Acknowledging that this is a work in progress since my thoughts are always evolving, I want to remind everyone that this is really a snapshot rather than eternal truth. Also, I apologize before the fact that this article is more rambling and less polished than many–it’s the nature of this particular beast.
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Since I’ve never worked, nor really aspired to work, as a congregational rabbi, I spend a lot of time, probably more than I should, thinking about what my job is really supposed to be. Largely creating my own role, I have the freedom to observe what I want to emulate from great rabbis of the past as well as what I want to avoid from the not-so-great. I’m also challenged to discover how, in the 21st century, living in the US (for now), I can attempt to actually meet those goals.
It seems so obvious, almost tautological, that a rabbi’s role is to pass forward the Torah he’s received, processed by his own experiences, to the future. Actually, I’ve been surprised through the years to discover many rabbis for whom that doesn’t even enter their minds. I realize that many rabbis fill congregational roles where much of their time, these years especially, is diverted to fundraising and cultivating donors as well as to an entire host of administrative duties. Since congregational life in America is shrinking, many rabbis have moved into hospital and hospice chaplaincy, a taste of which I also experience in my role as a “rabbinic counselor”, but a common complaint I hear from friends and colleagues in this field is that it really has nothing to do with their years of rabbinic studies. It’s certainly a necessary and potentially fulfilling thing to do, but it’s rarely “actively Jewish”.
Many others in the rabbinic world use their title to promote a wide range of political and social causes. I’ve never been drawn to that since I don’t feel that the Torah generates any specific political agenda. While many of our values indeed speak to social issues, there is no Divine Mandate to be a Democrat or a Republican, a Laborite or a Likudnik, a capitalist or a socialist, a developer or an environmental activist. As I’ve written previously, I find the concept of “Da’as Torah“, the Torah mandating specific behavior and decisions that are outside the realm of halacha (the spiritual walking on the path to our dual refinement of ourselves and of our portion of the world) insidious, counterproductive and just plain wrong. Growing along the path of Torah teaches us how to think while, on the other hand, telling us what to think prevents us from ever actually thinking. We are mandated to discover our inner truth, the root of our neshama, soul.
A beautiful teaching of Rabbi Twerski zt”l brings out that idea. Examining a famous statement of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, found in the Mishna of Berachot and repeated in the Haggadah, אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה, הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת, עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya said, “Here I am like a man of seventy and I never succeeded (in having my opinion accepted) that we need to mention the redemption from Egypt at night until it was proposed and explained by Ben Zoma“. The Rabbi zt”l explains that everyone has their unique portion of Torah which only they can bring into the world. Thus, even though he was correct, this wasn’t a Torah that was uniquely attached to Rabbi Elazar’s neshama, but rather to Ben Zoma’s. Thus, until Ben Zoma, himself, introduced this Torah, the world was incapable of accepting it, even if someone as wise, holy and prestigious as Rabbi Elazar proposed the exact same thing.
So, this leads me to a direction that I think is a worthwhile goal for a rabbi, at least for myself as a rabbi. This is to lead/coach/encourage people to find the Torah that is within them, that is uniquely and expression of their soul, of who they are.
Expanding from this point, especially in today’s world it seems that a rabbi, or similar Torah teacher even without the title, might possibly teach that our entire system, outwardly reflected in our behavior as it’s molded and directed by halacha, is geared to lead each of us to our unique relationship with the Infinite God. Between too many rabbis who try to coerce uniformity and conformity through halacha, in the name of Torah, and too many rabbis at the other extreme who reject the entire system of halacha (often in reaction to the previous rabbis), throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were, the need to inspire people to explore and discover their own halachic paths (within the traditionally devoloped framework of halachic options) emerges in all its urgency. As we’ve said and written and often repeated, there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” halacha. Just as each of us possesses and embodies our unique portion of Torah, each of us has a unique path within, and hopefully utilizing, the halachic system. Another rabbinic function I try to perform is helping friends, students and interested people in general discover and navigate theirs.
My main “rabbinic activity” over the years has been teaching Torah. Teaching Torah is not teaching “about” Judaism, “about” the Bible (even if you call it the Torah), “about” the liturgy, “about” the Talmud or “about” anything at all. While, of course, one needs to learn a minimum amount of Torah in order to properly address the mitzvot, and that is a legitimate reason to study Torah, that’s really a minimalist involvement.
Rather, we talk about תורה לשמה, Torah LiShma, Torah study for its own sake. Beyond the basics (and I feel sad for folks who have merely experienced endless repetitions of Judaism 101, year after year after year), Torah Study is a process, not a product, an end in itself rather than a means to something else. Since, as we’ve mentioned, everyone has their unique portion of Torah, which also means their unique way of engaging with Torah in general, I find my greatest rabbinic satisfaction helping people discover their own relationship, enabling them to utilize Torah Study as a direct way to experience and commune with God, at least through the intellectual and imagination channels.
Everyone is different. The way I seem to be configured, I enjoy manipulating the abstract concepts as they often appear just beneath the surface of Talmudic writings as well as the wild imagery and poetry of our Kabbalah masters. Over the years I’ve developed a criterion to evaluate whether I’ve entered the realm of Torah LiShma! Simply stated, it’s when I realize how much fun I’m having! This isn’t a skill I self-developed, however, but one that has been crafted over the years by many wonderful rabbis and teachers, most of whom have been frequently mentioned in these pages. Thus I respond to the rabbinic role of training and enabling students to experience the sheer joy as the intellect leads the spirit to ever higher feelings of unity and oneness.
I’m not a fan of the institution of Chief Rabbis. One of the greatest strengths of our tradition has been the relative anarchy of competing and often contradicting authorities and interpretations of our Torah and Mitzvot. On a “local” basis, rabbis and students/congregants/friends can form intimate bonds of trust and respect so the two can work together to discover each person’s unique role and path. With centralized authority, we find ourselves too often left with a franchise-feeling, off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all דרך, derech, way. Rather, our uniqueness is so strong that I can safely say that if two people are observing Torah and Mitzvot in the exact same way, at least one of them, if not both (i.e. they’re both imitating a third, standardized, דרך, relevant to neither) , are “wrong”.
This leads, in conclusion, to my greeting and blessing for Pesach, חג שמח וכשר, Chag Sameach v’Kasher, may your Pesach be joyous first and kosher second. While this reverses the traditional, especially orthodox, custom, I’m not stating that joy is primary and kashrut is optional. Rather, both are essential, but not equivalent. While the laws of Pesach create and clear the way for the energy of liberation and freedom (ironic, since freedom is derived from devotion to external rules! I guess I have a new topic to write about…..), the goal isn’t conformity but, rather, the joy one feels at those rare moments of one-ness.
Thus, I wish everyone a Pesach where we utilize our resources to reach a new, ever-higher level of joy.
חג שמח וכשר