There’s a compelling piece in this morning’s eJewishPhilanthropy about the sad reality of how little Jews think of their rabbis. The writer, Adir Glick, refers to a survey by the Elijah Interfaith Institute (no link provided, unfortunately) that shows that Jews have the lowest opinion of their religious leadership among all world religions. Glick links this to Jews’ rejection of their own religious life and embrace of others, such as Buddhism.

What struck me the most in reading the article, however, was the way in which Glick contrasted rabbinic or religious leadership with secular leadership within the Jewish community: “Religious leaders are more than simply teachers, community organizers, or professors – they are spiritual shepherds,” he writes. He relates that at a conference in Israel he once saw “how a Burmese Buddhist monk stayed up late every night to teach Burmese foreign workers, who came from across Israel to sit on the grass and listen. I call this selflessness and dedication religious leadership.”

A little further on in the article, Glick asks, “where can we turn for spiritual and moral leadership, if not to our rabbis? Religious education is more than an academic pursuit.” [Emphasis added.]

Jews, according to Glick, have too-easily embraced the notion that our leaders are simply human. When we allow ourselves to have loftier conceptions of our leadership, we inevitably wind up being disappointed. For Glick, the recent story of Rabbi Mordechai Elon is proof of this. But the list could include any number of rabbis who have committed criminal acts, or, on a much lesser scale, simply let down their flocks by failing to be everything they wanted them to be.

Avot d’Rebbe Natan, a medieval commentary on Pirkei Avot, opens with a discussion of Moses’s unique status as the receiver of the Torah from God. In particular, the commentary focuses on Exodus 24:16: “And the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud.” Rabbi Natan observes: “Why did God’s word not descend on Moses for six days? In order to rid his body of all food and drink, so that he would be holy like the ministering angels.” Rabbi Matya ben Harash, however, disagrees: “My teacher,” he says, “it was to humble him, so that he would receive the words of Torah with awe and dread, with terror and trembling, as it is said, ‘Serve the Lord in fear, rejoice in trembling’ (Ps. 2:11).”

The debate here is about the place of physicality in this moment when the human meets the divine. For Rabbi Natan, Moses must have been free of all bodily concerns in order to do what he did, to hear the word of God. After all, Moses himself states in next week’s parasha, “When I went up on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD had made with you, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water.” (Deut. 9:9) Rabbi Natan therefore understands that, just as God changes God’s own nature in making the unfathomable divine word into something humans can understand (the notion of immanence), Moses changes the notion of humanness, by transcending the physical needs of the human body (the idea of transcendence).

Rabbi Matya, however, sees a different emphasis. While he cannot argue with the words in Deuteronomy about neither eating nor drinking for 40 days and nights, he sees the focus of this experience less on the physical aspect than on the emotional one. The miracle of the moment is not so much a human being becoming an angel through deprivation of food and water, but that a human being could become so humbled as to be able to truly hear God’s word and transmit it to others.

It seems to me that the ancient debate between Rabbi Natan and Rabbi Matya informs Glick’s article, because the question at the root of their discussion gets to our conception of religious leadership. The reason Pirkei Avot opens with the words “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua” is to establish the chain of authority and tradition from the Rabbis of the Mishnah back to God. The ancient Rabbis, and we who claim to be their contemporary inheritors, thus look to Moses as our model. So how we think of that model matters. For Rabbi Natan, that model is rooted in a physical miracle that makes Moses a remote figure to those of us who cannot fast for forty days on end. For Rabbi Matya, the model is about a type of psycho-emotional-spiritual humility that, while extremely difficult, is not impossible. For Rabbi Natan, Moses is something more than human at this moment. For Rabbi Matya, he is still a human being–but one with whose sense of self has been radically altered.

When Glick writes that “Religious education is more than academic pursuit,” and that “Religious leaders are more than simply teachers, community organizers, or professors – they are spiritual shepherds,” he is drawing on this tradition. Readers of my blog know that I think the university experience, and the values of the academy, have tremendously shaped Jewish life and sensibilities in the last century. While the academy once partook of a Hegelian “Great Man” theory of history, academics have, for a good while now, settled into an image of themselves as pretty much regular people. They have a job to do, and that job needs to be balanced with the demands of family and community. They are regular folks who happen to be exceptionally well-educated.

Among many of my Modern Orthodox and more liberal rabbinic colleagues, this could also describe how we view ourselves: We’re human, we have spouses and children, we eat and sleep and go to the bathroom. We have to balance our professional lives with our personal lives. We’re regular folks who happen to have gone to “Jew school” for a long time. We view ourselves this way, and we wrestle with how to present our public personae in light of it: “How much of our personal lives do we share with our congregants?” is a regular question in rabbinic circles. “Should rabbis and congregants be friends?”

These would not be questions, of course, unless our congregants wanted something more of us than just being highly educated regular folks. Therefore Glick is right: We want our rabbis to be something more than regular. How could it be that Moses was just a regular person? And if Moses is our model, then our rabbi should be at least something like him.

And yet, what virtually all of us from the Modern Orthodox on left share, is having gone to college. We share a secular sensibility that is greatly influenced by that experience, part of which, today, says that we’re all regular folks. We may be more educated, we may have particular personality traits, but fundamentally we’re all pretty much regular folks, even us rabbis.

I’ll admit: I’m torn. Agreed that Moses is our model. But which Moses? Superhuman Moses? Superhumble Moses? Is it possible that there’s a less-than-super Moses to be our model? I’m not willing to go that far. I aspire to be a model of piety, a kiddush Hashem in the tradition of the Talmud, upon whom people look and say, Torah is a wonderful thing, because it leads people to live good lives (Yoma 86a). But I have also been shaped by the secular culture of the university, and I struggle with the notion of self-fulfillment at its core. Perhaps that’s why I spend so much of my time and energy trying to imagine a model of university education that is less about self-fulfillment than about responsibility and duty. In any case, I’m not willing to say that any of us–rabbis or anyone else–should be satisfied with being ‘simply human.’ The Torah wants more of us than that.

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