Letter to a New Rabbi
[I can't remember who asked me to write this, or if it was ever published, but I wanted to get it out there. It is long, it is Jewish, and some of it might not make sense to those who aren't. But the general principles are universal. If you like it please share it.]
When it comes to talking about being a rabbi I lack nuance, but nuance isn’t necessarily of value here. A carefully considered, middle of the road, on the one hand/on the other hand look at the rabbinate today will get us nowhere. What we need and what I hope to provide is a contrarian critique that will get us talking about the future. I offer my remarks not to end a conversation, but to start one.
Two Kinds of Jews
There are two kinds of Jews in America today: the minority who are involved in institutional Jewish life, and the majority who are not. Those who are involved are by and large happy with their institutions. Those who are not involved are by and large unhappy with them.
Involved Jews are active, passionate, loyal, and essential to the Jewish community. They are never to be disparaged or disrespected. Uninvolved Jews are also active, passionate, and loyal, just not about institutional Jewish things. These Jews, too, are never to be disparaged or disrespected.
In all likelihood you will work for the happy minority, and what they will ask of you is this: make the happy happier, and make the unhappy happy. Unfortunately for you, you can’t do both.
Prophets and Clerks
During my first week at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem I sat with my classmates (class of ’81) and was told, “You have only one choice to make as a rabbi,” he said, “will you be a prophet or a clerk? Most of you will be clerks.” The Jewish establishment values clerks, and is willing to pay them well. The Jewish establishment hates prophets, and does what it can to ignore them.
Clerks comfort; prophets discomfit. Clerks legitimize; prophets challenge. Clerks maintain the decency of our lives; prophets reveal the brutality and emptiness at its core. Clerks say what others have said, and find meaning in being an echo rather than a voice; prophets speak what needs to be said that others can find their own voice. Clerks make nice; prophets make waves. Clerks warm hearts; prophets set them ablaze. All rabbis need to know how to be competent clerks. The great rabbis learn to be prophets as well.
Don’t imagine that happy Jews want clerks and unhappy Jews want prophets. The fact is nobody wants prophets, and everyone wants the status quo. The involved Jews want it because the status quo is comforting. The uninvolved Jews want it because the status quo provides them with excuses for not being involved. And because they both want the status quo they both want rabbis who support the status quo. They both want clerks.
Therefore it should be no surprise to you that you are being trained as a clerk. You are learning to teach what has already been taught; to repeat what has already been said, and to say what everyone expects to hear and therefore ignores. This wasn’t how it used to be.
The early rabbis were prophets rather than clerks. They based their authority on the conceit of the Two-fold Torah, Written and Oral, and insisted that the Oral trump the Written. They were literary anarchists wielding Gematria, Atbash, and other swords of the imagination to create new Torah by deliberately misreading the old one, and, as the story of Akiva interpreting the crowns of the Hebrew letters admits, they knew exactly what they were doing.
The intrinsic chaos and anarchy of the rabbinic promise should have led to an ever-renewing Judaism, but over time the rabbis came to fear their own creation the way Rabbi Loew came to fear the Golem. Their Torah was too strong, wild, and uncontrollable. So they did what Rabbi Loew did: they turned Emet into Met, Truth into Death, by erasing the Aleph—the creative chaos— at the head of the entire project.
As a result Judaism collapsed in on herself. The rabbinate, once the midwife of the new, became its mortal enemy. They turned what was a creative and redemptive wisdom into a fixed body of knowledge to be passed down rather that freed up. They took their Judaism of questions, doubt, and argument, and turned it into a system of answers, certainties, and rote. They stopped being prophets and started being clerks.
Clerks have two basic strategies when working with Jews: demand more or demand less, neither one works very well.
The “more” of the demand more strategy is halacha. Using halacha as our standard we admit that Orthodoxy is the more authentic Judaism. The “demand more” strategy fails for three reasons: it always demands too much, there is always more to demand, and Reform Jews don’t want to be Orthodox Jews.
Take the so-called Cheeseburger Rebellion for example. In the late 1990’s the Reform leadership decided to promote traditional kashrut among the Reform laity. Not eco-kashrut, or some other invention linking diet to justice, but the very kashrut that Reform Jews rejected in 1885 with the Pittsburg Platform. What happened? The people rebelled. They refused to abandon their cheeseburgers, and they didn’t give a damn what God, Torah, and their rabbis had to say about it.
The same thing happened when the Reform leadership tried to promote the use of the mikveh among Jewish women. Rather than draw from tradition to invent an old/new spiritual practice based on the cycles of the moon, the body, and the alchemical potential for transformation that is what immersing oneself naked in a mikveh is all about, they just thought that liberal Jewish women would love an opportunity to cleanse themselves of the impurities of menstruation! This mindless imitation of the past only served to enrage liberal Jews in the present, and make it all the more difficult to create a new and vibrant Judaism for the future.
The alternative to “demand more” is “demand less.” I grew up in an Orthodox world where the length of services was determined by the speed of the davvenen. Shabbat and holy day services would go on for hours, far too long in my opinion. But today’s notion that Jews can’t gather for more than an hour without breaking for cake is demeaning. And the idea that rabbis shouldn’t talk for more than 10 minutes forces you to offer a message that isn’t just simple, but simplistic. No wonder most Jews avoid services! They aren’t given enough time to be moved, or enough wisdom to be enriched.
If demanding more always has you demanding too much, and if demanding less leaves you with nothing to offer, perhaps it is time to demand different.
There is only one reason for the Jewish people to survive: and that is to live Judaism. And there is only one reason for Judaism to survive and that is because it offers a path to life in a world obsessed with death. Resting on Shabbat matters because working 60 to 80 hours a week is killing us. Not shopping on Shabbat matters because consumerism is killing us. Pesach matters not because we were slaves to Egypt’s Pharaoh but because we are slaves to the Pharaohs of the military-industrial-financial-media complex.
Judaism matters only if it offers us a way to free ourselves from the killing machine of contemporary culture, and to build a new world based on justice and compassion rather than greed and consumption. And you matter because you are a rabbi, and rabbis matter because they are the only people who can free Judaism to be what it is meant to be: a vehicle for blessing all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).
For example: my grandparents kept kosher because God demanded it. My parents kept kosher because Judaism demanded it. I keep kosher because life depends upon it.
For me kashrut is about ethical consumption. It is about living in a way that enhances life. For me kashrut is about caring for myself (shmirat haguf), for others (ahavta l’rayecha k’mocha), for animals (tz’ar ba’alei chayyim), and for nature (bal tashchit) by linking diet, desire, and consumption to the highest ethical and ecological standards I can muster.
Because I keep kosher I don’t eat meat, and someday will stop eating fish, eggs, and dairy as well. Because I keep kosher I don’t drive a gas-guzzling car, and someday will ride my bike to work. Because I keep kosher I do what I can to shrink my carbon footprint. Because I keep kosher I drink only fair trade coffee. Because I keep kosher I don’t buy products produced in sweatshops (unless of course Apple makes them).
Kashrut helps me live my life in service to life. And what is true of kashrut can be true of every other aspect of Judaism as well. In a world obsessed with work, can you make Shabbat a day of play? In a world obsessed with pornography, can you revive the erotic through Shir haShirim? In a world obsessed with sex, can you reinvent love through Tu b’Av? In a world that has forgotten how to grieve, can you show people a way to a liberating grief through Tisha b’Av? Just look at the world, and imagine it different. Then make your Judaism a means to embody that different world. This is what the rabbi-as-prophet is called to do. Unfortunately it isn’t what most rabbis are paid to do.
Here is the job description most rabbis are given: Judge, Educator, Counselor, Celebrant, Announcer, Jew, Fundraiser, CEO, and Team Leader. Some of these things you can do, most of them you shouldn’t do.
Judge. Traditionally a rabbi rules on cases of Jewish law, but I have yet to meet a liberal Jew who lived her life according to Jewish law, or a Reform Rabbi qualified to rule on Jewish law. If you want to be a Talmudic lawyer and judge go to an Orthodox yeshiva. If you run into someone who needs a Talmudist, send him to a Talmudist.
Educator. If rabbis are supposed to be Jewish educators why aren’t we taught pedagogy, curriculum development, learning styles, new learning technologies, working with special needs learners, etc.? If you want to be a top-notch Jewish educator get a top-notch degree in Jewish education. Otherwise insist that your community hire the best professional Jewish educators they can find, and pay them what they are worth. If they aren’t worth all that much to your community, find another community. And never hire people who know nothing about Judaism to teach Judaism. The message this sends is that Judaism has nothing to teach.
Counselor. If you were having marital problems would you go to a rabbi or a licensed marriage counselor? The best thing you can do for people who come to you for counseling is to meet with them once, listen to them carefully, and then refer them to the appropriate specialist. Don’t practice therapy without a license, and smicha isn’t that kind of license. If you want to practice therapy, become a therapist.
Celebrant. Officiating at life-cycle events can be fulfilling, but is this the reason you became a rabbi? After all if officiating at life-cycle events is what you want to do with your life, you could have become a professional celebrant in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost, and with a much larger client base. So enjoy this part of the job if you can, but don’t make it the centerpiece of your rabbinate.
Announcer. Somebody has to welcome the congregation, tell them what page to turn to, read out the names on the Yahrzeit list, give a bracha for birthdays and anniversaries, and spend 10 minutes commenting on Torah, or reviewing a book or movie, or explaining why we Jews who supported the efforts of African Americans to desegregate the buses in Montgomery must support the efforts of the Israeli government to segregate the buses in Jerusalem. But does this somebody have to be you? Did you spend five years of your life just to learn how to read responsively, or say, “We continue on page 1226” (is the siddur too long, or is it just me)? If you want to be Don Pardo, train as a voice actor.
Jew. Some synagogues hire a rabbi to be “the Jew” the way Colonial Williamsburg hires an actor to be “the butter churner”. Your job is to pretend that Judaism matters, and to support the illusion that hiring a Jew is the same as being one. This is the fastest path to rabbi burnout. If your congregation doesn’t want to be Jewish, leave before they cause you to feel the same way.
Fundraiser. Synagogues have real expenses, and no one should be embarrassed about asking for money. But are you really the best person to do this? If funds need to be raised get a professional with a solid track record of success to raise them. You might be asked to tag along to add gravitas, but leave the actual fundraising to the professionals.
CEO. Managing a small business takes real skills. I’ve taught these skills to senior executives of Fortune 500 companies, and I’ve ghost written a best selling book on the subject. I know what managers need to do, but I personally have no desire to do it. Nor was I taught this in rabbinical school. If you know how to manage, and want to be a manager: great, but you might be happier working for Wal-Mart. If you don’t want to be a manager, hire someone who does.
Team Leader. If you’re lucky you will work with cantors, educators, administrators, and other professionals who are at least as creative as you are, and hopefully more so. Here’s how best to work with them: be clear about your vision, enlist them to further it, and release them to manifest it. You want to work with people who understand your vision, and who can achieve it in ways you may not have imagined. Yes, things will happen that you don’t like. So what? Only clerks hire clones.
The Real Job
All of these things may be part of your job, just do your best to make them a small part. Otherwise you won’t have the time or the energy for the real job.
A rabbi’s real job is to use Jewish traditions, texts, and teachings to help people create, articulate, and live deeply meaningful and purpose-filled lives. Notice that Judaism is a means not an end. Only clerks make Judaism an end; prophets use it to achieve something greater than itself.
Here is what you need to do this job well: Torah, Midrash, and Mitzvot. By Torah I mean the entirety of Jewish literary creativity from TaNaKH and Talmud to Zohar and Tanya; from Rashi and Maimonides to the Besht and Buber; from Nachman of Breslav to Kafka of Prague; from Agnon to Jabes to Chabon and beyond. By Midrash I mean the capacity to boldly and deliberately misread this Torah to create new meanings. If all you can do is repeat what long dead rabbis have said, refer your congregation to Wikipedia and sleep in on Shabbos. And by Mitzvot I mean those traditional practices that can, when reworked in your hands, translate newly discovered meaning into purpose-filled living.
Are you learning how to be this kind of rabbi? Are you learning not only how to study Torah but also how to reveal Torah? Are you learning not only how to study midrash but also how to create it? Are you learning not only how to use mitzvot as they are, but how to shape them into what you need them to be? To borrow from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, are you being taught how to “make the old, new; and the new holy”? If so, fantastic! If not, what can you do about it? Ask your professors for help. Some of them are clerks whose only interest is in making you a clerk. But some of them are prophets dying for the opportunity to share what they know, and stymied because the establishment doesn’t value it. The best learning I did at HUC was after hours and under the table. Give your teachers the chance to teach and there is no limit to what you can learn.
You are not only a rabbi. You may also be a friend, spouse, partner, parent, sibling, and child. Don’t expect your congregants to honor your other roles. They like it when you praise family values, but they hate it when you live them. Set boundaries and stick to them.
First, make yourself unavailable. Schedule family time, personal time, and study time before you schedule time for anyone or anything else.
Second, refuse to attend meetings unless your opinion and presence are absolutely necessary. The community belongs to the people, not to you. Let them work matters out for themselves.
Third, don’t care about most things. Care only about those things that are fundamental: your vision and your values. These are the things you will quit over; the things you are willing to be fired over. If these are threatened, be their champion. If they are not, stay home and read a book or plot a revolution or play with your kids.
Fourth, avoid the part-time rabbinate. The term is code for full-time work for part-time pay. If your community wants to hire you part-time, charge them by the quarter–hour like a lawyer using lawyerly rates. They will complain, but chances are they are lawyers themselves, so stick to your guns.
Who Owns You?
You know you are owned if there is some one or some group in your congregation to whom you cannot say “no”. Rabbis who are owned come to hate their jobs, their communities, and themselves. They are slaves preaching a tradition of liberation. The irony poisons them. What can you do to stay free?
First, be clear about what you will and will not do, and don’t cave.
Second, live debt free as quickly as you can.
Third, live well below your means so that you can survive financially if you decide that getting paid is no longer worth the cost.
Fourth, cultivate a second career, something you do and might even like doing if being a rabbi is no longer feeding you and those for whom you work.
I was a congregational rabbi for twenty years, and worked as a business consultant for 15 of those years. I also wrote books and cultivated a national and eventually international speaking career. When I left congregational life I had other skills to fall back on and a resume to back them up. The early rabbis didn’t earn their living from Torah. Follow their example. Shammai was a general contractor. Go to night school and get an MA in Concrete Management.
Leave a Legacy
I had five congregational rabbis in my youth (all of whom were Orthodox), and not one touched me. I can’t even remember their names. They were interchangeable cogs in an institutional wheel that chewed them up and spit them out leaving no taste behind. They weren’t memorable. If people won’t miss you when you’re gone, they don’t notice you while you’re there.
I had five amazing rabbis in my adulthood: Mordecai Kaplan, Zalman Schachter–Shalomi, Eugene Mihaly, Ellis Rivkin, and Alvin Reines. Not all of these men were ordained, but they were rabbis nonetheless. I remember them because they touched and changed my life. I want to honor them by doing the same for others. So should you.
This might come about from something you said or something you did, or it might come about because you were wise enough to say and do nothing at the very moment when doing or saying anything would have blocked the transition the other was about to make. The skills of a transformational rabbi are three: deep listening, bold reframing, and knowing how to make meaning in a way that creates purpose. You won’t learn these at school. You learn them by being transformed by someone who has them, and then hanging around long enough to learn them yourself.
Spinoza is one of my heroes. He wore a ring on which he personally engraved a thorny rose and the Latin inscription, Caute, “cautiously”. His ring reminded him to be a thorn in the side of the establishment, but to prick cautiously. Thankfully, he didn’t take his own advice. Neither should you.
Know your vision and don’t let others blind you to it. Know what you stand for, and be willing to be knocked down on account of it, and ready to stand back up because of it. Know why you became a rabbi, and settle for nothing less. Know who you are, and don’t let others get you to be who you aren’t. Be bold. Be a prophet. This may not be what Jews want, but it is what we need.
I have been a rabbi for over thirty years. I would not want to be anything else. I hope some day you will be able to say the same.