I was reading an interesting article the other day about what many in the religious community refer to as the “moral pulpit.” This references the obligation of members of the clergy to use their position at the helm of their communities to give guidance and suggestions regarding issues of character, and to attempt to lead their flock in the right direction ethically. In short, it is the need for religious leaders to ask for the best from their congregants, especially when they come up short.
The problem is that the moral pulpit is disappearing. More and more often, rabbis are shying away from giving their thoughts on issues of value, because they fear that their congregations will not want to hear what they have to say.
It is difficult to give moral judgements. Even harder than giving them, it is uncomfortable to be told that you aren’t doing enough, that you aren’t good enough. Rabbis are saddled with the difficult obligation to ask their congregation for the best of humanity, when so often the people know that more is possible and struggle to get there.
This comes directly in conflict with the notion that religion is a form of sales. Temples are competing for time, attention, and money not only with other congregations, but also with other forms of entertainment and communal engagement. There is immense pressure on these communities to find ways to remain relevant, to remain a central part of the day-to-day Jewish lifestyles of Americans.
One of the most significant ways that this is done is by making congregations comfortable for all members. Comfort comes in the form of welcoming anyone and everyone who wants to join. Comfort comes in catering the experience for members by delivering a wide variety of programming and services. Comfort comes in the form of accepting who people are and where they come from. This is a balancing act, though, and all too often, comfort comes at the expense of the moral compass that has been so important in organized religion throughout history.
When the rabbi stands in front of the community and says that we are not doing enough to help out our community, it is uncomfortable. When the rabbi demands patience, humility, and kindness, even in the face of adversity, it is uncomfortable. When the rabbi reminds us that we are not perfect, that we have places where we can learn and grow, it is uncomfortable. And rabbis are choosing to avoid the issue, rather than risk losing a congregant to this discomfort.
We need to do better than that, though. There are constant ways we can improve as people. We can be more patient. We can be more thoughtful. We can do more in our communities, both for those we know and those we don’t. If we aren’t told how to improve our lives, how will we ever be able to pursue the holiness that we are forever striving for?
One of my favorite lines from the Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Movement’s prayerbook, is “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; make us dissatisfied.” Someone needs to wake us up, to inspire us to be better. Someone needs to point out our flaws, and, with kindness and love, demand that we do more to improve the world and make it better. Rabbis are the moral compass of their congregations, and should be allowed to steer their congregants in the right direction.
We cannot let our goals of comfort and welcome be a barrier for the morals and ethics that are so important to our Jewish identity. If we are not held accountable, we will get lost in our complacency. As I begin my journey to becoming a rabbi, I want to start a career of working toward making the world a better place. I have high expectations of myself, and I hope that the communities I serve will allow me to help point us all in the right direction. We need to elevate the level of debate in our synagogues. It doesn’t mean we will always be right, but it means we always need to try.
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