Recreating the Rabbinate

In recent weeks, I was struck by a couple of conversations that got me thinking about what we do as rabbis and how we communicate what we do to those who are not rabbis. One conversation involved clergy asking why they were no longer considered the first port of call for a specific kind of ritual historically connected to rabbis. The second conversation involved some rabbis questioning the ‘Jewishness’ of the way another rabbi had defined the focus of their work. In the first instance, the larger question was one of how our lay folk think of rabbis and their roles. In the second instance, the question was how rabbis and rabbinic institutions and organizations define the role of rabbi for themselves.

Clearly, question one and two are related. In both cases, we are in a time of flux and change. Stereotypes of what a rabbi is, looks like, and does, pervade both within the rabbinate and beyond it. They are based on many things, including historical facts. The early rabbis were radical reformers, remaking post-Temple Judaism in a new image. They became the judges and populated the courts by which Jewish communities arbitrated all aspects of life in times and places where much of that was decided independent of the country they found themselves living in. With emancipation and the evolution of a more secular society, rabbis have become more narrowly associated with ritual and educational roles. In non-halachic movements, they have often ceased to be sources of legal guidance to their members. Additionally, once they were all men. Now they are women, men, people who are transgender, and diverse in many other ways as well; as diverse as the communities and individuals that they serve.

But these changes over time, rather than constricting or limiting the role of the rabbi in Jewish life, provide opportunities for ongoing innovation as rabbis continue to take the grounding they have in Jewish wisdom and apply it in ways that offer fresh and meaningful spiritual and cultural experiences for Jews today, while remaining anchored in a sense of something that has evolved with us for centuries. That is what Rabbis Without Borders is substantially all about. It seems to me that many of the assumptions and expectations made by lay people about rabbis, and often by rabbis about other rabbis don’t serve anyone well. Hearing or sharing more stories of how we ‘rabbi’ and what our sense of vision or purpose is can be helpful to broadening the sense of possible for those seeking to be rabbis and broaden the lay understanding of what rabbis can help individuals and groups create together that has spiritual, ethical, or cultural meaning in our lives.

Take, for example, my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold who wrote just recently on this blog about her own spiritual path that led her to offer a unique kind of learning about spiritual community through the practice of retreat, chant, and meditation. She beautifully articulates a very clear sense of what the spiritual need was, and how her rabbinic path enables her to explore and address that need. She saw what she perceived as an imbalance in Jewish practice between communal and individual needs, writing:

In my experience of Jewish communities, I suspected that some of the dysfunction I witnessed was due to the fact that people looked to the community to fulfill the spiritual needs that only a direct and personal experience of the Divine could fill. When those needs were not filled by communal experience, disappointment led to blame and alienation.

I imagined a different kind of community that would send me to my own highest and deepest quest so that I might bring back those treasures that I discovered to my community. This is how we could enrich each other and keep our tradition alive, dynamic and vital.

There are those who seek out the kind of spiritual practice that Rabbi Gold offers but did not realize that there are Jewish teachers who could guide them and Jewish communities where they could find it. We lose their creativity and deep spiritual grounding to other traditions if we don’t share how, as rabbis, some of us offer this path of meaningful engagement in a Jewish way.

Likewise, there are some rabbis who have defined their rabbinate through the path of social justice. Some of them do this work within the context of a congregation, while others have taken on the leadership of communal organizations that offer a Jewish values-based way of organizing, inspired by so much of the prophetic tradition we can find in Judaism. No-one is arguing that this path encapsulates the totality of Jewish life or expression, but it provides one powerful way for Jews who feel especially called by this part of our tradition to articulate and see the connection between their faith and their social justice work.

Rabbis are innovating by raising up the spiritual path of wilderness to explicitly help those who feel most spiritually alive in those endeavors find that spiritually reflected in Jewish ritual and text that can accompany their hikes, lifecycle celebrations, and outward bound experiences.

For myself, I’ve dedicated my rabbinate to working in a more conventional congregational setting, seeking to bring new innovations from many different sources into the ‘mainstream’ to maintain the vitality and relevance of the synagogue institution. It makes me more of a generalist, but one who draws on my background in cultural studies and sociology to find ways to deepen the Jewish experience in ways that draw on those vital cultural aspects of Jewish communal expression that many of my members hold most dear. At the same time, I offer pathways to experience the spiritual possibilities of our tradition with rituals that are explained, personalized and often co-created with wedding couples, new parents, etc. so that the old can be made new and meaningfully reflect the significance of those special moments in people’s lives. I’m also a big believer in Judaism as a ‘public good’ and have dedicated some of my rabbinic work to creating interfaith community organizations wherever I have worked. This bridge building is one of the ways that I seek to create a more inclusive wider community. At the same time, it provides an inspirational public forum that places our Jewish community at the heart of broader local initiatives that demonstrate the role of faith in putting more love and kindness into our world.

Imagine for yourself what inspiring rabbinic leadership would look like to you. If you are a seeker, know that rabbis take many forms and are bringing fresh approaches to their work. Rabbis Without Borders is just one place where you are likely to find someone who speaks to the expression of Jewish culture, ethics or spirituality that you are most drawn to. If you are a rabbi, think about the ways you explain your vision and purpose to others. You might be exactly what they are looking for.

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