Dancing with the Rabbis?

On April 3, under the auspices of the American Jewish University, in its Gindi Auditorium, five Los Angeles rabbis competed with one another in an evening titled “Dancing With the Rabbis.” As reported in this newspaper, the sellout crowd loved the evening.

May I respectfully suggest — and I do mean respectfully, as I know that good intentions prompted the evening — that this be the “once in a lifetime” event that some who attended called it. It should not be repeated.

I say this in order to preserve the dignity of the rabbinate. When I was a child, the rabbi was an esteemed figure, by far the most esteemed figure in our Jewish community. Even though it was part and parcel of Jewish religious life to criticize the rabbi for what he said or didn’t say in his Shabbat sermon, we would stand up on those occasions when the rabbi walked by our row in shul. And not only did we not address our rabbi by his first name when we spoke to him, we never referred to him by his first name when we talked about him.

I have preserved this custom to this day. I address all rabbis by their title. In public, I do not even make exceptions for close friends who are rabbis, and in private I only make exceptions when the person is a close friend. I also call my physicians “doctor.” One of the characteristics of conservatism is conserving, and this is one of the many past values conservatives such as myself seek to preserve.

Beginning in the 1960s, this attitude, like so many other values in American, Jewish and Western life, was overthrown. Many non-Orthodox rabbis adopted the liberal egalitarian spirit and sought to end hierarchy wherever possible. They, their congregants and their students were to be on the same level. “Don’t call me ‘Rabbi,’ ” Jews were admonished. “Call me ‘Joe.’ ” And, so, the rabbi went from above us to one of us.

I guess one can say that with “Dancing With the Rabbis,” the movement toward “the rabbi is just one of us” reached its apotheosis. Our rabbis — or at least the rabbis who participated — are just one of the guys or girls. They, too, are hip. No more ivory tower rabbi. Our rabbi is so with it, he will dance with a 22-year-old swimsuit model: In the words of The Jewish Journal, the rabbi “twirls across the dance floor. His beautiful young partner reaches out her hand, and together they do a quick step and spin into each other’s arms.”

Had the rabbis danced with Jews with special needs, I could understand the message sent. But what was this message?

Though I was not present at the event, my opposition is to the concept, not the execution. I don’t think I am alone in the Los Angeles Jewish community in thinking that this was well-intended but not wise. Not only did no Orthodox rabbi participate — and not only for halachic reasons, I suspect — but some non-Orthodox rabbis also refused, and not because they were afraid to dance publicly. When I asked one of the country’s leading Reform rabbis, Rabbi David Woznica of Stephen S. Wise Temple, whether he would have participated had he been asked, he responded that he was asked, and refused.

If nothing else, what we have here is a learning moment. Good people can differ on the wisdom of the evening. But, as I believe that clarity is more important than agreement, it seems clear that we have a liberal-conservative divide here.

The liberal mindset is, first and foremost, one of egalitarianism. The notion of hierarchy is largely rejected. Thus, the rabbi is just like us, and we’ll prove it by having him or her dance with sexy professionals. The conservative mindset is that the rabbi is not, or at least should not be, like everyone else. This is no way means that a rabbi should lead an ascetic life. I would defend any rabbi’s decision to go with his spouse to Las Vegas, gamble and even see a Vegas show there. As regards a rabbi’s private life, I have nothing to say. That is between him and God. But what he does as a rabbi publicly should matter to any Jew who cares about Judaism and about the rabbinate.

Some will see this as an attack on the participating rabbis. It is not. It is a disagreement with their decision to participate and with the American Jewish University’s decision to sponsor the event — an event that ended with a performance by the professional dancers that The Journal described as “so racy that it may have had more than a few members of the audience wondering whether they should clap or head home for a cold shower.”

Moreover, my disagreement emanates solely from a desire to see these and all rabbis guard and preserve the prestige and dignity of their title. When Jews elevate rabbis, the whole Jewish people benefits.

I feel the same about teachers. We need to honor teachers and preserve their prestige. When they come into class wearing shorts or ask students to call them by their first names, they may be hip, but their profession loses prestige.

I am sure the evening was fun. But it was not the kind of fun a Jewish seminary should have sponsored, nor the kind of fun that its rabbis should have engaged in.

I understand the desire of some rabbis to be seen as real and human. But acting on a higher plane in public comes with the job description. You cannot have the reward of great communal respect without acting accordingly. And there are innumerable ways to humanize oneself — had the rabbis, for example, decided to put on a Shakespearean play or even a humorous skit, people would have had at least as much fun, and the rabbis would have just as successfully shown another side to their personalities. That, in at least one Jew’s opinion, would have been the wiser choice.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).