This week I began a book that I had been looking forward to purchasing from the moment the editor indicated to me that he was assembling it. Hayim Herring's Keeping Faith in Rabbis came out a few weeks ago. For a nominal sum and a little hassle with Kindle, I downloaded it and began reading the various essays, most written by Rabbis themselves but a few written by synagogue participants, a few not entirely happy with the experience, though none really feeling shut out the way I assess my own experience. Most have suggestions for making participation a more active process and most are baalebatim themselves. One essay by a Rabbi Shapiro divided the cadre of rabbis and the cadre of Jews into two clear categories each. Rabbis could either be clerks or prophets, the Jewish public could either be passionate about their organizations or passionate about rejecting those organizations. Most people, of course, fall somewhere between the two poles but clear divisions make analysis easier. I think he is right, at least from my AKSE experience, that people just want to processed through Judaism, fed what previous sages have written for the current Rabbi to digest and impart, and deflect people who are either challengers or outliers. Congregants can be managed like the Army with a few soldiers going AWOL but most buying into what the generals want with little challenge to authority. Those congregants really just want to be part of the Army and if not overtly mistreated will remain on board, maybe even help perpetuate mediocrity.
I think that's a pretty decent summary of how organizational Judaism has matured in America, from its origins as an identifiable minority of people banding together to fulfill a common purpose where a certain amount of creativity was both needed and valuable to more of a self-perpetuating collection of people still trying to find purpose long after the original challenge has been resolved. Certainly the sacred texts and commentaries are still studied and added to just as they have always been. Now, more than any prior time, the thoughts of the giants are readily accessible, many acknowledge the comments sent their way by untitled peasants like myself and write back. Even the most egregious control freaks, the Rabbinical Assembly, know that they cannot continue to shield themselves from a public that contains highly educated people used to reading primary sources and analysis and have modified some of their protections that have disenchanted some of their most capable Conservative laity. But I still go to shul on a shabbos morning listening to relative fluff in the form of repetitive interAliyah comments, two minute factoids that can be looked up on the internet during the week and fed to a few dozen attendees who did not pursue anything Jewish on the internet that week. Another essay in the book assesses the form of presentation amid the content of presentation. People really can be processed through by their professionals, be they doctors putting the cap on medical setbacks or Rabbis telling somebody of lesser knowledge some of his or her knowledge, though without really advancing the recipient in a meaningful way. Unless you want to be spending your career having roobs reach threshold, there has to be some serious content with its challenges and vulnerabilities. Until that arrives in a more consistent way than I have experienced, Orthodoxy will continue to exert its growing monopoly on the most capable Jewish amateurs.