The Auteur Synagogue

Adapted from a sermon delivered on my last Shabbat at KJ, Shabbat Beha'alotecha 2016

       The American Film Institute lists, as the two greatest movies ever made, Casablanca and Citizen Kane.  But the methods by which they were produced could not have been different from each other.  Casablanca was made in the classic Hollywood studio system.  The big studios would finance movies, hiring all the people needed to put the films together.  There was no overall creative vision: for Casablanca, seven different writers worked on the screenplay at different times and it went through different iterations.  Until the very end of shooting, it wasn’t even clear whether Ilsa would end up with Rick or with Laszlo!  The director was just a hired hand and had no control or even input in the casting.  Ingrid Bergman was the third choice for the role of Ilsa, and only landed the part because she was less expensive than Hedy Lamarr would have been.  Different decisions were made by different parties who had little to do with each other.

Citizen Kane, on the other hand, was the brainchild of Orson Welles.  He produced, wrote, directed, and starred in it.  Many see it as the forerunner of what in the 1950s became known as the Auteur Theory in cinema.  In films that subscribe to this theory, the director has a hand in the screenplay (either he writes it himself, or he commissions it, or oversees its writing), he casts, directs, oversees all the technical aspects of the film, the cinematography, the editing, and so on.  All of the participants in the process of making the film work to carry out the director’s vision.  These films have the mark of their filmmaker, and they’re identifiable as one particular filmmaker’s movie, for the content and themes, but also for the look, the style, and the pace.  Some examples of auteur filmmakers are Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini abroad, and Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Woody Allen here.  A true auteur filmmaker oversees both the initial stages and the final product of the film, and as a result, the film is cohesive and each aspect of the film is a manifestation of the director’s creative vision.


The two paradigms of filmmaking, the collaborative studio system on the one hand and the auteur system on the other, are also found in the Torah’s models of institutional leadership.  The studio system is quite similar to the way our parasha and the few that preceded it describe the Mishkan.  In the tabernacle, there was one group that dealt with the core of worship: the sacrifices, the incense, the libations: they were the Kohanim.  Those who managed the operations of the mishkan were the Leviim.       

A couple of weeks ago, in Parashat B’midbar, we read about the role of the Leviim: 


וְאַתָּה הַפְקֵד אֶת הַלְוִיִּם עַל מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְעַל כָּל כֵּלָיו...וּבִנְסֹעַ הַמִּשְׁכָּן יוֹרִידוּ אֹתוֹ הַלְוִיִּם וּבַחֲנֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן יָקִימוּ אֹתוֹ הַלְוִיִּם

You shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its vessels and over all that belong to it...When the Tabernacle is set to travel, the Levites shall dismantle it; and when the Tabernacle camps, the Levites shall erect it.


While of the role of the Leviim is described in detail in Sefer B’midbar, which deals with our people’s travels through the wilderness, the role of the Kohanim is described throughout Sefer Vayikra, and it is not limited to sacrifices.  Kohanim are also responsible for the education of B’nei Yisrael; they are judges and they are teachers. 


       Our Torah Reading from this morning illustrates another distinction between the Kohanim and the Leviim, beyond just their jobs.  It’s the way in which they are appointed for the position. 


וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם:


You shall bring the Levites before the Lord, and the children of Israel shall lay their hands upon the Levites.


The Leviim are officially appointed for their positions by all of klal Yisrael.  Their authority is granted by the people.  The Kohanim, on the other hand, are anointed with oil by Moshe, as we read in Parashat Tetzaveh:

וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו תִּמְשָׁח וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ אֹתָם לְכַהֵן לִי:

And with it you shall anoint Aaron and his sons and sanctify them to serve Me


The kohanim are sanctified – kidashta otam.  That’s why there are so many rules regarding where they can go, who they can marry, and so on.  The authority of the Kohanim is granted by God.


       The two roles, Kohen and Levi, are also present in the rabbinate and in the synagogue.  There are rabbis who are primarily spiritual guides, pos’kim and dayanim, public speakers, talmidei chachamim; they are role models of holiness, the Kohanim of rabbis.  On the other hand, there are rabbis whose focus is on the Levi-like duties: conceiving and executing programming, fundraising, organizing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals; they are public servants.  This distinction is most pronounced in Israel, where there are Rashei Yeshiva who are the thought leaders of the religious community, the kohanim of the rabbinate; rabbis of the local rabbanuts, leaving aside their aptitude for this role, are the Leviim kind of rabbi, performing the functions necessary for religious services to be administered in Israel.


       Synagogues in the United States ultimately require both roles filled as well.  By and large, rabbis serve in the function of the kohanim, whereas the functions of the leviim are performed by the board, lay leadership, and executive directors.


But there is another model of communal leadership in the Torah: that of Moshe Rabbeinu.  Moshe is, so to speak, the auteur of the B’nei Yisrael community.  He is the spiritual leader: he speaks to God and relays God’s message and laws to the people.  And he is the political leader: when it comes time to negotiate with Pharaoh, Moshe executes that negotiation.  He has Aharon by his side, but it’s Moshe’s responsibility.  Were it not for his father-in-law’s advice, Moshe would have judged every little case among the people, and once Yitro suggests setting up a court system, Moshe organizes it (and he remains at the top, ultimately responsible for all the decisions).  Moshe’s authority is granted by God, but he campaigns to gain the favor of the people as well.  When b’nei Yisrael complained, as they did in our Torah reading this morning, Moshe dealt with their problems and tried to find solutions.


In my letter to the congregation earlier this week, I expressed my gratitude to Rabbi Lookstein’s mentorship, and noted that I am humbled to be the last in a long history of KJ Assistant Rabbis or rabbinic interns to have trained under him.  For my own notes, I made a list of what I learned from Rabbi Lookstein; what I found in the process was that his guidance was not limited to those functions parallel to the duties of the kohanim in the Mishkan.  He has given me very helpful critiques for my sermons, helping me to make them more relevant.  He taught me how to speak with people who have only just lost a loved one, and how to compose a meaningful eulogy for them.  He taught me to choose good tunes when I lead davening and how to make it inspiring.  On the other side, he also taught me how to organize and run a service that keeps moving and maintains decorum.  Before the High Holidays each year, we would meet to discuss how the service should run, to the detail of what page numbers ought to be announced so as to be helpful but not become a nuisance.  At one Friday night KJ Shabbaton dinner, he called over Atilla from Foremost to tell him that dessert should be brought out early.  He then took me aside and said, “Roy, that’s the rabbi’s job.  To make sure the meal moves at a decent pace for everyone’s sake.”            


Unlike most synagogues which follow the Mishkan or Hollywood studio model, Rabbi Lookstein has followed Moshe’s model.  Or, as I’ve liked to say it since I first came, KJ is an Auteur Synagogue.  Rabbi Lookstein has a vision: a vision for the synagogue, for the community, and for Judaism.  And every aspect of his rabbinate is a manifestation of that vision.  It is a Judaism which is dignified, decorous, stately, and elegant, and at the same time friendly, social, heimisch, and dedicated to mentschlichkeit.  In fact, when I first met Rabbi Lookstein four years ago in the homiletics class at Yeshiva, what struck me most was his ability to simultaneously embody both of those almost contradictory dispositions: formal and rabbinic on the one hand, amicable and heimish with a sense of humor on the other.


KJ is carefully planned, it’s cohesive, it all makes sense and works together: the davening, the programming, the fundraising, the administration, the lifecycle events.  You can tell when it’s a KJ sermon, a KJ wedding, a KJ appeal.  It all has that recognizable mark.  And that method has been successful at actualizing Rabbi Lookstein’s vision.  I remember vividly the first KJ wedding I attended: black tie, in the most elegant and formal of spaces, with tuxedos and evening gowns, but the simcha dancing was as spirited and leibedik as at any Hasidic wedding in Brooklyn.  The same is true for bar mitzvahs, Shabbat dinners, and our various events and ceremonies.  


Rabbi Lookstein and KJ were ahead of their time in running a synagogue on this model; others are just catching on now.  Earlier this week, one of the leaders in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism wrote an essay suggesting that synagogues would do better if driven by vision and mission rather than by the need to provide services to members.  You can read that essay here.  And the UJA-Federation of New York has a division that consults for synagogues, helping to strengthen their operations.  I wasn’t quite sure I understood what they do, so when I met with the director, I asked her.  She responded, “that’s because you’re at KJ.  We try to help synagogues run more like KJ does.”


Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I walked into this one.  And I am grateful that I did and that I merited to learn from such a visionary rabbi as Rabbi Lookstein and this incredible, unique community.  Thank you for a wonderful three years, and thank you for being supportive of a young rabbi early in his career.  Here’s lookin’ at you, KJ. 


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