10/22/2014 10:07 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

3 Reasons Clergy Matter Now More Than Ever


Last week began with some depressing news. A prominent rabbi was charged with horrendous acts and an awful rabbinic abuse of power. And The Huffington Post featured a thoughtful piece about why the views of clergy may not really matter. It's enough to make some of us question our vocation.

But this week I also officiated at six funerals. I was reminded at each of them of why I do what I do. I was reminded that clergy can be, in the beautiful Hebrew phrase klei kodesh, vessels of holiness. Death can call out the best within us, and help us teach about living life with meaning.

Indeed, rabbis, pastors and priests do not matter because what we say is infallible truth. We do not matter because we have some privileged access to God or esoteric knowledge. We matter because we can transmit truths and practices that bring meaning to life. Those truths often stand in contrast to the conventions of the larger culture. In fact, religion at its best teaches ideals and practices that are counter-cultural. Here are few examples.

1. Gratitude: A core truth of many faiths is that life is a gift. It is not something we are entitled to. Had the galaxy not aligned precisely as it did and stars not explode exactly so 14 billion years ago, we would not be here. Do marketers and politicians tell us this truth? No, clergy do.

At every funeral where I officiate, I remind the mourners that the life of their loved was a gift God gave to the world. In however long or short a time that person lived, they touched us.

Faith does not measure a life by its achievements. It measures it by its existence. Life is a gift.

2. Death is not the end: I recently finished a magnificent book of conversations with the late Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the enigmatic and counter-cultural Orthodox Jewish mystic who created the Jewish renewal movement. The book was about the "December" years of life, the time when we are nearing the end of our time on earth. The purpose of the book was to give readers a spirituality for confronting death, a knowledge of profound richness its reality can give our minds and spirits.

One of his insights struck me deeply. "Most people who talk about the afterlife," he said, "don't know what they're talking about, because the afterlife is not felt with the body -- it's felt with the soul. It's being with God, and there's a real presence; it's not merely an idea."

In other words, the scientific perspective does not tell us about the afterlife. The spiritual one does. We need voices in our culture that remind us that life is not just about what we can accumulate or prove. It is about what we feel and savor.

3. "Text-people" always teach us more than textbooks: Fifty years ago the late great Abraham Joshua Heschel said we do not need more religious textbooks. We need more "text-people."

We need people -- role models and exemplars -- who teach us what it means to live a life of faith and responsibility. We need people who can teach us the truths we read about in sacred texts.

Too often clergy fail. But more often than not, they succeed. They may not be perfect. None of us are. But even when we do not have all the answers, we can model the struggle and teach the necessity of living a life of meaning. As my friend Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove put it, "Even rabbis don't have it all figured out -- so we certainly don't expect others to have done so. Our commitment is to wrestle with God's will -- every day of our lives."