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Tattoo Worthy Texts 5 - A Disturbed and Disturbing Rabbi

Whenever I teach, I hear myself, saying, ‘if I could get this phrase tattooed, I would!’ I am obsessed with words. I am hooked on discovering teachings that connect all the dots and turn my thinking upside down. I love finding words that break open new possibilities I didn’t even know existed. Aside from my very low pain threshold, I would run out of space to get all of the words that have transformed me tattooed. So in lieu of finding a parlour that could do the miraculous, I’m going to share some of my favourite words and sentences that have blown me away. Knowing that the Internet is a type of memorial, given the impossibility of erasing anything that is ‘out there’ digitally, I hope that these words start conversations of critical thinking and connection.

Print by R.Robyn. Please cite the author/artist if you are quoting any words or re-producing the art. Ta!


One Friday night I was scouring Mishkan Tefillah, the American Reform Siddur, for some readings for that week’s service. I needed some inspiration, some prayers and words to help us connect to and interpret the liturgy. I turned to p.55 and the words on that page jumped out at me.  With the title ‘Disturb us Adonai’, a sentence at the heart of the passage stood out:

Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of Your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice and reality.

I turned to the back of the book to find out who had written such a piece. Words which felt prophetic as they demanded that we remained dissatisfied with the injustices of the world. The piece felt fresh - not a prayer for peace but a prayer that we are disturbed enough by what is before us and what needs to change.  The piece, so the index said, was written by Mitchell Salem Fisher whom I had not heard of.  A google search quickly led me to a New York Times article from 1930 which included a letter from Rabbi Salem Fisher resigning from his community post.*

I read the article and was astounded. So much of what Rabbi Salem Fisher wrote back in 1930 felt painfully relevant today.  In the resignation letter of his post of Congregation Rodeph Sholem, Rabbi Salem Fisher wrote:

The trouble lies in the dreadful contrast between what the synagogue should be and can be and what the synagogue is…Preachers enunciate ideals, but these must remain so indefinite, so unjointed, so unchallenging, so completely removed from the real issues of everyday living and struggling, that these ideals become patently and utterly vain. The rabbi becomes an exalted lecturer, entertainer and institution promotion agent.  My colleagues may loudly protest, and will boldly assert upon learning of this letter that they are free.  They may even think so.  The fact remains that with very few exceptions none of them is the possessor of effective freedom.  And those few who have won their fight to such freedom usually have done so outside of the conventional paths of rabbinical success.

These words felt both validating and like a gut punch.  I learnt that Rabbi Salem Fisher left the rabbinate to re-train as a lawyer.** He worked for the Anti-Nazi League and became a successful family lawyer.  I had done the opposite.  I had left Human Rights law to re-train as a rabbi.  I had understood, as Rabbi Salem Fisher had, that ‘preachers enunciate ideals’ and followed my childhood dream to become one such leader.  I believed that communities were the key to making change in a our word, outside of the strictures of the law, where justice can be hard to find.  Yet my experiences, and those of Rabbi Salem Fisher’s aligned and his words, just like those in his prayer, resonated deep within me.

I chose to be a rabbi to be a teacher (which is what the word rabbi means).  I chose to be a rabbi because I had always understood Judaism to be about justice.  I understood my sacred role as a Jew to l’taken (to repair) the brokenness in the world and felt like the rabbinate was one of the best ways of doing this.  I had always sought a way to ensure that my profession enabled me, in relation with others, to fight injustice.  I felt Torah in my soul and my body to be, ultimately, about recognising that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim (made in the image of G?d) even when humans, and the text itself fell from those ideals.***  I chose to be a rabbi because I was excited about the possibility of being part of a whole network of people whose strengths, skills, shared values meant we could work together for change.  What I had not realised is that the walls of the synagogue can, in fact, act as ‘shelters from the winds of truth, justice and reality’ and that religious institutions, far from being the promised land for pursuers of justice (Deut. 16:20), can, in reality, create, sustain and perpetuate much structural harm.  I began to realise that much of the justice work I was seeking needed to take place internally before other justice work could continue.

Part of the challenge I hear in Rabbi Salem Fisher’s words is to re-assess our understanding of the role of a rabbi. What are our expectations?  Is a rabbi a preserver of the status quo?  A guardian of all the traditions the community holds?  A gatekeeper?  An ‘institution promotion agent’, an ‘entertainer’?  Is a rabbi a chief executive responsible for getting people in through the doors?  A sales agent, perhaps, selling the treasures of Judaism for the challenges of modern life? Maybe a rabbi is a type of religious management consultant, brought in to bring new members into the clubs we have built? Is a rabbi a clerk, a dogsbody?**** Is a rabbi’s role to placate those who are angry, to attempt to meet everyone’s needs? Whom does a rabbi serve - G?d, community, the Jewish people, themselves? Whose justice is being pursued?

In my work on reimagined prophecy (more to come!), I understand that religious leaders have the potential to do the transformative, liberative work of teaching.  By prophecy I do not mean individuals receiving the word of G?d but those who speak truth to power, who enable, in the words of Walter Brüggemann, the ‘community to break through the denial, numbness, and inhumanity of exploitation.  As the prophetic cry loosens the grip of dominant ideologies, it also energizes and empowers a community out of indifference into action.’***** It is the work of bringing texts, discussions to communities of people.  To create and hold spaces of respect, across boundaries and difference, which can hold anger, dissent and hope.  In a re-imagined prophetic/rabbinic role, rabbis, together, have the time and energy, through rootedness in Torah and text, to imagine anew. They can open minds to newly imagined worlds - awaken us all from our slumber, through our despair create new possibilities founded on ancient, ancestral wisdom.  Synagogues could become counter-cultural spaces, standing out from the polarised, capitalist world which places profits before people and which create hierarchies of whose lives are more worthy.  Rather than be charismatic solo leaders guarding the minhagim of the community, rabbis can have the space, protection and permission to work together to empower all within to both access and create Judaism for today.

Just to be clear, here I am not necessarily criticising rabbis or communities but the systems which we may blindly follow, or, indeed, be enslaved to.  I still believe, profoundly, in the beauty and potential of both rabbinic and community work - I am just hungry for more, I feel the urgency of the questions the world is asking of us at the moment. Part of the prophetic task is to awaken us from slumber, from the everyday to the holy, from what it before us to what is possible.  Please, please, O G?d, disturb us so we may act.


Thank you to Joseph Finlay and his new blog which spurred me to finally write this piece.

*** See Carleen Mandolfo’s question, ‘where does the biblical text fall short of its own ideals of justice?’ Mandolfo, C. 2007. Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the Book of Lamentations. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, p.9.

****Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s blog and challenge to the role of the rabbi is well worth a read

***** Brueggemann, W. 2018. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis [Minnesota]: Fortress Press, p.xiii

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