The Reverend Al Sharpton preached his first sermon at the age of four. But he was not formally ordained a clergyman until much later, when he was nine. The alleged rabbinic ordination of the “spiritually progressive” Michael Lerner of California (like our new President, thrice married) cannot be verified at all. Moreover, a few minutes spent on Google will present anyone so minded with many opportunities for achieving rapid clerical ordination, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Other, with little effort and at little or no cost. On the other hand, the more demanding New York based “Rabbinical Seminary International” (under the same management as the “All Faiths Seminary International”) does require three long days of in-house training and a fee of $5000 for full, presumably legal ordination as rabbi.
Such aberrations within the clerical calling are not the norm for the whole profession. But they point to more general problems. First, not everyone can tell the impostor from the real thing. Second, as is true in the medical profession, the most harmful of the charlatans often carry legitimate credentials. And third, the line between the specious and the genuine is not always easily ascertainable.
The basic, insurmountable problem with the clerical profession lies in its borderless area of alleged competence. True, the major religions all have a body of scripture and a further body of ritual that its clergy is expected to master. But this core of expected competence is just the beginning. In and by themselves these core subjects may qualify a person as an expert, perhaps a scholar of religion. Ordination as clergy, on the other hand, involves something much larger, viz. the assumption of a spiritual aura which is never explicitly delimited.
In Roman Catholicism, this aura comes closest to being precisely defined. A Catholic priest is said to have such supernatural powers as the forgiveness of sin and the power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. In other religions the clerical aura is more implied than expressed, but my Conservative Jewish denomination holds that a local rabbi, alone, has the power of mara d’atra, the power to decide on Jewish law in his locality.
More broadly, the aura of the clergy is generally understood to involve overall wisdom and righteousness.
Wisdom: there seems to be an expectation that a clergyman’s advice is somehow superior to that of a random acquaintance. Clergymen are known to dispense advice on how to lead better lives in their sermons and in private conversation, even though there is nothing in the training or background of a clergyman that would lead us to assume that, qua clergyman, his wisdom is more reliable than, say, your mother’s. Often the clerical advice is wildly inappropriate to anyone with specialized experience. I remember an occasion some years ago when I was present at a rabbi’s exhortation to his flock to be more productive in their professional lives. No doubt aware of the fact that there were some academics in his audience, the rabbi opined that one should work on and complete “that paper you are working on.” I noticed a junior professor who gave a knowing smile. How apt, how true, how helpful, she seemed to be saying to herself. But to anyone with some experience in academia, the urge to publish, while perhaps helpful in furthering a career, is more often than not an urge to perpetuate intellectual malfunction. A more thoughtful advice would have been to study more, to do better research, and to refrain from publishing until you have something important to say. In short, the rabbi’s advice was conventional, careerist, and basically unethical.
Clergymen are also presumed by those who respect them to lead exemplary lives. The ones I have encountered have as many failed marriages, narcissistic behavior, and inadequate people skills as anyone else. And yet we are expected to show them more deference than we show the waiter in a restaurant. Why ?
Righteousness: here I address myself particularly to the do-gooders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, but also to the liberal Protestant groups, the Unitarians, the Universalists, the (liberal) Presbyterians, etc., although conservative groups have their own forms of such sanctimony.
The job descriptions for rabbis that I have found on the websites of the Conservative and Reform Jewish seminaries all include references to a rabbi’s obligation to advocate tikkun olam, i.e. healing of the world; to work for social justice; to be, in short, a political and social activist. But the curricula of these schools do not include any in-depth study of social or economic problems, and certainly no technical tools — for instance social statistics — to analyze the social problems of the day. In other words, these clergymen are required to be dilettantes. Go ahead, they are told, you must ceaselessly opine on social issues, but never, ever, must you learn anything about, say, multivariate analysis. I have sat through many an ignorant discourse by clergy, citing mangled statistics and misinterpreted bits of social data, all delivered in tones of officious self-righteousness. Does this kind of social discourse serve the cause of social betterment ? Or rather, as I would argue, the very opposite ?
We are left with the problem of aura. By virtue of his anointment or ordination, a clergyman is often presumed to have powers of intellect and character that he obviously does not possess. Of course we also encounter a certain ambivalence. Perhaps for the very reason of the presumed aura, there is sometimes a tendency to be hypercritical of clergy. The minister or priest or rabbi when perceived to fall short may be judged more harshly than would someone not expected to have the aura.
Whatever the outcome, it seems to me that the clerical aura that comes with ordination, originating as it did in an earlier era, causes misapprehensions, false expectations, and foolishly sanctimonious social action. At least outside of the Catholic Church, we would be better off without the institution of ordination. Protestant and Jewish congregations could hire religious professionals on the basis of demonstrated knowledge and skills, without any presumption of extraordinary wisdom or righteousness. Insofar as there may be a need for “spiritual” leadership beyond professional skill, this would have to be demonstrated in each case by action and behavior and examined critically and skeptically, rather than deduced from pieces of paper issued by a seminary.