Why a rabbi? Five aspirations for rabbinic life

On January 11, 2015, I received rabbinic smicha (ordination) from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Six years of academic study, spiritual formation, pulpit experience and chaplaincy service culminated in a moment of transformation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Assuming the traditional posture, I leaned back into my teachers’ hands as they intoned ritual words that changed me forever into a rabbi. In that magic moment, I became the most recent link in a chain connecting teacher to student, generation to generation, century to century, and epoch to epoch – harnessing history while reaching toward a future we yet can scarcely imagine.

Now that I’m officially a rabbi, both legally and spiritually empowered in my religious acts, now is an ideal moment to ask perhaps impertinent if not subversive questions: Why? Why be a rabbi? Why do Jews need rabbis? Better yet: do Jews need rabbis? If Jews do need rabbis, what kind of rabbis do Jews need?


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Under halacha (Jewish law), most routine Jewish matters don’t “require” rabbis. A shaliach tzibur(prayer leader) can be a layperson and still fulfill all practical, emotional and spiritual prerequisites of an effective prayer service. Young adults become bnai mitzvah automatically at the appointed age, or by rituals of Torah and prayer – neither of which requires a rabbi. A m’sader kidushin (wedding officiant) need not be a rabbi (but in most jurisdictions, civil law reserves to clergy or specified public officers all power to solemnize marriages). In these and other seemingly ubiquitous rabbinic contexts, Jewish law does not require a rabbi.

And yet, each year ALEPH and other seminaries together ordain several hundred rabbis, belying alarmist predictions after the 2013 Pew Study that synagogue life is retrenching. Maybe a more apt conclusion is that Jewish life is evolving – shifting beyond synagogues and youth programs to include community centers, schools, retreat centers, health care settings and social action contexts. As a result, rabbis are finding their way to serving in all of these environments. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies recently observed about this trend, modernity still “values Jewish learning, and recognizes that the difference between a moribund and a dynamic institution can be having a rabbi at the helm.”

Sure. But what makes a rabbi moribund or dynamic?

A rabbi is Chief Spiritual Officer, but isn’t necessarily the most visible leader. Rather, an effective rabbi attunes hearts, minds and souls in whatever context the rabbi serves, then uses tools of Jewish culture and spirituality to nourish, inspire and deploy them for collective good. Sometimes a specific setting relies on a rabbi’s title, what Jack Bloom famously calls a “symbolic exemplar” of sacred authority. To Bloom, the rabbi as “symbolic exemplar” evokes transformation because the rabbi’s words effect change by their mere utterance. (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”) The ideal rabbinic role, however, is neither symbolic nor titular: rather, the rabbi is a dynamic capacitor modulating the flow of individual and collective spirituality.

Understanding the rabbi as energetic capacitor shifts our question about what Jews need in rabbis. A new kind of answer emerges: Jews most need rabbis to the extent that rabbis fulfill their energetic functions. Critically, a rabbi’s title, learning and visible leadership do not alone discharge these energetic functions. After all, instinctively we know if a rabbi is dynamic or moribund, charged up or low on juice, well wired internally or short-circuiting. We know if a rabbi touches us, changes us or bores us. We know when a rabbi is inwardly real.

It follows that we must ask an even more potent and refined question: what makes for a dynamic, charged up and well-wired rabbi? In my 10 days as an ordained rabbi, I won’t pretend to corner the market on answers to this question. But as I embark on my own rabbinic journey, I offer five aspirations for my own rabbinate, reflecting the ways I believe that rabbis can best serve the deepest needs of 21st century life:

  1. Rabbis must model our own authentic inner lives. A rabbi who isn’t going anywhere can’t take anyone along. A rabbi stuck inside can’t move anyone. Rabbis must be seekers in our own right, boldly undertaking our own authentic spiritual journeys. In turn, rabbis must cultivate contexts in which it is safe for us to express, in appropriate settings, natural human emotions commensurate with our inner lives. Only as we ourselves recognize and spiritualize our own occasional fear, hurt, grief, doubt, anger and other foibles can we liberate others with permission to do the same.
  1. Rabbis must be in regular peer supervision, spiritual direction or counseling. As rabbis can wield substantial influence and bear considerable emotional and psycho-spiritual stress, rabbis must have contexts in which to refine ourselves accordingly. Clergy can become inured to or blinded by our roles – unwittingly hiding behind title, influence, power, privilege, control and social deference. The result can be blind spots, inward self-defense and spiritual bypass. Every life faces these dynamics – rabbis aren’t exempt – but rabbis especially must model ways ways to address these dynamics for two reasons. First, what we ourselves cannot do, we cannot help or encourage others to do. Second, precisely because of our roles, we are perhaps even more likely to need assistance seeing ourselves clearly. As Talmud notes (B.T. Berachot 5b), “A prisoner cannot release oneself from prison.” For that reason, for everyone but especially for rabbis, there is no need – and no wisdom in the attempt – to go it alone. Consistent peer review, spiritual direction or counseling can give clergy the reflective space and tools to keep ourselves as fitting vessels for others’ emotional and spiritual unfolding. As a corollary, it follows that rabbis mustn’t be stigmatized for seeking these confidential, supportive and therapeutic professional relationships. In many instances, these aren’t grounds for concern but rather, signs of wisdom and strength that rabbinic employers and Jewish communities should encourage.
  1. Rabbis must consistently feed the flames of our own learning. A stale rabbi is a stuck rabbi. Rabbis must continuously learn something new and challenge our own skills and assumptions. Ideally rabbis should combine individual study with structured chevruta learning. It’s a shame that, to date, no seminary or movement has adopted the ongoing learning standards of theAlliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. They should.
  1. Rabbis must cultivate spiritual leadership beyond ourselves. Says Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honorable? One who honors others.” The rabbinic role is not to monopolize spiritual or pastoral authority, but to cultivate it wisely in others. The rabbinic role is a mentoring role – to lift others up, encourage them, teach them, and then engage in personal tzimtzum (self-contraction) by gracefully making space for others to evolve into leadership appropriate to their own aspirations, gifts and skills.
  1. Rabbis must remember what business we’re in. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (of blessed memory) used to say, “It’s okay for a synagogue to be a business – but be sure you know what business you’re in.” The modern rabbinate has become a profession, but like other ethical endeavors, first and foremost the rabbinate is and always must remain a calling. After all, history’s rabbis viewed their rabbinic functions as acts of service, finding earthly remuneration in secular pursuits. Hillel first was a woodchopper, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman, Rav Huna was a cattle farmer, Ravs Chisda and Pappa were brewers, Maimonides was a physician, and Rashi was a vintner. Perhaps times have changed: remuneration, getting and keeping a rabbinic job, and climbing whatever ladder of influence and achievement may call to a rabbi, all can have their proper places. Remaining unchanged, however, is the ethical calling of the rabbinate – the core of the rabbinic heart and soul – that beckons the heart and soul.  This is the rabbinic “business” that always must come first, at any expense.

Among my teachers’ most enduring words in ordaining me were these: “Herewith we ordain you … to clarify and pronounce truths in way that make a tikkun (repair) for the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God). We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries, just as those who appointed us delegated us and sent us to be rabbis.” In essence, my teachers proclaimed that tikkun is the existential reason for a rabbinate. In the words of Isaiah 58:12, a rabbi must be a “repairer of the breach, restorer of paths to dwell in,” and conduit for spiritual flow in whatever context we serve.

That’s a path worthy of a rabbinic calling and life of service. That’s the rabbinate that Jews most need today.

Originally published at My Jewish Learning.

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