Ask an angry rabbi
April 18, 2011
For about 10 minutes in my 20s, I had thoughts of becoming a rabbi. I like to speak in front of an audience, I like to learn Torah, and I’d like a reserved parking space. But at some point I realized that while I may be good at sermonizing, there were other aspects of the rabbi’s job I might not be good at — like, for example, all of them. Visiting the sick? My bedside manner is atrocious. Relating to young people? I am as uncomfortable around teenagers today as I was as a teenager. Inspiring people spiritually? The closest I ever came was when my mother would look at the mess in my bedroom and yell, “Oh God!”
To give you the idea of the gift I gave to the world by not becoming a rabbi, here’s a taste of the kind of advice I’d offer the faithful:
Dear Rabbi: As an Ashkenazi Jew, I was raised with the rule that, unlike Sephardi Jews, we couldn’t eat kitniyot on Passover — no beans, rice, peas, lentils, or corn. I understand that the Conservative movement is more lenient in allowing exceptions for Ashkenazim. So can I go ahead and eat kitniyot?
Answer: Passover is, what, eight days? You can’t do without rice or lentils for eight days? How often do you eat lentils in a normal week? Yes, there are a lot of “do nots” during Passover, but take away the bread, flour, and beer and you still have more choices than about half the people on the planet do on a daily basis. Suck it up.
Dear Rabbi: We have a new cantor, and he has begun to introduce new tunes for familiar prayers like “Adon Olam” and “Lecha Dodi.” To me, synagogue is all about tradition, and I am uncomfortable with the innovations. Should I raise this with the board?
Answer: Do you know what bothers me more than new tunes? The sound of whining. Unless your cantor is a fan of Arnold Schoenberg, I am willing to bet the new tunes are not only a nice change of pace but are relatively easy to learn. Remember the old rule: Do something three times and it’s a tradition. If I can get used to a new Windows program every two years, you can handle a fresh “Ein Keloheinu.”
Dear Rabbi: I saw the new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon and I don’t understand how people can believe in a religion that seems so obviously implausible. I used to wonder the same thing about my Catholic friends, who believe that Jesus is the son of God. Are people generally unintelligent, or just gullible?
Answer: This he asks a rabbi. Listen, friend, religions by their nature are mysterious and address human needs that can’t be met through rational discourse. You’ve heard of the Burning Bush? Bilaam’s talking donkey? That’s our book, and trust me, I wouldn’t want a fact-checker at The New Yorker to take a whack at it. The point is, all religions are weird, in the Oxford English Dictionary sense: “mysterious or unearthly…unaccountably or uncomfortably strange.” That’s their power.
See what I mean? I’ll stick to newspapers. But I would like that parking space.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.