I recently read a lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, delivered in 1968 at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers at the South Manchester Synagogue in Manchester, England. Rabbi Lamm was invited to speak about the contemporary rabbinate, and in it he bemoans the diminishing and diminished role of the rabbi in American and English synagogues. He decries the relegating of the rabbi to a purely functionary position:
Unfortunately, in the eyes of our contemporaries and even, alas, our own eyes, we are no longer Rabbanim in the grand tradition, but professional generalists in charge of communal trivia, pious superficialities, and ritualistic irrelevancies. We have, under the impress of an all but inexorable sociological development, yielded one realm after another of special and significant rabbinic competence. We have surrendered our Halakhic positions to the yeshivot and rashei yeshiva, mahshava [Jewish thought] to the professors of religion and theology, and communal leadership to the professional fund-raisers and executives…. What we are left with is enough to discourage any intelligent man — a required weekly sermon; ritualistic “prayers” dutifully pronounced at official occasions and listened to by no one, probably not even by the Deity; minor counseling; Hebrew school supervision; and the development of just enough dignity to stand on when our own spiritual “authority” is challenged.
The traditional American synagogue is sinking under the weight of apathy and disinterest. The very thing that used to bring American Jews in large numbers to synagogue life is now turning away the new generations: formality at the expense of spiritual feeling; procedure at the expense of passion; and committee, sub-committee, and task forces at the expense of mission. I firmly believe that declining membership numbers, fund-raising woes, and empty seats are symptoms of a much larger problem that once addressed will help alleviate those immediate issues.
A solution that would go a long way in addressing these systemic issues would be developing more mission-driven synagogues and more rabbis articulating and living by their own personal mission. Neither mission-driven synagogues nor mission-driven rabbis are anything new. There are synagogues and rabbis throughout North America whose work and purpose is deeply inspiring and transformative. We just need to cultivate more of them.
Rabbis who live and breathe their missions are rabbis who do not see their job only to offer quality sermons or run a good staff meeting, but as bringing forth a vision of Judaism. Mission-driven rabbis can be inspiring at times, motivating at other times, and sometimes frustrating to the people they lead — because those rabbis will not compromise the mission even though adapting it to the particular place is desirable.
Mission-driven rabbis are often accused of having an “agenda,” as if they wish to foist a particular platform on their community. This is absolutely not what being mission-driven is all about. To be mission-driven is to articulate the vision and then be able to incorporate the feedback of the community to make it home grown and sustainable. It is to offer a compelling picture for the future and empower the entire community to actualize it.
A mission that answers the spiritual needs of the membership and that speaks loudly to the needs of the larger community is a mission that motivates people to support the institution, to join the institution, and to want to simply be in the room.
Rabbi Lamm began his speech by declaring: “I believe we have slipped into a rut, but we are not lost. We are in many ways stricken, but not irreversibly. I submit that we can still recapture our commanding role as spiritual leaders and effective guides if we bestir ourselves — before it is too late.”
May this truly be so.