On the one hand, becoming a rabbi occurs upon the bestowal of ordination as the culmination of a period of study. This, of course, can lead to a whole host of questions about how rigorous the type of study program ought to be, but for present purposes I want to focus on the meaning of the label “rabbi” in a professional context. The designation “rabbi” is in many ways akin to “doctor”–a job-related title that also connotes societal esteem, trust, and the product of extensive preparatory education. And just as my wife is still a doctor when she is on vacation, so too a rabbi remains a rabbi. While the sunshine (God-willing) may numb the mental capabilities somewhat, I still have the same professional status while on vacation that I had before I left.
On the other hand, being a rabbi is inherently different from being a doctor in one key respect: a rabbi’s work is relational whereas a doctor need not be. Rabbi literally means “teacher”, and a rabbi needs to be in relationship with others no less than a teacher needs students. Whereas a doctor can still practice medicine in an isolated lab, a rabbi cannot be a rabbi in isolation.
But vacation is not isolation (as my children are sure to remind me). When I return to my ancestral homeland of California for vacation, the trickiness of rabbinic identity stems not from an absence of relationships but from the complexity of hanging out from family and friends who see me as Josh, not as Rabbi Ratner. Even if I try to “act” like a rabbi during a family squabble or answer a friend’s halakhic question, I am not really their rabbi any more than they are my congregants.
One year after my own ordination, I can already feel the power the label “rabbi” conveys. As we are taught in rabbinical school, rabbis–like all clergy–serve as proxies for God in the eyes of our laity. Whether we like it or not, we are the symbolic exemplars of all that is religious. And, like the “God complex” surgeons sometimes take on, the rabbinic affect can subtly, subconsciously start to intrude upon one’s own psyche and sense of self-worth. I have always disliked the idea of being a religious token or intermediary between others and the Divine, but I am starting to question how much control I have over this pastoral dynamic when serving in my pulpit, no matter how many sermons about spiritual autonomy I give. So maybe it will be healthy for my sense of humility, during this vacation, to try to focus on reclaiming “Josh” and putting “Rabbi Ratner” on hiatus for a couple weeks.
A couple of weeks ago, Michal Kohane caused a few ripples in the blogosphere by getting fired over the column “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” Her premise is that the Jewish community has put most of its efforts into engaging 20-and-30-somethings – with trips, and “service opportunities,” grants, fellowships, and essentially begging young Jews to come and be Jewish by offering all kinds of swag and calling them “leaders” (whether or not they are) and basically offering any kind of enticement that can be imagined as attractive to the young. And that this effort is excessive, misguided – and really, not quite Jewish in its exclusion from consideration the talents and wisdom of those over this age demographic:
…one can be “old,” and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers” “do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen,” he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do.” The audience nodded with pride.
I don’t disagree. I would also add, although she doesn’t that this particular form of ageism is gendered (take a look around the room of any powerful Jewish organization and see how many of them are older men, as opposed to older women).
But I’d ask some additional questions here – not because she’s wrong, but because I think she actually misses the point. While there is certainly ageism, and gender bias, and an insane focus on getting young Jews to breed by any means possible, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the young people whose narcissism she complains about. These programs aren’t developed by those twenty and thirty somethings, and don’t, for the most part take into account their needs – which is why many of them fail to develop long-term affiliations.
But here’s the real question:
Not just for the “screwed 40somethings,” but also the 20 and 30 somethings. Why are we offering any bribes at all?
Because, ultimately that’s what a great deal of this boils down to. “Please be Jewish, so we don’t die out.”
But Judaism doesn’t need that.
Judaism is not going to die out. And I think perhaps it’s time that we stopped treating Judaism as though it needed to be bolstered by various metaphorical swag bags.
The attitude comes from a view of Judaism which thinks that Judaism is simply a sort of super-ethnicity, with some nice cultural baggage that we want to live on. But Judaism is a rich, powerful relationship with the universe and the divine, and it is a mission. And not everyone is going to accept that mission.
The mission requires some dedication – it means that priorities have to be set because -as Moses said to Reuven and Gad in the Torah portion this week – your cattle? really? You’re going to put your flocks ahead of this great mission that we’re on? They are not the most important thing. God drives our lives, and our goals; God is our mission, and bringing the holy into this world is our mission- you need to get your priorities straight, and sometimes that means setting aside the bigger paycheck, the soccer game, the Saturday shopping trip.
Instead of asking why 40-somethings aren’t being offered tidbits along with 20-somethings, I’d ask, “what are you offering Judaism?” All of us, whatever age we are.
I have to say, I’m also tired of the endless programs, the baby-marriage-hookup-drives for the young, the demographic desperation.
And in perfect honesty, I suspect that few of those 20 and 30 somethings are that impressed by them either.
Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone.
Which is not to say “My way or the highway.” Our communities have gotten lazy abut very basic things: friendliness (but NOT customer service. Judaism is not a business, and the faster we drop that foolish trope, the better), acceptance, and yes, thinking about what a community is.
Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because a community must be composed of children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class (the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
That is a community.
There are definitely things that we could all do better, no question. Lots of things could be done better.
The fact that some people will start at a more basic level of learning is fine, but we shouldn’t be offering only basic learning. Study can be done at all kinds of levels for all kinds of different abilities – but it should be challenging and difficult and rich for anyone at whatever level – and all of us should take ourselves to the table -Every Single Person should make a commitment to study and Jewish living, and spending time with people who are not like you.
And no one should be satisfied with the same basics over and over again – or, more realistically, unsatisfied with them. Because I think that’s really what’s missing. The superficial is terribly unsatisfying. Have we gone too far in some ways, emphasizing flashy programs over deep study and demographic concerns over genuine commitment to an important mission from God?
And that’s why Kohane is right, and wrong: it isn’t that people over forty have been excluded – it’s that all of us have been. And it’s long past time to do something about it. But there’s no “someone else” to do it. It’s us. So get up, and open a book, and go to shul, and do something Jewish with someone else. If you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, well, that’s what shul is for – to create a community where we can all lean on each other.
Captain’s log, Stardate July 2112:
It’s 2112. This is the year that the rock band Rush imagined that the brotherhood of man would need to be set free from the tyranny of the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx. They imagined a man named Anonymous would find a guitar, make music and set humanity free. Well, they were partly right, it was 2110 and her name was not Anonymous.
What our earliest human ancestors understood was that words have the power to build or to destroy. Thus, they attributed to their ancient understanding of the Divine the power of speech and thus creativity: “And God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light (Gen 1:3). The great Chafetz Hayim, from whom we base our holy practice is Shemirat Halashon (guarding the tongue) understood that the right words lift people up. My favorite:
Yes. Yes. Yes! Yeeeeessss!
But when people are at their most vulnerable, the wrong words can shape the ego in ways that can take decades to undo:
You are so stupid.
What were you thinking!?
You’ll never be able to do that.
Thank heavens we in the year 2112 know better. To be generous, our ancestors from the early 21st century began to understand that words indeed have meaning and real power, even if they were very bad at knowing which words were positive and which were negative. Their comical solution, amass large stockpiles of communication. Here in Bluffdale, Utah, the US National Security Agency built a then massive storage for email, phone records, and other digital information. The hope that they would someday be able to find meaning in their treasure proved greater than their laws protecting privacy. They stored Zettabytes and even Yottabytes of records. Alas.
In 2013, the now famous, Ed Snowden,helped bring brought data treasures to greater light. A mighty conversation about privacy took place. Indeed, as opined in the New York Times (The Service of Snowden, 6.27.13), history has treated his actions favorably. From our vantage in 2112, is is clear that the government and its contracted agents in 2013 did not know what they had caught in their massive data sweeps. Why else did they leave so many vital messages unexplored as unimportant? Consider the following unsent emails we have collected from those unearthed stockpiles:
I still love you.
Will I find a way out?
I hope I can keep my home.
Please don’t take the kids.
I hope they find that son-of-a-bitch.
I really need that job.
I’ve never been so scared.
Why won’t somebody help me?
Every word has power. Everything we say has meaning.
In the 21 century they heard everything, but they never listened.
Captain’s log: sign off.
There is an old joke about the rabbinic search committee who in looking for a rabbi wanted someone who was creative, dynamic, fresh out of seminary, and had thirty years of experience.
Obviously, this is an impossible combination. The traditional image of a rabbi is an older man with a long white beard and glasses. The word “rabbi” itself evokes a sense of someone with wisdom, learning, and years of knowledge behind him. Yet this image of a rabbi is at odds with the reality of the state of the rabbinate today. Today, rabbis are male, female, young, old, and some even specialize in different areas, pastoral counseling, organizational management, or academic learning to name a few. The nature of the rabbinate and what one expects from a rabbi has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.
In most cases, I would argue that this is a good thing. However, there is one aspect of the changing perception of rabbis which concerns me. And that is the thought that the younger the rabbi, the better. I have the great pleasure of working with rabbis at all ages and stages of their rabbinates. I know extremely talented new young rabbis and extremely talented seasoned older rabbis. There are advantages to being on either end of this spectrum. But with each passing year it seems as if our youth obsessed American culture is leading our communities to discount the wisdom and expertise of older rabbis.
I should define my terms. A “younger rabbi” is someone in his or her 20s or 30s. And an “older rabbi” is anyone over 50 years. The 40s seem to be, for the moment, a middle ground, but the age of an “older” rabbi does seem to be trending downward in to this realm as well.
In the past week, I read an article by Michal Kohane in which she takes to task the Jewish Community for ignoring the Jewish population over 40. While her article makes several assertions I do not agree with. I do think that her central point, that as a community, we have become obsessed with youth to the detriment of the older population, has some validity. I certainly see it in the professional sphere. As a colleague of mine said in a meeting this week, “If you are a rabbi over 50, and you lose your job, good luck finding another. It is almost impossible.” Given this reality, another rabbinic colleague said that the time has come for rabbis to get used to the idea that they will need to launch a second career later in their lives. There just are not enough communities or jobs interested in hiring them.
While there are some rabbis who burn out and should retire form the rabbinate in their 50s, there are many, many more who still have much to offer. I wish I knew of a way to combat the ageism I am seeing in the Jewish community. I firmly believe that each individual needs to be judged on his or her merits. A rabbi who is committed to on-going learning of traditional texts, current events, and leadership skills can be an innovative leader throughout his or her life.
How can we hold multiple visions of rabbis in our head at one time? Young,/old, male/female, gay/straight, black/white/Asian all kinds of people make inspiring rabbis. Let us honor them all.