I had the pleasure of spending second day Rosh Hashanah with Shalom B’Harim (Peace in the Mountains), an independent community in the North Georgia mountains, led by lay spiritual mensch and personal friend Mitch Cohen.
Fast forward, and I am at Chabad. The rabbi was nice. It’s Chabad…you kinda know what to expect.
Really, both guys did the same, good job, in their own unique ways. I have no criticism of either of them.
But today I realized something: if we were in a room and I asked a group of Jews to pick the guy they thought really knew his stuff as a spiritual leader, we’d pick our fine bearded friend the Chabad rabbi. Why? Because he’s a rabbi. Simple as that.
I was recently in a debate with a prominent rabbi about what it took to be a spiritual leader. I argued that the world doesn’t need more Torah scholars: what we need are social workers who can lead Kabbalat Shabbat. I told this great Jewish historian, who has written a billion books and is on the History Channel on a semi-regular basis, right to his face, “I don’t give a shiz what you know about ancient Israelite history and near east mythology. What I need from a rabbi is a warm hearted person who will comfort me when I am in pain and G-d isn’t there for me.”
That didn’t go over well.
But to be honest, it’s how I feel. Lay spiritual leaders are given the shaft when it comes to their contribution. Why? Who cares if you didn’t go to school for six years? Steve Jobs (of blessed memory) revolutionized the way we look at mobile technology and computing. I doubt we’d say, “oh what does he know, he’s a hippie vegetarian who dropped out of school!”
Listen, there are plenty of geniuses in the world…especially in the Jewish world. They are all fighting for tenure at lofty Jewish studies programs. They’re collecting unemployment as the pulpit jobs collapse. Heck, some of them are emailing PunkTorah looking for work. Meantime, guys like Mitch are carving out their own place in this world, because they have something important: the wicked combo of guts and heart.
So the next time you’re at a prayer service and someone without a diploma is helping you connect to G-d, ask yourself this question, “does HaShem care if they have a piece of paper and a mountain of school loan debt?”