Category Archives: social justice

The Clergyman’s Aura

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.

The Conceits of Social Justice

soc just jews plot

The Conceits of “Social Justice”

The year was 1940, and I began, a boy of fourteen summers, my career as a voyeur of fringe groups.

Sundays were a particular treat. In the afternoon the old Socialist Labor Party hosted lectures in an Eight Avenue hotel. There was much talk of industrial unionism and other forms of very democratic arrangement, even though the Party itself (now all but defunct) was ruled with an iron hand, for fifty-five years, by the apparatchik Arnold Petersen (1885-1976).

That meeting ended early in the afternoon, to the sound of the SLP’s own version of the Internationale. But no sooner was the Final Conflict concluded than I headed one block east, to Broadway in the fifties, where the Christian Front of Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) was picketing radio station WMCA. The station styled itself “at the top of the dial,” but to Fr Coughlin’s folks it was “at the bottom of the pile.” It seems that the station had incurred the Father’s displeasure by banishing his anti-Semitic rants from its airways. I must say that I did enjoy this picketing show, more so than the staid SLP lectures to the west.

And I learned, for the first time, about Social Justice. This was Fr. Coughlin’s pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic magazine until the Roosevelt administration, with the help of a friendly bishop, found ways of silencing the “radio priest.” Looking back now, I must say that I was never struck by the enormity of the conceit — the enormity of the falsehood — of presenting the Christian Front ideology as a call for justice, social or otherwise.

Now here we are, some seventy-five years later, and “social justice” (SJ) is once again what zealots say they are after. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Marxist slogans like “class struggle,” “socialist revolution,” “anti-Fascism,” etc., are much less frequent in the self-styled Left than the shrill self-righteous clamor for “social justice.”

It is now almost 30 years ago that the distinguished political scientist Guenter Lewy published his Peace and Revolution. The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism (1988) in which he traced the slide of pacifist groupings, more particularly the Quakers, from a principled pacifist refusal to taking sides in war to a shrill anti-Americanism and an equally shrill agitation against Israel. Today’s Quakers see grave violations of Palestinian human rights but cannot spare any sympathy for Jewish victims of Arab terror. They see human rights abuses in America but not in Communist China. This new stance, which had its beginnings roughly at the time of the Viet Nam war, is emblematic of “social justice” of our day. More than anything, it means enlistment in certain very selected “progressive causes” regardless of the moral context of this engagement. And at the same time, it means a determined blindness to basic humanitarian issues.

The prominent “social justice” causes of today include homosexual rights, “Black lives matter,” and the “boycott, divestment, sanction” (BDS) movement to delegitimize the state of Israel. What these movements all have in common is that they are movements of enmity; they are directed against selected target groups which are most generally labelled as “right wing.” In this these movements stand in stark contrast to efforts that seek to improve the human condition by, for instance, eliminating poverty and disease or, to give another example. efforts to promote the education of slum dwellers. Humanitarian efforts of this kind, insofar as they are not directed against “right wing” enemies, stand outside the purview of “social justice.”

The current SJ campaign for the legalization of homosexual marriage illustrates the irrationality of all the different strands of SJ. There is a rational case that can made for the legality of such marriages, based on the particular circumstances of homosexual couples. But it is unreasonable to stipulate an overall “human right” that demands “social justice” for such arrangements. If we were indeed obliged, on general moral or ethical grounds, to support the right of anyone to marry anyone, we would have to support, to give just one example, the “man-boy” arrangement which the German Green Party did indeed advocate some years ago. If “social justice” were a meaningful imperative in this area, what about such justice for polygamists, or, for that matter, for those whose tastes run to inter-species arrangements ? The self-righteousness of gay marriage advocates who see a general “social justice” on their side, but who resist, just like the rest of us, the demands of polygamists, pedophiles, incestors, etc. etc., points to the irrationality and inherent hypocrisy of the whole “social justice” enterprise.

The most prominent SJ movement of our day, perhaps, is the one self-styled as Black Lives Matter (BLM). I have analyzed this phenomenon in two previous postings, here and here. Very briefly, this movement protests certain well-publicized cases in which Black people were killed by police. But Black-on-Black homicide, which BLM pointedly ignores , is 1,127 times more frequent, in an average year. Moreover, a recent New York Times analysis shows that “eliminating the biases of all police officers would do little to materially reduce the total number of African-American killings.” In short, BLM, one of the preeminent SJ movements of our day, is simply not concerned with a very real and very pressing humanitarian crisis, i.e. the crushing disadvantages of life in the Black ghetto.

I will not here dwell on the moral hypocrisy of the anti-Israel BDS movement; too much has been written on this topic for me to be able to offer new insights. Put briefly, BDS pounces on all violence emanating from the Jewish side, completely ignoring the violence and terror on the other. Moreover, BDS is absolutely silent on the humanitarian disaster of the Arab populations who live under Islamist rule.

The City of New York is replete with a number of self-styled social justicers. There are Jews Against Israel of various stripes. There are Quakers and Brooklyn-for-Peacers, Queers Against This or That … unlike the days when the old Communist Party ran all such shows, the zealot scene is now full of independent operators. Among the more exotic of these groups there is the Granny Peace Brigade, earnest old ladies (though, I must say, generally younger than I), who, very much like Quakers, see much criminality in the governments of the United States and Israel. Problems with Islamists ? Not that they have heard of. If you wish to test the earnestness of their humanitarian commitments, ask them about the girls kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram. No, if these ladies have heard of these girls at all, they are of no concern to Peace Grannies.

At the time of the bloody Bolshevik revolution with all its conceit of bettering the human condition, a critic remarked that one single nurse in a hospital accomplishes far more in that regard than does Lenin with all his Bolsheviks. And so, mutatis mutandis, there is much more humanitarian value in the work of those who strive for the elimination of hunger and poverty and ignorance than in all the “social justice” movements taken together. In any case, the former will do less harm than the latter.