Professional Leaders: Why and How

Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1992, Vol. XX, No. 2, pp 3-5. 

The oldest profession in the world is the clergy. Originally the clergy spent most of their time in ecstatic trances or in negotiations with the gods. Along the way they picked up other tasks. They invented literacy and started schools.  They offered refuge to the poor and started welfare.  

They took over rites of passage and made them   religious. In time their work included not only tasks that were intrinsically religious but also many tasks that were accidentally religious, tasks that could have been done just as easily by secular people. Nevertheless, the public associated the secular functions with religion and with the clergy.  

When the secular revolution dethroned religion, one would have thought that a secular clergy would emerge to replace the religious clergy. But that did not happen. While secular educators largely took over education and secular civil servants largely took over welfare, the role of guardian of community values, including the right to play “master of ceremonies” at certain community events, remained with the traditional clergy.  

Why?  

The answer lies in the obsessive hatred of so many secularists toward organized religion. They hated priests and rabbis. They hated churches and synagogues. The fuel of anticlericalism energized many liberal and socialist movements. In socialist circles, anticlericalism was accompanied by an equally   obsessive egalitarianism, which refused to allow anybody to play leader. (Of course, since leaders are inevitable, the refusal to define the parameters of leadership turned many socialist leaders into unofficial dictators.) 

Negative secularism is driven by the need not to do anything that religious people might choose to do (short of eating, sleeping, and sex). A secular clergy was anathema to secular zealots, not because there was anything intrinsically religious in what such a clergy would be expected to do,  but because of refusal to admit that some  of the social functions performed by traditional religion might be useful. 

This negative secularism led to the death of the first secularist movements. Because their leaders were unwilling or unable to serve the personal and community needs of the members in a professional manner, their bourgeois children turned back to the religious clergy to handle life cycle ceremonies,   connections with  ethnic roots, and the inculcation of values in the young. Once the zeal of the socialist revolutionary was replaced by the indifference of the bourgeois professional, no dedicated full-time leaders remained to transmit the secularist message. The freethinkers fizzled as much from the lack of professional “missionaries” as from the obsolescence of their utopian rationalism. 

Negative secularism was rampant in Jewish ranks in the last century. Secular congregations were unthinkable. Secular rabbis, or even ceremonialists, were inconceivable. Secular professional leaders (other than teachers) were trayf. After socialism died, there was no one, in a world of middle-class individualism and specialization, to carry on the ideological and organizational drive of the secular Jewish movement. 

When Humanistic Judaism emerged in 1963, its ideology was not very different from the world view of the Yiddishist and Zionist movements that preceded it. The major difference was our commitment to use and develop professional leaders. We believed that, without a secular clergy, there would be no effective secular communities and no effective way to be given credibility in the Jewish community. 

We began with rabbis, because the first Humanistic Jewish communities (the Birmingham Temple in Michigan and Congregation Beth Or in Illinois) had rabbinic leadership. We also recognized that we needed professional mentors and spokespersons whose stature in the wider community would equal the status accorded Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis. (The title was secondary to the role. Many Reform rabbis, for many years, preferred the title “Doctor” to “Rabbi.”) 

Secular rabbis (or scholar-leaders) would have been ideal for most of our communities, had they been available. Since we did not have a training school of our own, we relied on defectors from the Reform movement. And the number of Reform rabbis who were believing humanists, who were willing to testify publicly to their beliefs, who would be willing to be pioneer developers of small communities with little financial compensation, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even most of these rabbis were too ambivalent when put to the test. 

What we needed we did not have. We could either wait until the right people emerged, with the risk that we would be waiting for Godot and disappearing from the inertia of waiting. Or we could go ahead and train the people we needed. We chose the second alternative. 

It was clear to us that we needed two kinds of professional leaders. We needed full-time rabbis or scholar-leaders to lead large communities. And we needed part-time mentors and guides to serve small communities. These part-time leaders could be drawn from the many talented volunteers who already worked for their groups. 

All they needed was a profession and a training program. 

The “pararabbi” was called a madrikh (feminine, madrikha; plural, madrikhim; in Yiddish, vegvayzer), a Hebrew word meaning guide. The madrikh would serve as a combination educator, ceremonialist, counselor, program planner, and spokesperson. He or she would be certified and trained by the movement and would be subject to the professional discipline of a professional code.  

The training, established in 1988 in North America and Israel, became the major project of the new International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Students who successfully complete nine intensive seminars are designated madrikhim.  Certification is granted by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews. Madrikhim serve communities all over North America.  They teach children and adults. They conduct bar and bat mitsvas. They officiate at weddings. They offer philosophic guidance to their members. They represent their communities to the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. 

In 1991 the program for training Humanistic rabbis and secular scholar-leaders was established. One student has enrolled. In addition to Institute seminars and extensive field work, a doctorate in Judaic studies in a secular university is required for certification. The secular madrikh and the secular rabbi complement each other. They are two levels of Humanistic Jewish professional leadership. 

We have now begun to provide for our own future. We cannot depend on the “refugee” leaders of other Jewish movements.  We cannot rely on the well- intentioned efforts of untrained volunteers. We need trained leaders who know that their work is a profession and who receive recognition of their professional achievements from the people they serve. In time many madrikhim will evolve into full-time leaders. In time, both rabbis and madrikhim will form a corps of visible “missionaries” to sustain existing communities and to create new ones. In time, the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds will come to accept our professional leadership in the same way that they learned to accept Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. 

A negative secular Judaism must be replaced by positive Secular Humanistic Judaism. The principle of a positive Judaism is guided by the necessity to serve the real needs of real people and the courage to be innovative when the movement we believe in demands it.