbles along the way—he gets wrong the year of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, he misspells the name of the great rabbinic troubadour Shlomo Carlebach—and his writing can be too cute, as when he writes of prayer, "Summertime and the davening is easy." Yet his humble, hamish wisdom suggests that he might make a good rabbi himself—of the friendlier, late-model variety.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of God and Counterculture: Religion in Nixon's America, to be published next year by Yale University Press.

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