For people of faith, or for those with traditional bents, there’s a real danger in getting to know their clergy too well.
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It began years ago when the rabbi said, “Fuck.”
I was stunned at first but didn’t show it – I just nodded and responded appropriately. After all, the profanity wasn’t aimed at me – in a moment of anger, the rabbi had been expressing his frustration at somebody else’s ineptitude.
Actually, I was very pleased. It felt to me a sign of trust. The rabbi was comfortable enough to speak freely in my presence; he wasn’t playing a role of any sort; he was acting much like any other normal human being would be under trying circumstances.
Me? I often curse under my breath when I’m upset and even struggle with whether or not to include profanity in my writing. To what extent should my prose and poetry reflect my natural, spoken voice? Am I demeaning myself by using unseemly language? Papa, for example, used to curse in my presence, and this only amused me… but I find myself very reluctant to do so around my daughter.
… [Papa] also had a very crass sense of humor and many of his most common expressions were quite inappropriate. In fact, I recall him saying (on more than one occasion) that I should know how to curse in Russian.– The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist #27, Jan. 18, 2019
In any case, the cursing was only the beginning of it.
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The most professionally successful clergy are those who are best at promoting themselves. If one ends up on the receiving end of their self-marketing, one may well become convinced that these particular clergypeople are agents of Truth, a profound solace in our whirling world. Such individuals are likely to eventually find themselves paying part of those clergypeople’s salaries.
Rarely is the successful clergyperson alone in buffing and selling her image. The more successful the religious leader, the less likely that is. In today’s seemingly endless torrent of media and online communications, many clergy increasingly rely upon marketing professionals. These are the ‘disseminators’, for lack of a better word; and the most effective among them tend to have close access to their clients: the clergy.
I have been a rabbi’s most trusted disseminator and have been a part of marketing religious wisdom and solace. Now I can never unsee religion for what it is: a product.
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In the modern world, marketing is everything because everything (and everybody) has become a product. Donald Trump became President of the United States of America by capitalizing on his most precious asset, one in which he had invested for many decades more than in any other, namely: his brand. It’s not entirely fair of me to expect more of religion than I do of sundry other products, but in this I am not alone. Consider, after all, religion’s ultimate claim and the ramifications thereof.
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Actually, I love the rabbi to this day and do not fault him in the slightest for ruining my foolish naiveté. True faith doesn’t require any facade, but apparently I do. The rabbi himself is a true mensch – he does the title ‘Rabbi’ great honor. In his case, the marketing pitch was honest: the rabbi possesses love of God, kindheartedness, wisdom, open-mindedness, knowledge, and much, much more. He supports and teaches countless people.
But it wasn’t just my ‘dissemination’ experience that did it… it was also the learning.
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As sincere and learned as a religious leader may be, the tools of his trade are most effective when his laity is unlearned. The more comfortable one feels with religious texts and teachings, the more one comes to realize that today’s clergypeople (and the generations before them) are ultimately manipulating traditional sources to imbue their personal beliefs with “Divine” (or at least “ancient”) validity.
Having heard rabbis all over the political spectrum using source texts to make their cases or promote their causes, and having read many of the same sources in their original contexts, changed me profoundly. Clearly, there was either no “Truth” at all, or else the “Truth” can only provide humankind with a mere handful of very basic principles.
Also, while I was decently adept at learning the original sources (in Hebrew or Aramaic), I was especially good at splicing them together to imbue my own ideas with seeming validity. After the nth occasion of receiving compliments upon my interpretations of religious sources, I became increasingly cynical, for I knew that I was no rabbi.
I was no rabbi, but I realized that with my marketing and speaking skills, I had the capacity to become a professionally successful charlatan like so many others. Also, I came to understand how false many religious leaders truly are, and my cynicism morphed into deep-seated suspicion.
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I don’t actually blame the rabbi, but for people of faith, or for those with traditional bents, there’s a real danger in getting to know their clergy too well.