Thursday, September 06, 2012

Menschiness as Religious Calling

Maybe it's because I'm a PK* but I've got this stubborn belief that people of the cloth need to be, above all, mensches.

"Zay a mensch!" my Grandpa Leon would admonish us, looking like a fierce teddy bear in his wire-rimmed glasses and Winnie-the-Pooh belly. The Yiddish commandment to be a good human being was one of the mantras of my childhood, stated often, modeled by the adults in my life who were unfailingly responsible, fair, honest and decent...often boringly so, in my estimation.

In my childhood neighborhood of Douglaston, NY, it seemed to me that there was a maddening epidemic of menschiness. For evidence of grown-ups being thrillingly bad, I needed to look towards Great Neck (where I went to school), Manhattan (where I aspired to live as soon as possible), or the movies, where all manner of delicious misdeeds were being perpetrated by parents -- divorce, alcoholism, gambling addiction, drug use, adultery, white collar crime.

Locally, it was Vanilla City -- good marriages, intact families, responsible parents, school buses arriving on time, new outfits and shoes for the holidays, business as usual, blah, blah, blah, blah.

(Of course, being the height of the sexual/youth revolution, the local teens conducted their own business, which was far from vanilla. Still, the message from the adult world remained zay a mensch.)

Within this Xanadu, the mensch of all mensches was my father, the charismatic Conservative pulpit rabbi who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late, great American president, John F. Kennedy with his blue eyes, wide forehead and imposing stature. In his social-justice-saturated speeches and empathetic interactions with congregants alike, my dad was wise, kind, caring and committed to practicing what he preached. More than anyone I know, he walked the walk.

To this day, I have never seen another person bring as much comfort to the bereaved or throw a lifeline to the despondent or be such a loyal spouse and parent. The ultimate badge of my dad's popular appeal is that even the rebellious teens of Douglaston loved him.

As a rabbi, he was a rock star of righteousness.

Decades later, the retired rabbi and psychologist still plies his menschlichkeit from his impromptu pulpit -- the hospital bed at the rehab center where he has graduated to, following hip replacement surgery last week -- being kind and appreciative to the staff, his roommate, his family and visitors alike.

And when I shared with him, earlier this morning, a disturbing story of a religious leader whose ruthlessness was rapidly becoming one of the most striking features of their personality, he asked why no one had publicly censured them.

Fear, I opined.

Of what? he pressed.

Of what, indeed. Even ruthless people are mortal.

I have been shaped enormously by my upbringing as the daughter of a righteous rabbi and the granddaughter of a rabbi who preached the gospel of menschlichkeit. Rather than run in horror from people of the cloth, I have actually gravitated towards work with religious leaders, gratified by the menschiness of most I have worked with.

As a PK, I will readily admit that my expectations for clergy are high.

But I believe I am right to expect sterling character of someone who bears the title of spiritual leader.

Obviously, it is no chidush** that clergy are people too, with needs, wants, insecurities and flaws and it is wrong to have unrealistic expectations.  Over the past few decades, we have seen just how flawed clergy can be. As with the general population, the spectrum of clerical misconduct that has come to light ranges wildly -- from mild misdeeds to outright criminality, including sexual abuse, theft and even murder.

What is interesting to me is that another category of clerical misconduct is often overlooked and that is behavior and speech that is rude, hostile, abusive, dishonest, mean-spirited, obnoxious and unkind.

I am not referring here to a one-off intemperate utterance or an isolated instance of poor judgment or a rare, rash decision made under great duress.

I am not wagging my finger at ordinary shortcomings, missteps and failures that are part of being human.

What I am talking about is an ongoing pattern of inexcusable behavior that makes you wonder why the person in question chose to be a practitioner of the ultimate people profession.

Those who have been ordained as men and women of God have an overarching responsibility -- call it a calling -- to be mensches.

The way I see it, the misuse of one's status as spiritual leader is a grave violation that demands an outcry from a congregation of good people.

Or a few brave individuals.

Or even one lone voice.

So here's another lesson from my childhood, this one from my mother: People who are ugly on the inside cannot conceal their true nature from eventually springing forth. Meanness plays on a person's mouth, turning it into a permanent sneer. Hatred mottles facial skin. A Machiavellian mind puts sharp grooves in one's forehead. Scheming squints one's eyes.

In other words, the failure to act like a mensch is not an invisible affliction. It is a character defect that one ends up wearing, a mask of metaphysical and moral ugliness.

*Preacher's kid
**New teaching