Cultivating the Soul

March 1, 2009
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Rachel Cowan

Finding ways to promote the spiritual formation, development, and nurturance of rabbis is a critical issue for rabbinic seminaries — as several people mentioned in the Roundtable. Seen as a continuum, rabbinic education can model a lifetime pattern of learning, growth, and sustenance. So attention to the soul matters a lot. As students develop skills in studying and analyzing texts, teaching, preaching, counseling, and leading services, they also need to understand the importance of cultivating their soul. Becoming a spiritual leader for a community is a daunting task and requires tools or practices for reflection, personal prayer, discerning truth, and listening to the inner truth. When students leave the seminary they plunge into very intense lives in congregations, Hillels, camps, and JCCs. They need what most of their rabbinic colleagues need: spiritual practices that strengthen their middot, their faith, their courage, their equanimity, their sense of authenticity, their prayer-life, and their vision, so that they can inspire congregants and the larger community. These qualities keep their rabbinate fresh and alive, mitigating the burnout and the compassion fatigue that are dangerous professional traps.

From my experiences with the hundreds of rabbis who have taken part in the Rabbinic Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), I know the need is urgent. Rabbis describe many challenges: while they skillfully lead services, many rarely pray. Though they love their work, they often feel exhausted and overwhelmed, drained of spirit, patience, and creativity. Torn between family and congregational responsibilities, with no time for themselves, they pay little heed to the call of their soul or the ache in their bodies.

They yearn for spiritual companionship and for time to rethink core theological ideas — so that they can reclaim the passion that drew them into the rabbinate. They want to deepen their work with more openheartedness, generosity, patience, and equanimity, and to be less judgmental of themselves and others. They want to develop authentic lives in community with others who support and understand them.

We are each evolving spiritual beings who require new learning, new skills, new meanings; we need opportunities to investigate and shed outworn theologies or Jewish ways of thinking that have become tired and old. This is the work of spiritual re-formation. It gives us time and tools to look anew at our theology as it evolves with life experience, to reconnect with prayer. Nurturing a safe community of companions helps us do this work. Providing opportunities for spiritual development in various venues of retreat will benefit many.

Unfortunately some highly regarded spiritual leaders have transgressed boundaries, hurting individuals, leaving communities flailing, and damaging the credibility of the spiritual enterprise. This is terrible and inexcusable. While these leaders are no different from other high-powered individuals who make similar transgressions, we expect our spiritual leaders to adhere to a moral code, and we feel betrayed and outraged when they don’t. While those rabbis might be taking advantage of the power their spiritual charisma gives them, they are not truly spiritual individuals. Without a spiritual practice of cultivating humility, clarity, truthfulness, and discernment, they do not see how the power of their ego has distorted their vision, clarity, and truthfulness. They have not been able to discern the yetzer hara from their overall neediness and vanity. When rabbis are lonely, burned out, and spiritually dead, no matter how vibrant they seem (transmitting spiritual energy is different than having inner knowledge), they are more likely to believe they are exempt from normative standards. In communities that demand accountability and transparency, where humility is cultivated and honored, where rabbis are given the tools and time to practice self-care, they can more often align their talents and strengths  in service to the community and to God, rather than to their own ego. 

And after all, the simplest teachings lie at the core of spiritual formation for rabbis: God wants our heart; the essence of the spiritual life is to work on ourselves; and we cannot teach authentically when our role is divided from our soul. We cannot give what we don’t possess.

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Rabbi Rachel Cowan, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, was named by Newsweek magazine in 2007 as one of the 50 leading rabbis in the U.S., and was featured in the PBS series The Jewish Americans. She has been director of outreach at the 92nd Street Y; from 1990–2003 was program director for Jewish Life and Values at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. She lives in New York City near her two children, Lisa and Matt, and two grandchildren, Jacob and Tessa.

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