Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review of Mensch-Marks by Rabbi Jack Riemer

A rabbi on rabbis and other mentschen


I think that every student who graduates rabbinical school should be given this book – and should be asked to read it twice.

Why twice?

Because the first time they read it, they won’t really believe it is true, or that it applies to them. They will think that the practice of turning the rabbi into some kind of a superman or some kind of a divine messenger ended in the Middle Ages, and that their rational and liberal congregants won’t do that to them … but they will. Just yesterday, I wished one of my congregants a happy birthday, and he replied, “Thank you. May your wish go directly from your mouth to God’s ears. After all, for you it is a local call, isn’t it?” I just winced inside and smiled. What else can you do?

To say that this is a book meant for rabbis is to limit it unjustly. It is meant for all those who want to lead a purposeful life and have not yet found the way to do so. It is meant for all those who have experienced love beyond their deserving and who want to share it with others without appearing vain – or even worse – ‘religious’. It is meant for all those who know how cruel this world can sometimes be, and yet want to do what they can to seek out and to explore the love that is within it.


I read this book twice: once as a rabbi looking for sermonic material, and one as a human being who hopes to become a mentsch.

The first time I marked many passages for future reading, for Joshua Hammerman is not only a rabbi; he is also a journalist, and so he knows how to write with imagination and skill. For instance, how do you talk about Halacha from the pulpit if you are a rabbi? Do you say that it is the term for Jewish Law or do you say that the dictionary says that it comes from a root that means ‘the way you should walk’? You can do that if you want to, but if you do, you will see their eyes closing and their heads dropping before you get any further, for they have heard you and they have heard other rabbis say these clichés many times. 

Rabbi Hammerman does it this way: He talks about how they trained their dog not to go into the yard of their next-door neighbor and cause havoc there. How did they do it? By buying him a neck collar that gave their dog a jolt whenever he tried to climb out of their yard. After a few tries, their dog learned to stay where he belonged … And that is the function of Jewish Law.

It sets off a jolt when the child reaches for a package of cookies in the supermarket, and then reads the ingredients, and reluctantly puts it down. It sets off a jolt when a father is tempted to buy a copy of the National Enquirer at the cash register and then realizes that he shouldn’t. And it sets off a jolt when a husband is tempted to engage in an extra-marital affair, and then decides not to, tempting as it may be. He refrains because, if he does, an invisible whistle goes off in his mind, and he remembers who he is and what he stands for, and what he can and cannot do… And that is what we mean by Halacha.

I bet his people sat up when he used this image to explain the purpose of the law. And I think my people will too, if I should ever quote it from him.
There are a great many such examples of creating writing in this book that will make the sermons of his colleagues much better. But that is not the main purpose of this book, far from it. The purpose of the book is to tell the story of how he gradually came to comprehend the role of compassion and love and menshlichkeit in his own life, and how he gradually learned how to share these insights with his people – both in words and by example.

The most moving chapter of the book, at least for me, was the one in which he talked about his own failure. He watched the football player, Tim Tebow, winning game after game, and he saw an almost messianic fervor among his fans. Tebow was a devout evangelist, and he and his fans began proclaiming that his victories were the work of God. Hammerman was so disturbed by this phenomenon that he sat down and dashed off a blog blasting fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and all such faiths as superstition.

And then came the reaction! He got hate mail by the hundreds on his computer. He got editorials condemning him for his bigotry in newspapers from coast to coast. Even some of his congregants turned against him for having offended their Christian neighbors. And he realized that they were right. He had written a hasty and a foolish blog, in which he had labeled whole communities that he really knew little about as backward and as potentially dangerous, and there was no way that he could make amends for it. He realized that the more he talked about it, the worse it would be.

Eventually, the affair blew over. The local ministerial association wrote a letter to the newspapers defending him. And people went on with their lives. But he decided to speak about what he had learned from this mistake that he had made on Yom Kippur. He spoke about it, not in order to defend himself and what he had done. He spoke about it so that he could tell his people what he had learned from experiencing failure, and so that he could tell them that they, too, would be better off if instead of gloating over their successes, they faced up to their failures. He brought examples from Silicon Valley and from other such places where people have learned from their mistakes, but he focused primarily on his own – and on theirs. And his people came away that night with two important spiritual lessons. The first was that their rabbi was human and could mistakes. And the second was that they, too, were fallible, and that their task – especially on Yom Kippur – was not to deny their faults and not to cover up their shortcomings, but to learn from them
Is that not a powerful lesson that all of us need to learn?

I know some powerful and successful executives and I know some powerful and successful rabbis who have not yet learned this lesson – but we should – and therefore, I urge all those of us who have ever failed – in other words – all of us – to read this book and to learn this and some of the otherwise lessons that it contains.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of two new books: “Finding God in Unexpected Places” and “The Day That I Met Father Isaac at the Supermarket.” Both are available from