Friday, November 20, 2009

On Being A Rabbi

I had the most interesting challenge laid at my feet this week. Rivon Krygier, the rabbi of the Adath Shalom congregation in Paris, is a very good friend of mine. We’ve worked together on all sorts of different projects over the years, most of them related somehow to Conservative Judaism (the quarterly journal which I’ve now served as chairman of the editorial board for almost a full decade), and I have only come to admire him more and more as I’ve read and translated his work and watched him build something truly impressive in Paris over the years. (You can read about Adath Shalom at If you can read French, you can visit their own website at But the specific challenge Rivon inspired in me this week is only tangentially related to Adath Shalom and far more directly so to the business of actually being a rabbi.

A local newspaper in Paris invited Rivon to contribute five hundred words on what it means to him to be a rabbi. At first, it sounds like it must have been an easy assignment—five hundred words is about one double-spaced page printed out in normal-sized letters—so how hard could it be for any of us to write that much about whatever it is we do all day? But, of course, just the opposite is true. As any writer of worth will tell you, going on forever about something is infinitely easier than answering a question succinctly and clearly on a single, well-written page! And the simpler the question, the more daunting the challenge.

To frame his comments just a bit whimsically, Rivon chose to describe his life as a rabbi in terms of the three punctuation marks—a hyphen, a question mark, and an exclamation point—that he finds to suggest different aspects of his rabbinate and one, the period that marks the end of a sentence, that he doesn’t. I read what he wrote with great interest and it appealed to me so much that I thought it would be interesting to share his sense of what it means to be a rabbi with my readers this week.

Rabbis, Rivon wrote, are the professional equivalent of hyphens because they serve within their communities as agents of linkage, as the living bridges that attach the souls of discrete human beings to each other and bind them—as individuals and as a community of linked souls—to God. And rabbis are living hyphens in another profound way as well because, as teachers charged with linking the words of the Torah to each other gently and subtly, their job is also to create a context for individual congregants to feel themselves drawn into the world of religious observance as they come to perceive the fabric of revelation to an organic whole rather than a collection of disparate legal and narrative passages only tangentially related to their “real” lives. The ideal rabbi, therefore, is a not only a teacher, but specifically one who modestly finds his or her natural home in the narrow blank spaces between the words of the scroll, not someone who mistakes him or herself for a prophet or an angel possessed of secret information to be shared only with the sufficiently observant or educated or priorly committed.

Moving along, Rivon wrote that rabbis are also question marks because, at least ideally, they serve their communities precisely by stimulating thoughtful, respectful debate. Indeed, he writes, rabbis should strive always to feel totally secure in the belief that naïve credulity can never substitute for the kind of hard-won faith that derives directly from personal engagement with difficult, challenging issues. (Some of you, I hope, will recognize this thought from the introductory essay in the Shabbat and Festivals volume of Siddur Tzur Yisrael.) He quotes Martin Buber’s comment in The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism that true faith can always be recognized because it is the kind of belief that never stops challenging the heart and the mind. Indeed, it is precisely because faith exists in its finest guise as the diametric opposite of placid, docile acceptance of other people’s ideas that Rivon understands any rabbi’s greatest challenge to be the effort to bring Jews to spiritual maturity precisely by challenging them to grow into their faith naturally and honestly by toiling in their own vineyards to bring forth fruit they can truly claim as their own.

The rabbi-as-question-mark concept, however, is only truly meaningful when paired with Rivon’s model of the rabbi as exclamation point. A rabbi, so Rivon, can never be content solely with stimulating questions: there also have to be answers, even tentative ones. He firmly rejects the stale, over-cited notion that Judaism consists solely of questions without answers. Debate is healthy, he implies, but the kind of healthy debate that stimulates spiritual and intellectual growth is not to be confused with endless and directionless dithering. Impassioned dialogue, including the kind that takes place between the two sides of one’s own brain, is key, but equally crucial is that all that foment has actually to lead somewhere that the engaged parties can pitch their Jewish tents instead of just endlessly talking about it! This too is an idea I can embrace enthusiastically, having grown into it myself over long years of suggesting—to myself and to others—that just the opposite could well be the case.

And then there is the one thing that Rivon wrote that a rabbi isn’t and can never be: the period at the end of a sentence. By this, he meant something profound and also very engaging to me personally: that in his conception rabbis should specifically not have the final word on what people believe, but instead should feel charged with speaking the first word, the one that stimulates creative thinking and the kind of productive, ruminative introspection that prompts individuals to develop into finer versions of their earlier Jewish iterations. This is the model of the rabbi as catalyst, as initiator, as guide. And indeed from my own experience in the rabbinate I know all too well that rabbis should never entertain the fantasy that they can win the hearts of congregants by yelling at them or hectoring them or bullying them. Indeed, for rabbis to allow themselves to feel that they have successfully “taught” Judaism to their congregants simply by presenting themselves personally as examples of the model Jew to which others may hopefully aspire is to doom their efforts from the start. To be a successful rabbi, my friend Rivon concludes, one must first be a mensch.

So far, Rivon. It’s taken me almost half again as many words to describe what he wrote than he actually needed to express himself in the first place. But the real challenge is not to boil his comments down to precisely five hundred words, but to respond to what he wrote. Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to do my job. I’m not even sure exactly why I’ve moved into this reflective mode, but I find myself spending more and more time trying to formulate a sense of what the great goal of my rabbinate is, the idea being not so much to list my daily tasks and then honestly to say how well I think I am managing to complete them but to say clearly what the overall goal is, what it is that I want to be the hallmark of my life in the congregational rabbinate, what I want people eventually to remember about my work as a rabbi.

I agree with Rivon—and wholeheartedly—that the point is not merely to talk endlessly about unresolvable issues—and not even to do so intelligently and thoughtfully—but to use the friction between what we know of the world and what we want to believe about the world to generate the kind of spiritual energy capable of propelling us forward towards real growth. And it is the job of a rabbi to model this specific way to harness the tension between faith and reason for positive, productive ends. So I’m in total agreement that a rabbi needs to be both question mark and exclamation point.

And I agree as well that rabbis must be hyphens because the whole point of being a rabbi—and especially in the congregational setting—cannot merely be to demonstrate how successfully the rabbi in question has personally mastered the ins and outs of ritual observance or learned to analyze ancient texts, but must also be to show through personal example that spiritual growth can be attained by ordinary Jewish people using the simple tools our ancestors bequeathed to us all: careful reading, introspective study, thoughtful prayer, focused ritual observance, and the pursuit of charity, kindness, and generosity in our relationships with others. And it is that concept of rabbi-as-hyphen linking Jews to the Torah, to each other, and to God, that is at the core of the enterprise for me. Consequently, the obligation to model the kind of principled engagement with the world, with tradition, and with the Torah itself that can lead purposefully forward towards the redemptive moment without obliging pilgrims to abandon their wits or their principles is what it means to me—and apparently to my friend Rivon as well—to be a rabbi. And I suspect it’s also why we both chose early on to spend the years of our professional lives working with real Jewish people in an actual Jewish community rather than, say, lecturing about Judaism to disinterested undergraduates.

In the end, the journey is everything…but the job of rabbis is not to take congregants along with them on their own personal journeys, but to help those congregants find the fortitude to make their own individual way forward on their private paths towards their personal Jerusalems. A rabbi cannot be the period at the end of someone else’s sentence! And that too is something I enjoyed finding stated out loud in my friend’s column about our shared profession this week.

Even after all these years, I can’t think of a way I would have liked more to make my mark on the world, nor can I think of an avenue of personal self-expression that would have been more gratifying or satisfying. The old joke has it that being a rabbi is no way for a Jew to earn a living…but it’s been a good life for me, one filled both with professional and spiritual satisfaction. I’m occasionally asked if I would pursue a career in the rabbinate if I had the choice to make all over again, if I were somehow back to being an undergraduate contemplating the different career paths that were open to me. The answer for me is that, yes, I would. Even with knowing all that I’ve learned in the intervening years, I’d still opt for a life in the rabbinate. And I think my friend in Paris, Rabbi Rivon Krygier, would too!

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