Calling All Rabbis
Posted on Jan 15, 2014
I post this blog at a moment when the Jewish community in North America urgently needs good rabbis. If you are considering the rabbinate as a vocation or have toyed with the idea in the past or are open to weighing the possibility now, I hope to persuade you to do so. Of course, I’d be most pleased if you pursue your studies for the rabbinate at The Jewish Theological Seminary, which I believe offers the single best training ground for the profession available anywhere, and hope that you will find your spiritual home in Conservative Judaism, which I believe is the most compelling way to teach and practice Torah in our day. But even if you don’t come to JTS, and choose to work outside the framework of Conservative Judaism, I hope you will give the rabbinate serious thought. The Jewish community needs good rabbis across the board, on and off the pulpit, and arguably needs them—needs you—more than ever before.
Let me begin with a personal story. One day about 40 years ago, a rabbi whom I greatly respect asked me in the course of a conversation about my PhD thesis on American Judaism why I was not studying for the rabbinate.“I don’t think I have enough faith to be a rabbi,” I replied without hesitation. His response, as I recall it, was equally immediate. “Faith has nothing to do with being a rabbi.”
It took me years to understand what the rabbi, a man of deep faith, meant by that remark, but now I think I do: he was saying that I could dedicate my life to teaching the Jewish tradition, strengthening the Jewish community, and representing the tradition and the community to the world at large without attaining clarity (at least at the start) about what I believed on matters such as Creation, Revelation, redemption, or whether God actually hears prayer. Rabbis are teachers first of all. Many (including about 40 percent of those ordained in recent years at JTS) do not serve in a congregational pulpit. If you are leading a Jewish organization or a campus Hillel, for example, “faith in God,” while it is certainly a major asset, might count for less than teaching ability, people skills, and faith in the potential of Jewish individuals and groups to make a difference in the world. I think the rabbi who addressed me that day wanted to make sure that I was not closing the door to a career in the rabbinate because of problems I had at that point with traditional pillars of Jewish belief. I want to do the same for you, though I will return to the question of faith in God in a moment. The years have changed me on that score, and probably will do the same for you.
So what is required of an individual considering the rabbinate? What must you profess, as it were, to join this profession? I offer four thoughts on the matter, based on a very personal reading of Pirkei Avot 1:6.
“Aseh lekha rav.” Rabbis are teachers of Torah first of all, teachers of a very special sort: love of learning and teaching Jewish tradition, modeling that love, epitomizing the kind of life to which Torah calls us is as much the first perquisite of the rav today as it was in previous eras. Rabbis do much more than transmit information in a way that students can grasp. They stand behind and stand for what they teach, testifying through their every act to the enormous amount at stake in the learning and practice of Torah: not just the welfare of the individual teacher and student, but the well-being of the world. A 17th-century Puritan writer on the subject of vocation held that the first sign of a calling is pleasure and proficiency at the work. If you take deep satisfaction from the study of Torah—whether “Written Torah” or “Oral Torah” (I define the latter as the teachings and lives built up over the centuries around the core of the Five Books of Moses)—and if you want to share the privilege of such study with others; if you are (or think you could be) really good at this study and teaching; if you find that the deeper you go into Torah, the deeper and higher you are able to go into life—and vice versa—then this calling might be yours.
From the outset, JTS has prioritized several elements of learning, all of which are designed to get students to the point where they know enough about Jewish tradition and how it has developed and changed over the centuries that they are equipped and empowered to take responsibility for carrying the tradition forward, including—if need be—by introducing changes. There is wisdom for our day to be discovered in the pages and precedents of Jewish tradition, halakhah to guide us through terrain as yet uncharted, insights into God’s intentions waiting to be gleaned. That is why JTS rabbinical students learn not only text but a diverse wealth of commentaries written on the text, from ancient times until the present, and why they study not only text but context: the history of communities, institutions, and ideas that fed into the texts and followed from them. We emphasize the study of texts in their original languages so that access to the tradition is immediate and the texts make maximal impact on the learner. Our students come to understand the main lines of consensus that have kept Judaism strong over the centuries, as well as the lines of disagreement that have been sources of strength at some times, but threatened to tear our people apart at others. No question is out of bounds to our study of Torah, no area of knowledge or experience irrelevant. A rabbi needs to know how to learn and—no less important—how to teach with all one’s heart and mind, all one’s soul, all one’s might.
“Ke-nai lekha haver.” For a rabbi, study of Torah is far from an academic pursuit. Jews are bound in Covenant to one another, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are here to make the world better—more just and compassionate—and Torah is the path. The conversation that we carry on in the classroom, the synagogue, the cafeteria, and the homeless shelter is the one that began on high at Sinai. Its fulfillment requires work on the ground that always takes place at eye level, face-to-face, in relationships. Rabbis are community builders first, last, and always. Community is where we live, and so where Torah must be; community gives us agency—power to do things—that we lack as individuals. It is true that the Torah provides individuals with enlightenment as to the right path on which to walk, and offers pleasures to mind and spirit—intricate logical puzzles, flights of fancy and wordplay, breathtaking insights into life’s mysteries and quandaries—as satisfying as any you will ever encounter. But, as the Rabbis of old reminded us, study of Torah—while great in its own right—is even greater when it leads to right action. The world needs to be made better. You and I need return and renewal. Every teacher of Torah needs to rise in his or her level of holiness.
Every part of ourselves—and of every member of our community—is required for the teaching we do, and that teaching takes place in word and in deed, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we sit at home and when we walk on public thoroughfares. Rabbis, as the authorized bearers of this unique learning, must draw upon all they have and give all they are to the learning, whether they are serving in a school or a camp, in a synagogue, or in an organization working for social justice; whether they are engaged in advocacy for Israel, or advocacy for greater observance. They must know how the members of their communities make a living, how they conduct their marriages and raise their kids, how the Jewish world functions (and at times proves dysfunctional). Mind is needed, but so is mindfulness. Knowledge is essential, but so too is the manner of learning. A teaching about humility, for example, cannot be delivered arrogantly; the command to pursue justice cannot be heard in a setting that is oppressive; testimonies to the joy and relevance of Torah in ages past must not be smothered in stultifying routine or deadness of spirit. God spoke to Moses face-to-face, the Torah tells us in one of its most remarkable passages, and rabbis can do no less in all their interactions with the communities they serve.
That is why JTS has made Clinical Pastoral Education an essential and required element of the curriculum. Our students spend hundreds of hours working with hospital and hospice patients, grieving with people in mourning, listening to stories of the elderly, and learning to listen to lengthy silences. Every student whom I talk to about this training tells me, and I quote: “It changed my life. Not just my rabbinate.” Any good classroom teacher learns to hear the questions that students do not ask as well as those they do. We all value this ability in our friends, and even expect it of them. Rabbis must have it as well. Leadership consists of many things, but none of them more important than listening carefully and speaking to every member of the community one-to-one, face-to-face.
“He-vai dan et kol ha-adam le-khaf zechut.” Seeing the best in people is a lot harder than it sounds, particularly when one knows them in contexts that do not always bring out the best in them. Synagogue and school board meetings are one such place, from my experience; life crises are sometimes another; moments of experiencing judgment—whether by God or parents or conscience—are a third. Rabbis may figure in all of these, perhaps in a single day—and besides, seeing others clearly, free of our own needs, desires, and projections is difficult in any situation. It’s a lot easier to stand before God, and to stand before others, if we can—like the angels—be ahuvim, berurim, and gibborim: have all the love we require, think clearly and without distortion, and conquer our basest inclinations. A rabbi has got to be on top of the transference and countertransference at work with any person of authority, let alone one who represents an ancestral tradition bound up with morality and God. Gender roles will come into play. The need for a rabbi’s blessing is sometimes profound. Matters of the heart are rarely straightforward, and Judaism is very much a matter of the heart.
I think that when I told that rabbi 40 years ago that I lacked the faith needed to be a rabbi, I was talking as much about faith in myself and my own abilities as I was about faith in God. Congregants had not always treated the rabbis well in the synagogue in which I grew up. I was shy, and rather thin-skinned. Why set myself up for failure in a profession for which I seemed unsuited? You too may have such doubts. It’s hard not to, if you consider the job with requisite seriousness. How can a newly ordained rabbi guide others through life, even with the proven assistance of Torah? How can a young person counsel someone half-a-century older? How shall those untested by life’s cruelties marshal the wisdom needed to speak truth to those on the other side of pain or suffering in its clutches?
This, to me, is the wisdom of Rabbi Yehoshua’s adage in Pirkei Avot: we must judge everyone “on the scale of righteousness,” ourselves included. None of us is perfect. All of us fail at times. We miss the mark, and worse. The recognition of this imperfection in ourselves is what enables us to be helpful to others. It makes us worthy of leading them. I sometimes encounter people who claim to love Judaism but do not much care for Jews, or who profess to love Jews in general but are not generous to the ones they know well. A rabbi must love Judaism and love the Jewish people, and must demonstrate that love every day.
Demonstrations of sincere passion are more necessary at a time like this, when Jews have the option to leave Judaism behind and millions exercise that option. We often underestimate the degree to which Jews internalize the hostility directed at our people, whether this occurs in age-old patterns of anti-Semitism or newfound methods of delegitimizing Israel. Jews are admittedly sometimes hard to love (that, I think, is why Ahavat Yisra’el [love for one’s fellow Jews] is a commandment). Members of a congregation, by definition, will not be as observant as their rabbis would like (you will have made Judaism your life’s work, and for most of them it remains one of many elements in life). Students will not be studious enough. Activists for justice may seem insufficiently engaged. And your job is to elicit the best in them, ask more of them, understanding that that is exactly what they want you to do, are counting on you to do, as their rabbi.
This brings us back to the issue of faith, which Judaism has usually construed not as belief that this or that is true, but as trust that ultimately the world, life, being itself, the very foundations of what is can be trusted. I don’t have a definition of God to share with you. JTS does not have one either. How could we? Our Torah, Written and Oral, provides us with a plethora of images of God, knowing that every one of them is inadequate, but urging us to be confident that God stands on the side of justice and compassion and stands with us when we stand there. At the end of the day, the ultimate mysteries belong to God, but the revealed things given to us and our children are enough to do what the Torah requires. I believe that. I have that faith. Reflection, tradition, and experience have joined to grant it to me. I cannot prove the rightness of this path to you—no one can—but I witness to it, as you will when you become a rabbi, in part in the very title “rabbi” by which you are addressed.
It’s a real gift to be able to spend life teaching Torah, building communities and relationships, and seeing and eliciting the best of what Jews are capable. It’s no less a gift to spend several years in close conversation with men and women who share the commitment to keep Torah vibrant in our time. The Rabbinical School of JTS prepares students well for service in Conservative Judaism—the vision and institutions with which JTS is most closely aligned—as well as in the larger community. It offers the best Jewish education available anywhere, in the midst of a community that deeply values Torah, the quest for justice, and the service of God as much as you do. That is a very special thing, you know. I hope you will think about joining us.