Friday, July 02, 2010

In defense of the Orthoprax Rabbi

The Orthoprax Rabbi is a new blogger who says that he believes in almost nothing yet continues to function successfully as an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. He has a shul, he says, satisfied congregants who have just awarded him a juicy new contract, a happy family and thriving kids. So what's the problem? I'm not sure.

As best as I can summarize it the bloggers who have written condemning posts seem deeply offended that the OP Rabbi is "lying", or in the grips of some immature idea about "authenticity." But, I see a few mistakes: First, its not necessarily true that OPR has told any lies (aside from liturgical lies, which I'll discuss presently) and, second, who says professional lies are a moral failing?

Here are my counters to the different objections:

The OPR lies
Says who? Perhaps he manages to make his way through most days without telling a single lie? It's not a lie for him to attend shul, and make speeches - that's his job, after all - and perhaps he manages to construct his sermons and statements so that they are always strictly true? This is easier to do then you might imagine:
Congregant: Rabbi I dropped my spoon in a vat of boiling hot pig fat! What should I do?
Rabbi: Well, the author of the Shulchan Orach says to apply a direct flame to it.

Congregant:  Rabbi, my son won't put on tfillin!
Rabbi: Well, according to the Torah that's a bad idea.

Rabbi: (from the pulpit) (paraphrased) You guys really shouldn't steal / talk in shul / be mean to your wives.

See? It's easy to think of hundreds of similar scenarios, and therefore no reason to assume he's told any lies.

But he lies when he davens! Or when he gets an aliya! How can he say "God chose us" when he doesn't believe that's true?"
Right, so? First, saying those words is part of his job, and by no lights therefore no different then a customer service clerk telling a fabulously rude and obnoxious patron that it was "a pleasure" to serve him. That's a lie, too, but we want the CSC to tell it, and are deeply offended if a CSC omits to say how much he enjoyed listening to us whine. If lying is every situation is always a deep moral failing as OPR's detractors seem to think, why do we tolerate -and even insist on hearing- lies in dozens of daily situations?

Its really as simple as this: The congregation is paying him to say words, so he says them. That's his job. Whether or not he believes they are true strikes me as irrelevant, especially because saying "I believe in God" when you really don't is completely harmless. There's no victim, and any harm the OPR may be doing to himself is his business alone. Moreover, the OPR might actually enjoy davening. As I've said before, prayer offers loads of secular benefits. If the OPR is legitimately receiving them, where's the lie or harm? Second, we all say prayers that strech credulity. This Shabbos, for example, most of you will say a prayer for the Exilarch, an office that hasn't existed for 1000 years. Does this mean all of you are filthy, immoral liars? Or are you decent people, saying a prayer that Jews have said for 1000 years and therefore carries historical significance and perhaps personal meaning?

But by his lights the words he's saying are nonsense!
Again, if that's how he sees it which is by no means certain, the nonsense mumbling is a professional service, which he is performing to the satisfaction of his employers. Lawyers, P.R flacks and corporate spokesmen do the same thing, and I would, too: If you want to pay me to tell you to pat your head and draw stick figures for greater spiritual growth, pass the cash: I'll do it gladly. Your money. I'm only here to serve. And anyway, Ashkenazi Rabbis who lead Sefard shuls, often pray according to that nusach, and as I've pointed out before, the Hebrew in nusach sfard occasionally approaches gobbledygook. (1 2 and 3) Is it some great ethical failing for a Rabbi to end the Sim Shalom with the words "b'rov oz v'sholom?" Why not? The result of that sentence is gibberish, too, and if the Rabbi's Hebrew is decent he knows it.

But its hoax! He's living a lie!
No he's not. He's following halacha and, presumably, he's encouraging other people to follow halacha, too. Why in the world would an OJ object to that? Because in his heart of hearts he's not a true believer? So what? That's neither here nor there. As the verse says,

הַ֨נִּסְתָּרֹ֔ת לַיהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹ֞ת לָ֤̣נ̣וּ̣ עַד־עֹולָ֔ם לַעֲשֹׂ֕ות אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתֹּורָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃
The hidden things belong to God alone; the revealed thing, which is ours and our children forever, is to perform all the words of this law

OPR is doing everything right, and we have no right to be concerned about what he thinks in private. That's between him and God. Consider if the Rabbi believed in God, but had an overactive fantasy life. Would any of you say you had a right to complain if the Rabbi had the habit of picturing the cuter female congregants without their cloths on? What business is that of yours so long as he always treats the women with respect and follows all laws and policies governing his relationships with them? The OPR situation strikes me as identical.

If you simply object to the OPR telling his congregation to do things, he doesn't do himself, well I'm sorry, but you're being both petty and bizarre. He's telling people to do thing, you agree they should be doing. How can you possibly oppose that? Would you who are Republicans complain if Obama were to go around arguing for supply side economics? I doubt you'd worry about his private opinion. You'd just be glad he was preaching your belief. Same here.  Its more than enough that this man is fulfilling his professional obligations, and leading his congregation as they wish to be led, and teaching them what they wish to be taught, and providing them with the instructions they wish to receive. That's what matters, and you have no right nor jurisdiction to complain about the thoughts he entertains in the privacy of his own mind. At bottom I think that desire - to control people's thoughts - is what's at the root of the protesting.  Those doing the protesting should grow up, respect OPR's privacy, and be satisfied that he's doing and saying the "right" things. Until mind-reading technology is invented, that's all you can ever expect from someone anyway

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