Recently the HTC Library received the book, American Rabbis : facts and fiction, by David J. Zucker (Northvale, NJ : Jason Aronson, 1998). The author is a chaplain, formerly he was a congregational rabbi and professor. He earned a Ph. D. from University of Birmingham, England. The topic of the book fascinated me immediately, since I have been involved in a search for a new rabbi of my synagogue. I was anxious to learn about the rabbinate from a rabbi's point of view.
This book still leaves me with mixed feelings. I don't know if I should praise the book or criticize it. Rabbi Zucker has done an excellent job of surveying the literature both fictional and non-fictional rabbis. Much of the findings will probably sound very familiar to you and some will probably sound like something from "left field."
One story that Zucker quotes, I found particularly revealing about the mixed expectations of a shul board and the rabbi. The story, "The Wise Men of Wentworth," by Stanley F. Chyet, originally appeared in Chicago Jewish Forum 21:1 Fall 1962.
When Rabbi Gotthelf comes to the town of Wentworth, he meets with the Board of Directors. He explains that he intends to take weekday mornings for study. His board was uniformly appalled. They asked why he had to study if he is a rabbi. "You don't know rabbi, we're running a shul, not a yeshiva. ... When Rabbi Gotthelf explained that a rabbi's studies are never completed, he met with incredulity. The president groans, "When a rabbi graduates from the yeshiva, he's a scholar. So why do you have to study?" The board then fires Rabbi Gotthelf on the spot. They refer to him as an "unfinished, a half-baked rabbi."
The next rabbinical candidate fares completely differently. He too, wishes to be left undisturbed Monday through Friday mornings. When the board asks why, Rabbi George Handler related the fact that he is a married man, and explains that he sleeps best in the morning. "A sign of relief, of understanding, of satisfaction had welled up from the board members and the president.
"You see gentlemen, a rabbi what is a rabbi, a full, finished rabbi, we got." "A full-baked rabbi," another congregant caustically remarks."
This story highlights some of the great difficulties in human communications. The first rabbi was just trying to continue his life-long learning. Perhaps in 1962 congregants didn't understand the preparation required to deliver sermons and prepare for classes? Perhaps the second rabbi knew what he needed and told the congregation what they wanted to hear?
Zucker examines many of the sub-groups of rabbis and explains some of the differences and similarities. One chapter covers rabbinical training. HTC is mentioned in the section about Orthodox rabbinical training, but Yeshiva University is the most prominate.
The book has chapters on how congregents view rabbis, the rabbi's family, non-congregational rabbis, and how rabbis view the rabbinate. Zucker ends with the future of the rabbinate.
It is hard to be a Jew, and it is harder to be a rabbi .. the rabbinate is a cultured profession; it is honorable. ... Rabbis are in a position to influence the future of Judaism. What could be more exciting and rewarding!
Every profession has its rewards and challenges. After serving on a search committee I have come to realize that a rabbi has to be a great communicator. Great communicators know when to talk, when to listen, and when to admit they don't know the answer.
My first criticism of the book is the way Zucker deals with rabbis in fiction. There is a certain amount of "truth" in fiction. Fiction has a way of dealing with issues that can't compare to a scientific survey. In fiction the author can support, condemn, or invent the facts to tell a better story. While literary analysis has an important place in scholarship and even the understanding of the society that surrounds the story, Zucker seems too free in his mixing of the stories of fictional rabbis and the hard facts about rabbis. Rabbi David Small and his congregation may have some great interactions, but Rabbi Small lives in a fictional town invented by Harry Kemelman. One can not use Rabbi Small as an example of an American rabbi. He is an American fictional rabbi. Zucker freely uses fictional events and stories and leaves out stories from real rabbis. His bibliography has no biographies or auto-biographies of American rabbis.
My second criticism is that Zucker tries to survey too much and leaves some topics covered too shallowly. Zucker is more of a reporter and gatherer of facts than an analyzer. He weaves a picture of the rabbinate from hundreds of sources yet tells us nothing new. After reading the book I am left with the question "So---?"
Zucker could have saved a lot of time if he just read what Dr. Samuel Belkin wrote: The rabbi, according to Dr. Samuel Belkin,1 "is the custodian of the ideals for which the Synagogue stand for. .. leader of the Jewish community .. the social worker, the social architect. ... The rabbi must symbolize the beth ha-tefillah ... His true function is to be the Jewish scholar, the authority on Jewish law, teaching the Torah to his community." Forty years later Dr. Belkin's analysis is still accurate no matter what kind of rabbi the person is -- Orthodox or not; congregational or institutional. Zucker does not even mention Dr. Belkin's article in the bibliography.
Three other books on the topic of the American rabbinate that the Library owns are :
Herring, Basil, editor. The Rabbinate as Calling and Vocation : models of rabbinic leadership : a project of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Northvale, NJ : Jason Aronson, 1991. Polner, Murray. Rabbi : the American experience. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. Zeitlin, Joseph. Disciples of the Wise : the religious and social opinions of American rabbis. New York : Teachers College, Columbia University, 1945.
1. "The Rabbi," by Samuel Belkin in The Sanctity of the Synagogue, edited by Baruch Litvin. New York, 1959.
© 1998. Last revised October 25, 1998