Does A Rabbi Have To Be A Role Model?

It’s over a month now since the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced that it would consider intermarried candidates for admission to the seminary. Other rabbinical and cantorial seminaries require students, if they are married, to be married to Jews (the students themselves must be Jewish, of course). One of the arguments I saw in favor of this policy is that over 50 percent of Jews in the U.S. are married to non-Jews, so if rabbis can be married to non-Jews too, they provide a model of how to be a committed Jew in an intermarriage. The counterargument to this is that rabbis aren’t like their congregants, the Jews in the pews. Rather, this argument goes, rabbis should be held to a higher standard.

READ: Reconstructionists Consider Dropping Ban on Intermarried Rabbis

Never mind that this argument assumes that a Jew marrying another Jew is at a higher level of righteousness than a Jew marrying a non-Jew, a premise that I reject (see my post from last month). There is a broader question that can be raised here: Is the role of the rabbi the same as it has been in the past?

We have already seen a shift, at least in the liberal Jewish world (I’m most familiar with the Reform Movement, with which my synagogue is affiliated), from rabbi as scholar and arbiter of Jewish law to rabbi as pastoral caregiver as well as teacher and preacher. I wonder if those who say that the rabbi needs to be an exemplar of Jewish life are holding to a model of the rabbi as an authority figure that many Jews no longer want or need.

READ: Rabbi: Teacher, Preacher, Judge — But Not Priest

My congregants see me as a teacher and an authority on Jewish tradition, but I don’t think they expect me to be a “better Jew” than they are, outside of showing up (nearly) every Shabbat and holiday because I’m the one who leads services.

I believe my congregants, and many other Jews, see their rabbis as guides for their spiritual lives. They want us to meet them where they are, help them find their own spiritual paths, and be available to help them create their Jewish lives. They aren’t looking for us to be the Jews they don’t choose to be, so that we can somehow be surrogates for the Jewish life they don’t want to live, but that seems to them to be the way to be Jewish “right.”

Recently, I was with a group of about six congregants, and in the course of a conversation I shared with them my own struggle to feel a visceral, spiritual connection to God. It is something I want to have, but that I have never felt in a consistent way — my primary connection with God is through studying text and experiencing the revelation of new insights in the text, which is exhilarating, but intellectual rather than emotional. When I was done describing my experience, I asked, “Are you now completely disillusioned with me as your rabbi?” I was joking, but it was only about 75 percent joke, and 25 percent nervousness about the vulnerability I’d shared. About three of my congregants answered simultaneously, with something like, “No, I feel better now about how I feel.”

READ: The Changing Role of the Pulpit Rabbi in America

There are different ways to be a model. An older rabbinic model was the authority figure who lived a Jewish life that was appropriate for emulation by congregants (or at least admiration). I suggest that a newer model is the rabbi as spiritual guide, and the rabbi as a human who is committed to a Jewish and spiritual life even as she faces the same challenges and lives in the same world as her congregants. I am grateful to have a congregation that looks for this from me, and doesn’t hold me to a higher standard than the one to which they hold themselves, but does see me as someone who will encourage them on whatever their spiritual journey is, while I am on a spiritual journey too.

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