David Bernstein gives a truly horrific account of the funeral of his girlfriend's mother, who was Jewish and lived in Israel. Apparently, Israeli law requires that a state-sanctioned, orthodox rabbi preside over all funerals (despite this not being a requirement of Jewish law), and Mr. Bernstein describes in detail how oppressive and obfuscated the ritual was, and how upsetting the entire experience was for himself and his girlfriend.

Apparently, the ceremony I saw was typical. I suspect that many rabbis in Israel don't explain anything because they want the public to be ignorant. They rely on this ignorance for their political power. For example, the Orthodox rabbinate insists on having a monopoly over marriages and funerals even though there is nothing in Jewish law that requires, or even suggests, the presence of a rabbi at these functions. In Jewish law and tradition, a rabbi has no greater authority or privileges than any other observant individual. For the Israeli rabbinate to demand the continuation of its monopoly makes no sense under Jewish law, a fact that Israelis of my acquaintance are not aware of. To take another example, many otherwise non-religious Israelis, especially Sephardim, go to "special" rabbis for blessings; there's one famous for helping infertility, one for serious illness, etc. Others go to kabbalists, who basically add religious mumbo-jumbo to traditional fortune-telling scams. The organized rabbinate should discourage such anti-Judaic nonsense, but as far as I can tell the situation is quite the opposite.

In Israel, then, the rabbinate functions something like, from what I've read, how the pre-Vatican II Catholic clergy often apparently functioned: as intermediaries seen to be necessary for ritual, who mumble ancient prayers and follow ancient customs that no one really understands, and that no one bothers to explain. (Though I suppose Israelis at least understand some ancient Hebrew, unlike Catholics who didn't know any Latin.) Anyway, the Catholics have democratized (and translated) their rituals, but still use priests as intermediaries, and that's fine for Catholics, but it's completely against Jewish tradition for rabbis to establish themselves in that role. Rabbis are supposed to be teachers, helping the laity understand and follow traditions, not obscuring what they are doing the way the rabbi at the funeral did. For example, I noticed that the rabbi followed at least one superstition that I felt dishonored the deceased, and in fact made me a little ill. Had the family been asked, I'm sure they would have told the rabbi not to do it, and adhering to such superstitions are in any event contrary to Jewish law.

The rabbi's obscurantism, adherence to superstition (or, more precisely, pagan superstitions), failure to learn or inquire about the deceased at all (he had to ask her name at the gravesite!), combined with the utter sexism of the service, and the lack of familial participation in it except at the rabbi's command, really distressed me.

This sort of formalistic insistence on incomprehensible ritual isn't uncommon for Judaism or Christianity (at least), and was one of the principle motivations for the Reformation. In fact, Jesus made similar complaints about the rabbis of his time, as well.
Luke 11:46, 52-54
46. Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
53. When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54. waiting to catch him in something he might say.
That's quite a powerful indictment of chief religious leaders of his time, and we should always be on guard of any leaders, civil or religious, who try to control us through the claim and exercise of special privilege.

Modern Pretestant ecclesiology largely lines up with Mr. Bernstein's description of the proper role for Jewish rabbis. Pastors and leaders exist to teach, guide, and serve, but hold no special spiritual authority under God and wield no peculiar power. As a Christian, my relationship and fellowship with God are not dependent on any other human being; no one has any power or authority to dictate spiritual rules or laws to me, or to speak in God's name and command my obedience. Rather, God speaks to me specifically and individually, and my relationship with him is wholly sufficient without any human intermediary.

Christian churches are conglomerates of individual believers, each is solely accountable to God for their actions. God uses such a group of believers as a corporate body to do his will in the world, and all such organizations need leaders in various capacities, but those in leadership roles are required by Jesus to be the most humble -- they are servents, not masters.

Mark 10:42-45
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
This goes against human nature, of course, and there are a great many so-called spiritual leaders who do not live by these principles.



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