The Rabbinate?

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March 1, 2009
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David Glanzberg-Krainin & Sam Berrin Shonkoff

Dear Rabbi Glanzberg-Krainin,

For years I have felt compelled to be a rabbi. This path incorporates my deepest interests and fascinations: teaching, literature and philosophy, meaningful moments in people’s lives, seeking the sacred. No matter how far my heart and mind wander Jewishly, I repeatedly encounter my sense that I would love being a rabbi. Wherever I am in my journey, I revisit this conviction in new ways.

I fear, however, that ordination could ironically compromise this very journey. Though almost-applying to rabbinical school has colored my past two autumns, I have annually decided to soak up another year as a layperson. I want to keep questioning, exploring, and experimenting; I don’t want my journey to end.

I am hesitant to forfeit the freedom and spontaneity of this journey. Connecting religion and career must introduce some concrete boundaries into one’s spiritual life. While I value discipline and commitment, I also enjoy the variety in my practice — the liberty to seek God in many different ways. Some mornings I yearn to lay tefillin; other mornings, silent meditation. Some Shabbatot I gravitate toward minyanim; others, the woods. I do not want to apologize to colleagues or congregants for this inconsistency. How is it for you to have your religious life on display? Do you ever feel spiritually stifled as a rabbi?

I am also reluctant to curb my explorations of the uncharted territories that define a journey. Do you feel that you have time to continue to learn and to draw from teachers? Also, are the laypeople around you hungry for Jewish knowledge? Do you feel intellectually challenged in your workplace? I sometimes wonder if a career in academic Jewish studies would be more stimulating. Did you ever consider academia over the rabbinate? How did you decide?

There appears to be a dearth of rabbis with more questions than answers. So many seem better at talking than listening, at responding than wondering. Is there something about rabbinic life that conditions people to be this way? I do not want to acquire that sort of “confidence.” How have you remained an open, curious, and wrestling Jew? Have you ever been tempted to feign certainty or to rationalize in order to feel more certain?

Thank you for your time,
Sam

Dear Sam,

Thanks for writing so openly about your search and struggles; I am very moved by your questions. Before trying to respond, let me first point out something that I found very striking about what you wrote: “No matter how far my heart and mind wander Jewishly, I repeatedly encounter my sense that I would love being a rabbi.” That’s a powerful statement to make, and I advise you to pay it close attention. Perhaps your question is not, Do I want to be a rabbi but, rather, how can I be a rabbi in a way that will keep me alive spiritually.

I am particularly struck by your fear that  your religious journey will end upon ordination. In my experience, you can’t keep the journey from ending unless, has v’shalom, you die. You are always on a journey somewhere, regardless of your career path. The questions you ask have to do with where and how your journey could unfold in a way that nurtures you and makes you feel alive while allowing you to give your gifts to the world.

It is true that, to use your words, “connecting religion and career” does, in fact, limit freedom and spontaneity. There is no question that the life of a congregational rabbi imposes real boundaries on one’s ability to follow the “religious impulses of the moment.” Yet it seems to me that a religious life lived within the context of a community of any kind imposes boundaries on one’s ability to live religiously in the moment. As I read your questions, I want to ask: What role does the desire to serve play in your decision-making process? In my experience, the rabbis who are most fulfilled by their work are both passionate about Jewish life and desirous of serving God and the Jewish people. In the non-Orthodox world, one of the few places where you can both receive an intense Jewish education and live within a seriously committed Jewish community has always been rabbinical school. But once you leave the womb of that training program, rabbis who don’t feel a deep desire to serve ha’Kodesh barukh Hu and am Yisrael are often the ones who are most deeply pained by the reality of life among am’cha.

And it is true that if you become a congregational rabbi, your religious life will be on display. Jack Bloom calls the rabbi a symbolic exemplar for the congregation. And yes, that does mean that there are times when you may be incredibly distant in your connection with God while you’re leading a Shabbat morning prayer service. I imagine that this is not dissimilar from the way a therapist feels about a client whose issues become tedious. Most therapists are not going to say to their patient: “Listen, I just can’t bear to hear you drone on for another hour.” Yes, there will be times when you are going through the motions and not really feeling it. But that boredom, and those boundaries, can also be incorporated into your religious life. “How,” you might ask God on a regular basis, “can I serve You best in these circumstances?”

Your congregants are going to be more and less fluent in the language of Jewish life. There are times when you will feel called upon to speak to your congregants on a level that might feel rather pedestrian; at other times, you will be called upon to translate at a very sophisticated level. If you are fervent about what you are doing and respectful of the different places where people are on their own journeys, you will find a community that wants to learn from your most passionate of places. 

Finally, Sam, it is true that some of my colleagues exude a confidence that might at times verge on pomposity. This phenomenon might be a defense against the vulnerability that comes from functioning as a symbol of something to which one feels unworthy. It is true that members of your community will look to you for answers; it is true that saying to your members that you don’t have the answer, or that you struggle with the same issue, is indeed a risk. The culture of the community that one serves has a lot to do with how safe it is to admit one’s own confusion. But a conscious, self-aware individual does not need to become a pompous rabbi — although rabbis sometimes fit that description. It is possible to be both passionate and humble in your work despite the symbolic role that you end up playing in people’s lives.

Kol tuv, David

Dear David,

I see a theme emerging in our correspondence: giving and receiving, self-awareness and awareness of others. I expressed my fear that being a rabbi might threaten my personal journey and you encouraged me to consider my desire to serve. As a Hillel professional, friend, romantic partner, and son, I have struggled with the delicate balance between giving and receiving.

I feel compelled to serve as a rabbi. When I have new insights, I almost reflexively fantasize about how I could share them. When I encounter inspiring texts, I want to read them aloud. My journals are sprinkled with dormant divrei Torah. I love listening to people. But the desire to serve can go awry.

It seems that one who constantly embraces the role of “symbolic exemplar” for a community could actually limit his or her capacity to inspire that community. A Zen roshi concerned with his monks must also let go sometimes and focus on his own meditation; if not, he’ll wither as a teacher. Is it not similar for rabbis? How have you sought this balance between giving and receiving in your career? How have you created space to explore your own soul so that you can help others explore theirs?

When I do not consistently “receive” richness from prayer and ritual, I wonder why I should inspire others to seek meaning in those places. I do not have perfect faith in the structures of Jewish religion. When you are, in your words, “going through the motions and not really feeling it,” how do you remain inspired to be a full-time proponent of Judaism? How do you know that God wants to be served in this way? Your statement that boredom can actually enrich one’s religious life intrigues me. I would love to hear more about this. 

Thank you for your openness,
Sam

Dear Sam,

You are absolutely right to be cautious about the potential for rabbis to become so focused on serving others that they neglect to invest in their own religious growth and care. Rabbis who don’t make time for their own neshamot become burnt out and bitter. You happen to be considering the rabbinate at a time when the larger Jewish community is responding to this phenomenon with an explosion of continuing rabbinic education programs. I have participated in several that have been enriching.

I have also struggled with how to represent my commitment to the Jewish enterprise during those times when my own inspiration is lacking. In fact, this is one of the questions that I have been exploring over the past five years through spiritual direction. I had been framing the question in the language of “passion”: To be sure that this is what God really wants me to do, shouldn’t I feel passionate about my rabbinic work all the time? My spiritual director suggested that instead of measuring the “passion” I felt, I could consider if my work allowed me to stay “compassionate” and “interested.” With this shift in my thinking, the occasional phenomenon of boredom became much less threatening. I am sure that the value of any relationship that you invest in over time — whether with a person or with your work — will be better calculated by your level of “compassion and interest” than it will be by your level of “passion.” Of course, I would agree that if you never have any passion for what you are doing, it’s probably a clear sign that this may not be the place God wants you to serve.

I think the scarier question you are asking is: What happens if the community that I am serving is not particularly interested in the Torah that I’m most passionate about? Will you have the courage to leave and to find a place where you can be truer to yourself? These are indeed complicated questions — especially when your parnasah is on the line.

Kol tuv, David

Dear David,

The issue of parnasah is so complicated. On the one hand, what a blessing it is for people to support themselves through meaningful work! And Jewish communities need leaders who can devote abundant time and energy to Jewish life. On the other hand, the fact that rabbis earn a salary for their engagement with Judaism raises sticky questions.

Active laypeople, precisely because they serve without remuneration, might have more profound influence than rabbis. About a rabbi who observes Shabbat, visits the sick, and prays everyday, one can always say, “Well, s/he gets paid for that!” Would engaged laypeople shed a truer light on the value of Jewish practice? And do laypeople draw more meaning from their religious life than rabbis do because they are n’div libo, voluntary-hearted? When do you feel that your status as a professional Jew mitigates your capacity to inspire others? How does your parnasah challenge your ability to serve?

I wonder whether I, as a Torah-thirsty, non-Orthodox Jew, should go the route of the rabbinate or if I should serve as a committed layperson at the grass roots. What qualities, beyond the desire to serve, qualify someone to be an attentive rabbi rather than a devoted layperson?

I want to conclude with a more personal question. Careers in the rabbinate are known to be taxing on family life. At the end of the day (literally and figuratively), I am more committed to being a husband and father than to being a rabbi. If love and holiness are different, love means more to me. How have you struggled with this aspect of your work-life balance? Is it possible to do both wholly?

I regret to end this final letter. My questions are inexhaustible. Thank you,

Sam

Dear Sam,

In this exchange of letters we’ve been discussing two things at the same time: your own particular journey and the nature of the congregational rabbinate. There is a deep integrity to the journey that you write about as you reflect on your life: your love of Torah; your passion for truth and honesty; your desire to be a loving spouse and a nurturing father. And there is a genuine concern you express about the ways in which the congregational rabbinate might actually limit or compromise the very essence of what now most motivates you in life. I would be lying if I told you that you have nothing to worry about. Your queries about the congregational rabbinate are not so much questions as they are an acknowledgment of the occupational hazards of this profession. It is possible to go through the motions; to get sucked into the symbolic role that you play; to stop asking the difficult questions; to lose your own compassion because you are consumed with the petty and the trivial. There are disillusioned congregational rabbis preaching from pulpits around the country; and there are many deeply fulfilled laypeople inspiring their havurot and their congregations with their unadulterated passion for Jewish life. The pitfalls of professional Jewish life are real, and you are wise to understand them before you make a commitment to the rabbinate.

Sam, these wonderful questions that you pose might indeed be what help you avoid becoming one of those glib and disillusioned rabbis, because in asking these questions, you already have a sense about what to be wary. Rest assured, there are rabbis who inspire their congregants to grow as human beings and as Jews; rabbis who are authentic in their own struggles with the tradition and with God; rabbis whose families are healthy and intact and loving. There are good rabbis who love what they do; and there are rabbis who are simply counting the days until retirement.

I can’t tell you which kind of rabbi you’ll be if you decide to send in those rabbinical school applications. But I can tell you that my own rabbinate has been a journey: one in which I have struggled imperfectly to find the proper balance between a commitment to my family and obligations to my congregation; and one in which I have tried to keep my own Jewish life alive during the times when I was only going through the motions.  Along the way, I can affirm two principles: my own questions have never gone away, and I continue to feel it is a tremendous privilege to serve as a rabbi. Sam, my berakha for you is that you always keep your questions right in front of you. I have every confidence that you will find profound and important ways to serve God no matter where your journey takes you.

Wishing you all the best, 
David

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After earning a BA in Religious Studies from Brown University in 2007, Sam Berrin Shonkoff studied at the Hebrew University and the Conservative Yeshiva. He is currently the Jewish Student Life Coordinator at Stanford University Hillel and a Lisa Goldberg Memorial Writer’s Fellow for American Jewish World Service. His divrei Torah are posted at ajws.org/parshah.

Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin is senior rabbi at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Penn. He graduated Brown University in 1984, and received ordination from JTS in 1994. A Wexner Fellowship alum, he is a board member of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and a trustee of the Lasko Family Foundations. He is married to Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin, PhD, and and father of Eliana, Klielle, and Noam.

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