Rav Kingfish
Tue, 11/29/2011
LEADING. Leonard Bernstein at a concert at a displaced persons camp, Munich, Germany, 1940s. Courtesy of the American Jewish Joi
LEADING. Leonard Bernstein at a concert at a displaced persons camp, Munich, Germany, 1940s. Courtesy of the American Jewish Joi

I’m a traditional Jew. I like my religion straight up, neither shaken nor stirred. I’ve been saying Yizkor, and seriously, for years, but when rabbis don’t trust the power of Yizkor and feel the need to add an English call-and-response, they lose me. At the Passover seder, I’m thinking about the leaving of Egypt; I don’t need dynamic rabbis comparing the seder to the Civil Rights movement, the Arab Spring, or global warming.

Is there a synagogue website that doesn’t describe their rabbi as “dynamic”? Rabbis looking for jobs swear they’re dynamic. And yet the more that we have  “dynamic” rabbis, the more Jews tell pollsters that they find Judaism lethargic.

Perhaps the problem is exacerbated by Newsweek’s “Best Rabbi” surveys, in which rabbis are seemingly judged by “dynamic” criteria that have little or nothing to do with the job that so many rabbis actually do, and do well: teaching, counseling, and being a community’s gentle shepherd. Though even rabbis on the Newsweek list have disparaged it in private, Newsweek’s list has become used by those same rabbis for fundraising and prestige, leaving unlisted rabbis somehow diminished.

What’s attractive to Newsweek, and other media, even Jewish media, gives a new generation of  rabbis incentive—even pressure—to do something, anything, to make their synagogue and Judaism more exciting, more Newsweek-worthy, when all along the most beautiful moments of Judaism are the quiet moments that are hardly dynamic: the Blessing of the Moon; or a subtle chasidic insight, exchanged in passing; or an intimate exchange with a rabbi in a hospital corridor. The best rabbis do what is timeless, rather than dynamic activity that is innovative and flashy but untested and often fleeting.

Like baseball or chess, Judaism is slow and boring—until it isn’t, or until the observer learns to see the beauty and understand the mysteries inherent in the cerebral stillness and anticipation. Why is the experience of a game at Wrigley Field—where there is no rock music, the scoreboard is dull without animation, where it rains and gets cold—nevertheless so treasured while the weather-controlled Astrodome, once called “the eighth wonder of the world,” designed to keep fans forever dazzled, is now empty, put to pasture? When dynamic innovations fail or grow stale, and they often do, what then?

As at the Astrodome, there is some evidence that the more rabbis are dynamic and attempt to dazzle, the more the people stay home. For all of the modern innovations in recent years, the pews are emptier than before.

Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement's Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, recently wrote a paper in which he noticed that “smaller percentages of men are currently active in our synagogues,” despite decades of  dynamic change that was supposed to fill the pews, not empty them.

Similarly, among the Orthodox, the more dynamic the shul, the easier it is to find a seat. In the famously dynamic Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, home of the first Orthodox woman “rabba,” membership has plummeted, from an announced high of 850, according to New York magazine in 2010, to just over 600, according to a letter to The Jewish Week from that synagogue’s president.

There are many theories going around about how to be a more successful rabbinic leader, and here are two. The first is the Stewardess Theory—be less of a pilot and more of a flight attendant. You walk up and down the aisles, “Do you need a blanket? Are you OK? Are you hot? Cold? Do you need help with your life preserver?” Do that well and you can “fly” your shul anywhere. 

The second theory of rabbinic dynamics is the Seven-Percent Solution. If a rabbi is seven percent ahead of the congregation, that rabbi is brilliant, terrific.

At 17 percent, you’ve probably lost the congregation.

The Seven-Percent Solution accepts that there is room for being mildly dynamic, but rabbis who are mildly dynamic rarely stay that way. The problem is that dynamism inevitably becomes predictable, much as Ed Sullivan’s audiences grew tired of seeing the once-exciting vaudeville trick of balancing spinning dishes on a pole.

Instead of trusting the congregation to appreciate basic, no-frills Judaism, the dynamic rabbi’s inevitable mistake is to be more “look at me,” always more dynamic, not less. The dynamic rabbi starts resembling nothing so much as the Cat In The Hat, with the fish and the dress and the cake and the rake, fearing that the congregation will grow bored if ever the sun wasn’t shining.

Perhaps it would be easier to show how this leadership dilemma works out in politics, how a dynamic politician can hit a brick wall that he never sees coming.

Let's go back to 1937. No one was more beloved than Franklin Roosevelt. Though a child of the upper class, FDR was a populists' dream, humbled in his wheelchair, as crippled as the country. And then it went to his head.

After wining a second landslide, in 1936, controlling 77 out of 96 seats in the Senate, he figured he should be even more dynamic in his bid to end the Depression, which was still raging after four years of dynamic legislation.

In the book "Supreme Power," Jeff Shesol writes that according to Roosevelt, “If it was necessary, it was right; if it was right, it was legal." (A logic that most dynamic rabbis apply to Judaism.) And so it was that when the Supreme Court ruled that several of Roosevelt’s dynamic innovations were unconstitutional, FDR tried to get the Senate—where he had that massive majority—to let him "pack" the court, in which he would add as many as six new justices (who’d support him, of course) for every elderly judge who happened to stand in his way.

Was Roosevelt wrong? After all, the idea that there must only be nine judges was not from Sinai or Philadelphia. The Constitution left it to the Senate to decide how many judges there should be, and in the 1800s (not that long before Roosevelt, if you think about it) the number of justices was fluid, ranging from five to six, to ten and back to nine. If Madison or Jefferson had thought of it first, no one would have thought Roosevelt's plan inherently unethical or immoral.

The same with dynamic halachic change. If the Talmud’s founding fathers decided that it was OK to have women rabbis, or patrilineal descent, or any one of a dozen other modern innovations, no one would object today. There is nothing inherently wrong, unethical or immoral about these innovations.

So why do these changes, meant to excite and respond to the people, result in fewer people in the pews? Why did Roosevelt's idea for the court, meant to benefit the New Deal, get so battered?

The answer is simply that tradition has more of powerful hold on our hearts than the innovators understand. Whatever baseball’s problems, declaring two strikes to be an out, the better to attract the “unaffiliated” fan, would more likely lose the committed fans rather than turn the uncommitted fans into committed ones. As much as fans love the home run, or might think it clever to light eight candles on the first night of Chanukah (who could object to more light?), putting baseball or religion on steroids has only left baseball or religion the sorrier.

Roosevelt stopped thinking that he was bound by the rules of consultation, compromise and the political process, which is the way that tradition validates change. He didn’t see the virtue of going slow, the wisdom of the Seven-Percent Solution. People still loved Roosevelt but flinched at the idea of such an Imperial Presidency. Modern Jews may love an individual rabbi but don’t love an Imperial Rabbinate.

In the 1930s, down in Louisiana, Huey Long was as dynamic as a politician could get. Was he a dictator, as some said? Hardly. He was elected time and again by  secret ballot, and all his laws were passed by freely elected representatives of the people. He did everything from leading the marching band on football Saturdays to initiating a series of terrific and populist bills, and the legislature permitted him everything that a shul's board of directors and committees permits a strong rabbi.

At first, Huey Long was all that was good about a dynamic leader. He lifted spirits. He cheered people up, had them singing "Every Man A King," with lyrics about "every neighbor a friend." His admirers happily called him "Kingfish," after the character on the Amos & Andy radio comedy.

And then comedy turned tragic. He started calling himself  Kingfish just a little too often—acted like a kingfish, too. He felt he had to forever top himself, only to become synonymous with arrogance and authoritarianism, which is how a dynamic leader can be misunderstood.

Today, what should a Rav Kingfish do? He should start by trusting tradition, the magic inherent in the old and slow ways of doing things. He should trust a  congregation’s need for quiet and meditation. Most people have a whole lot to think about, and talk to God about, without needing a rabbi’s dynamic impositions or distractions. What people crave even more than innovation is a rabbi’s ability to simply teach the subtle mysteries of faith, to facilitate introspection in visits to the sick or to the forgotten—and aren’t so many of us forgotten, more than anyone knows? There is something holy about the Flight Attendant or Stewardess Theory, simply walking the aisles, noticing if someone is missing from their seat, if someone might need a blanket, or need help with a life preserver, or how to find the emergency exit.

Anyone who has loved a baby, or loved a dying friend or an elderly parent ravaged by age and incapable of speech, knows that the most dynamic love can exist in silence, in stillness, in a soulful place beyond language, where love and relationships are about nothing so much as modesty and compromise.

That kind of leadership, through selflessness and a sense of grace, is not only for the hospital or crisis but every bit as needed for a healthy congregation, one that comes together to be with a beloved God, who Himself knows when to hide His face.

Jonathan Mark is associate editor of The Jewish Week.