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During a recent meeting to review our personnel handbook, the committee stumbled awkwardly over the grammar for the term “clergy.” They needed a singular word, and our clergy have two different titles (Rabbi and Cantor) so neither of those would work.  

I could not figure out why we were so uncomfortable with the obvious singular, “cleric.” At first, I thought maybe it sounds too administrative, like the adjective “clerical.” Then I wondered if we were worried about imitating Christianity (a persistent, but minor, problem for any non-Christian religion in America). But neither of those theories could explain the problem. 

And then deep in the recesses of my mind, I found the word “cleric” lurking, something about Dungeons and Dragons, and a type of character with magical powers, like a wizard or an elf. I knew I needed expertise, so I turned to Emily, a team member at the synagogue (someone with all the “clerical” skills I lack) for a deep dive into D&D. 

She explained that a cleric channels the power of a deity to affect the conditions of other players, and the Dungeon Master (kind of the designer, guide, referee, and overlord of the game) ensures the cleric stays true to the value of the deity. Emily also explained that since clerics are stereotypically associated with healing powers, when people hear that a D&D party lacks a cleric, they exchange worried glances. It seems the game becomes much harder without them.


I asked Emily if she thought I would make a good cleric on a D&D campaign, and she said probably not. I was initially hurt, but then she explained I was more of a wizard type, someone whose powers derive from my advanced studies and wisdom. Yes, that’s me.  

And then I understood why I found the word, “cleric,” so uncomfortable.

I am much happier thinking that my leadership comes from my hard work, my studies, and my advanced degrees than I am believing that I can channel special powers from God. I am a deeply rational person, a child of the modern world. I studied science and engineering in college. I completely accept the power, values, and metaphors of Judaism, but am I a cleric? When people project special powers upon me, isn’t that just being a “symbolic exemplar,” as they taught us in seminary?

But as I thought about real world “campaigns,” when groups of people band together on a project, I realized these campaigns are extremely difficult. Especially when they’re about something important like efforts to effect change in contemporary America— helping families raise healthier kids, convincing a county superintendent to reallocate funds for a crosswalk in a poor neighborhood, or explaining to a governor why the state had to stop taking driver’s licenses away from people who were behind on court fees. People are so resistant. The team members get stubborn. Opinions harden. Passions ignite. Minds eventually snap shut. We have become like a D&D campaign lost in a dungeon, going in circles because we have forgotten how to work together.


The literature on toxic polarization in America is vast and growing. The political parties have become internally homogenous and externally opposites. Every issue seems to be “political” in the sense that even the smallest things take on massive symbolic importance. Wear a mask, you’re blue. Refuse to get vaxxed, you’re red. Drive an electric car, blue. An SUV, red. Drink Starbucks, blue, watch NASCAR, red.  This is silliness, but the results are fear, anger, paralysis, division, and, increasingly, violence.  

What is going on?  

As rational, logical people raised on the values of modernity, we insist on our intellectual autonomy, our power to investigate the facts and data, and to decide for ourselves how we will live. These are the values of the wizard, and we really want wizards in charge of certain things — I really want my surgeon and airplane pilots to be wizards, not clerics — because all that knowledge and intellectual ability has produced truly amazing advances in the quality of our lives.

But wizards are not enough. That is because there are three problems with relying so much on our rational, logical, and engineer/scientist minds. Problems in D&D and in life. First, the human brain has always been flawed, subject to all kinds of biases. Second, our brains are now inundated with so much information, all of it shaped by math and machines hyperdriven to capture our attention and manipulate our thinking. Third, we are not Mr. Spocks solving life only with logic. We have emotions and experiences, loves and losses, that teach us a kind of truth the mind cannot completely comprehend. And we happen to be living when social, technological, economic, and scientific changes have become volatile roller coasters leaving our minds scrambled and our emotions dizzy.    

These three problems, the flaws in our brains, technology’s grip on our attention, and our need for non-rational ways to see the world, are what keep us trapped in dungeons of polarization and hyper divisiveness. We have become wizards in the nuances of policies and the talking points of activists. Our intellectual certainty hardens our world views and  hearts, until we can no longer cooperate.

This is why we need clerics. Smart people will always disagree. But clerics have the power to affect everyone in the group, regardless of disagreement. The cleric keeps us true to the values of a deity, a power larger than any of the players or the dungeon itself. Political theorists call these values “republican virtues,” the moral system outside the political system, the principles that keep all of us working together.

Our democracy needs clerics, some with formal titles like Rabbi, Cantor, Pastor, or Priest, and some who have no title, but simply remind all of us of the values we share. Yes, wizards are important, but any of us can be the cleric of the party, making sure that whichever side of whatever issue we are on, we are all part of the same campaign. 

Rabbi Michael Holzman is the spiritual leader of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation and the founder of the Rebuilding Democracy Project, winner of the 2019 Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom. Rabbi Holzman has partnered with a variety of organizations like the Aspen Institute, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, the One America Movement, and the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America to examine the intersection of faith and democracy. 

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