As I prepared to attend a conference at the Frei Universität in Berlin two years ago, my family took to teasing me. “How long is going to take them to say your name? Frau Rabbinin Doctorin Professorin…” But while it may have been meant in jest, the family joke actually speaks to a question I almost always get at the start of a semester, whenever I face a group of students (or even an individual student) who have not been in one of my classes before. “Do you prefer to be addressed as Rabbi or Doctor?” It comes up in other contexts too; for example, there is sometimes a fine line deciding whether I have been asked to contribute a piece of writing to a particular venue (like this one, perhaps?) as a rabbi or a scholar or both. Should I be listed as Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD? Rabbi Dr. Labovitz?
What I typically tell my students is “I’ll happily answer to either. I worked hard for both and am proud of both titles. Plus I work here in both capacities.”
And that is certainly true: I teach rabbinic literature in a rabbinical school affiliated with the Conservative Movement (The Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies) that is part of a non-denominational university that has a Jewish identity but is open to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and all religious or non-religious commitments (the American Jewish University). My teaching load is fully within the rabbinical school, but officially I was hired by and work for the university as a professor; so, for example, it was a university faculty committee that considered my tenure application and I was judged on standard academic grounds such as my record of scholarly publications and service to the university.
My answer is also quite possibly a dodge, or incomplete. Some of my colleagues at ZSRS are academically trained but not ordained as rabbis, and not all academically trained rabbis teach in rabbinical schools or other identifiably Jewish contexts. What prompted me to apply for this job, and to move my family across the country from New York to Los Angeles to take it? The chance I have been given to bring these two aspects of my self and my training together, a chance that almost no other position in academia would allow, must bear some significance. The challenge is articulating what that significance is.
Now, when you are someone who has dedicated yourself to living Jewishly, whether as a rabbi or as a committed lay person, there is much to be said for working in an environment that is already attuned to the rhythms of the Jewish life and the Jewish calendar. I write this shortly after the end of the Jewish month of Tishrei, when appreciation for a workplace that is closed on Jewish holidays is still fresh in my memory. When I go to the AJU cafeteria for lunch, I can be assured that the food being served is kosher. Yet while details such as these are not to be taken for granted, even for someone working for a Jewishly affiliated organization, that’s still the easy, glib part of an answer.
Perhaps there’s another way to come at this. When I tell people that I am a rabbi, often the first follow-up question is whether I have a congregation. Though rabbis work in a growing number of contexts, for many (including among rabbis), congregational work is still considered the normative “thing rabbis do.” So for a person who knew she ultimately intended to pursue an advanced degree in Jewish Studies, with no intent of serving in a congregation, why spend an additional five years in rabbinical school?
But even that won’t do, because the answer I would have given then couldn’t have really anticipated the nature of my rabbinate now. And what is that rabbinate? Well, last Sunday I attended a ceremony devised by one of my students and his husband to welcome their newly adopted son (who had already had his brit milah in the state of his birth) into their community in Los Angeles. I’ve celebrated at weddings and welcomed new babies and even grieved at a few funerals. I have the privilege of being our campus faculty advisor for a regional program that brings together students from seminaries and religious institutions training clergy and educators in Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant faith traditions, for interreligious dialogue. Students drop by my office to talk not only about how things are going in my classes, but to tell me about their internships, to ask for suggestions on references for a sermon they are working on, and even to seek pastoral advice on weighty life issues. Some of these things are not impossible by any means in a more “straightforward” academic career – a colleague who teaches literature at a prominent liberal arts institution on the East Coast once movingly told me of the way Jewish students, who see that she is a practicing Jew, come to her with questions about the challenges they are facing in considering what their own Jewish lives and commitments as adults in larger world will look like. But I suspect it’s not the same. I could ask, is this my job, or is this what one does as a member of a community and a Jew and a human being? Or I can just be grateful that for now, at least, I have the opportunity to live in this way without having to figure it all out.
And so, when I am (or they are) in a somewhat sillier mood, I have another answer to my students’ question about what to call me. In short, it is “all of the above.” I like the German model, come to think of it. Or in other words, I answer, “That’s ’Madame Rabbi Doctor Professor’ to you.” At least for now, it’s the most accurate title I can have.email print