Monday, January 16, 2006

No Pedestals Allowed (unless, of course, I put them there)

I was just checking out RenReb's site and read her very humorous post on saving Rochelle Krich's Molly Blume series and to a lesser extent, answering the question of whether or not she and her husband (the rabbi) argue.

And I just had to do a little writing of my own on this second part (not that saving Molly isn't important, too - in fact, please take a brief moment to save Molly by visiting bn.com or amazon.com or your local independent bookseller and support another author because we authors NEED your support or we won't continue to get published and then there'll be no more of our books to read and while you're there, I'd be ever so happy if you supported me and bought a copy of my book, too, at any of the links to the right! [whew! that was a long parenthetical]).

Okay, so what I really want to write about is pedestals, and people's need to place their clergy on one, and my equally insistent need to remind my protagonist rabbi that there are No Pedestals Allowed and he'd better get used to my not only making him wholly and completely human, but also finding and then exploiting his weaknesses. (Poor guy.)

One of my readers, who is also a devout Christian and read my book because she wanted to learn more about Judaism in a fun non-textbook-y way as a means to understand and appreciate her own faith better (and she said it did, indeed, do that), was aghast at one aspect of the story: David (my protagonist rabbi) was entirely too human.

"But he's a rabbi!" she said, her eyebrows drawn together in disbelief. "He deserves respect!"

"He is respected," I pointed out.

"Well, most of his congregation respects him. But the synagogue president - I hate him, by the way; hate hate hate him! - he doesn't respect David. The worst of it though, is you!"

"Me? What did I do?" Aside from write it, of course.

"You... you had him kissing!"

"Uh, yeah. Guilty as charged. But he was kissing his wife. What's wrong with that?"

"He was kissing! And then there's..." she changed her voice to a whisper, "chapter thirty."

I laughed. Chapter thirty is the shortest chapter in the book, and, well, let's just say there's not a lot of rabbi-ing going on in that chapter. "Yes, there is chapter thirty. Explain to me what the problem is. He has three kids. They didn't appear through immaculate conception."

"But-" She sighed as if I would never get it, "he's a rabbi!"

In truth, I really did get it. When I've gone to see my rabbi, there's a part of me (the more I write of my protagonist rabbi, the smaller that part gets, though) that wants him to focus at least 100% on my issue. I don't want him overtired and wishing he could take a nap, or thinking about lunch, or remembering the fight he had with his wife that morning, or having second thoughts about the d'var Torah he just spent three hours writing. I want my issue to be the only issue in his life for this forty-five minutes. And when I leave his study, he can have a snack or take a snooze or call his wife or make some corrections, but please don't spend time thinking about it while I'm sitting there. I don't want him to be human; I want him to be my rabbi.

I also know how unrealistic this is. Perhaps it's because I used to be a counselor and I know that the people I counseled expected me to be there at least 100% too. If they'd only known that on occasion, I was thinking about when I'd get a bathroom break or regretting my choice of itchy socks. It's not that I didn't care; it's that I'm human, too.

There is, however, something different, unique about clergy. Perhaps it's the popular concept that clergy are somehow closer to G-d than the rest of us mortals. Or maybe it's because we tend to associate anything - or anyone - religious with a sense of otherness (in Hebrew, kadosh). Maybe it's a leftover from times when religion and politics were intertwined and no one dared, ever, question the clergy.

My Christian friend needs to believe that her clergy person is somehow more holy, more religious, more connected to G-d and the universe than she is. It is what enables her to divulge her most embarrassing secrets, her most shaming behaviors, to make things right in her religious world. And that's okay; that works for her.

Maybe it's my own experience, or my different take on the rabbinate, or all the research that went into creating my rabbi protagonist and other characters in or related to the rabbinate (such as their families), or all the effort I went to looking for rabbis' humanity and not their leadership, but that doesn't work for me.

Possibly even to my disadvantage. Because I see the fatigue, I see doubt and indecision and too many demands and not enough time. And I might let that affect my decision of whether to call or not, whether to e-mail a question or not, whether to be yet another congregant who wants to be the center of the rabbi's attention.

When the situation calls for a halachic opinion, you can bet I'm on the phone setting up an appointment. When it's a religious matter, I'm right there on the phone. When I need a Jewish answer to a life question, I'm on the phone... sometimes.

Meanwhile, there are no pedestals in David's immediate future. It's my job to make him credible and sympathetic and human. It's his job to somehow find a way out of the nightmarish situations in which I put him. But he has resources, including his own faith. And he has help: his wife (whom he will kiss [or more] on occasion), his family, his friends, his congregation, and his colleagues.

None of whom have pedestals either.

2 comments:

StepIma said...

it's true, though. (I know I'm responding a few days late to this; I hope that's not against blog etiquette)

But as much as we might want to have a pedestal for our clergy sometimes, especially in times of extreme need, I think it's harder for Jews. We don't have a Pope. We don't have a notion of the Head of the Church... we don't even need a rabbi to perform a marriage ceremony or to lead services - they're essentially expendable. They're a great thing to have, and you need one for other things, obviously. We can't answer shaylas on our own (or shouldn't anyhow ;) -- but truthfully, the only thing separating a rabbi from everyone else is that he learned enough to get smicha. He never got a Call, like ministers and priests are expected to have, and which does set them apart from their congregations. Whereas anyone could do what it takes to be a rabbi (or anyone with a penis, depending on your denomination :) -- which definitely brings that pedestal crashing down to earth, no matter how high the bima is he's speaking from. There are plenty of men who get smicha for the sake of learning, then go on to law school or become businessmen, and never take a pulpit. You don't see that as often within the ministry - when that happens, out comes the word "lapsed."

But I think there's a big difference between reverence and respect. You don't need to revere a rabbi to respect him. He doesn't have to be a holy man, or a Man of G-d, to be a man who understands G-d's words and can interpret them and make them meaningful to you. That's the only role Jews truly require him to play, I think. So I don't think you need to feel apologetic if sometimes your protagonist's pants are around his knees. So long as he always knows what he's talking about when he pulls them up again.

Sheyna Galyan said...

LOL - I love it!

I welcome comments at any time! :grin:

There's a plethora of literature out there about power dynamics and how this pedestal is sometimes a natural outcome of a relationship in which two people are not on equal footing: teacher/student, rabbi/congregant, counselor/client, doctor/patient, etc. Some of that, I'm sure, plays into it as well, particularly where there are inequalities in one's knowledge of, training in, and ability to interpret Jewish laws, practice, and life (among other things).

I remember walking the hallway in elementary school at lunchtime, and passing by the teacher's lounge. The door was open, and two boys were just ahead of me in the hall. One glanced into the lounge and froze, then turned to his friend, eyes wide with shock. "My gosh!" he said, "they EAT!"

And I've heard quite a few stories from rabbis who had to make sure the restroom was empty before they made use of it, after too many people genuinely asked, "What are you doing in here?" :-)