The rabbi of the synagogue where I grew up had a regal presence. His rich resonant voice brought grandeur and wisdom to the sanctuary. My friends and I could be forgiven for mistaking him for God.
Contemporary clergy tend to be different. We are less formal and interactive. Rick Warren famously preaches in a Hawaiian shirt.
Even so, many people still see their clergy as somehow closer to God. This feeling often appears in jokes, when someone may say, “Can’t you put in a word upstairs to make sure it doesn’t rain for our wedding?” This shot at humor reveals a grain of truth.
As Jacob Neusner, the prolific historian once put it, in spite of all our flaws and shortcomings, people still look to the rabbi “as a kind of holy man.” Today I would add “holy woman” as well because women rabbis generate the same expectations and perception.
Holiness Comes from Character
Is this perception healthy? Not really. While I strive for holiness in what I do, I also know Judaism does not privilege any one group or person over another.
Even the priestly class has no greater access to God than any other. They simply have certain responsibilities in connection with their ancient role in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Community is Holy
In the Bible God says to the entire community at Mount Sinai, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The entire nation is holy, and not just one particular group.
This idea found further expression in the Talmud, the book of Jewish law and wisdom, that was compiled after the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud mandates universal Jewish education and creates a culture of meritocracy.
In the Bible the privileges of priesthood were hereditary. In the culture of the Talmud the privileges of the leadership (the Rabbis) was based on merit. A person earned the title of Rabbi through their learning and mastery of the law, not the status of their father or mother.
Partners with God
The Talmud also proposed a radical rethinking of human responsibility. In interpreting the story of the creation of man and woman, the Jewish sages called them “partners with God in the work of creation.” Every person could help bring God’s presence into the world. This responsibility was not limited to Jews. It described Adam and Eve, the symbols for all of humanity.
The notion of partnership is a profound one. It gives human beings an enormous responsibility in building world consistent with God’s vision.
To be sure, God is the senior partner. God initiated this relationship. But every human being is part of it. No one of us is holier than the other.
Should Clergy Be Held to a Higher Standard Than Others? Do Those Who Devoted Their Lives to Faith Have a Closer Relationship with God?