My Least Favorite Question

Alex Braver
April 19, 2013
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It’s my least favorite question.

I get it at parties, when running into an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long time, and speaking with relatives or family friends.  I get it from Jews and non-Jews, during late-night conversations and at the dentist’s office.  I can see it coming from miles away as people go around the room introducing themselves, dreading the fateful moment as each person in the group says who they are, where they’re from, and what they do.  I unconsciously find myself withdrawing, trying to think of a suitable answer that will minimize the pain before the question is even asked.  And then, finally, it comes.

“Oh, so you’re in rabbinical school.  That’s interesting.  Why’d you decide to do that?”

Many of my classmates and peers in other rabbinical schools also dread having to have this talk with people.  It’s not just me.  And I, like some others, have developed a few pre-made answers for various situations–the short and pithy, the ironic and dismissive, the serious and spiritual, the academic and scholarly, or the “oh-it’s-a-long-story-but-how-are-you-doing?” I think part of this has to do with the fear of being suddenly put into a very specific box marked “RABBI”.  Why is it that the talk about choosing to be a rabbi is so difficult for some people who have chosen to be rabbis?

I think the way this question comes up can say a lot about how people relate to their rabbis and future-rabbis, but I also think it has a lot to tell us about the process of rabbinic formation.

The process of going from layperson to clergyperson in five short years is complex and, for me, has at times been overwhelming.  Sometimes it’s easier to think of myself as just a regular guy who happens to spend a lot of time reading, learning, thinking about, and teaching Jewish texts and history, and who wants to get paid to continue doing that.  But I think this is an evasion of responsibility and of the true potential role of a rabbi as a spiritual and pastoral leader, who takes upon themselves the responsibility of guiding and empowering people in their religious lives, and who works to find the strength in themselves to join others in the places of their greatest suffering.  What makes a person willing or interested in doing that?

Sometimes the true answers to this question are buried deep inside, and answering it honestly touches upon sensitive, tender areas of our spiritual and emotional lives.  For me, these answers touch upon struggling with coming-out in college, and finding in Judaism and Jewish rituals a place where I felt heard and understood.  Those moments provided one of the foundations of my religious life, and to really talk about them can be difficult in the middle of a party or at the dentist’s office.  But for me, what they represent is a faith in the spiritual resources of Judaism to provide healing.  My faith is strong because I’ve encountered the power of the Jewish religious experience at moments in my life where I felt very broken.

It also requires a healthy dose of ego The danger with the ego side of this equation is that we can easily begin to see ourselves as having the power to change people’s lives, rather than seeing ourselves as conduits of the tradition we love.  I’ve often fallen into the idolatrous trap of thinking that it is, as Deuteronomy 8:17 puts it, the “power and might of my own hand” can do this job.  It’s easy to talk about what I like about Judaism and what I want to study, or how I think I can help my future congregants, but it’s much harder to have the humility to realize that this power is not entirely my own.

Two common themes in Biblical moments of prophetic calling are doubt and acceptance.  Moses answers the call of the burning bush with “hineni,” “here I am!”, but then spends the remainder of the story asking God questions and demurring from the mission to demand freedom for the Jews from Pharaoh, claiming that he is not worthy.  Isaiah answers his divine calling by saying “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!”, but soon afterward, when God asks “who shall I send,” Isaiah responds “hineni shelacheni,” “here I am, send me!”  Amos demands social justice in God’s name, but doesn’t see himself as a professional prophet.  Rather, he was “a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore-trees” before God’s call forced him into action.  Jeremiah unabashedly pronounces doom on his fellow Judeans for abandoning God, but then cries out to God about his hopelessness in the face of his prophetic mission.

The point is, Biblical callings combine both an eagerness to take on the mission, with an acknowledgement of human brokenness and unpreparedness.  In choosing to become a Jewish leader, I feel myself torn between those two poles–between the sense of confidence in my calling, and a sense of inadequacy and awe at the task ahead.

My choice to become a rabbi oscillates between two very Jewish emotions: chutzpah, and self-doubt.  The chutzpah to think that I can be a successful conduit of the Jewish message, and the self-doubt of knowing my own humanness and brokenness.  But what keeps me going is my belief in the power of Judaism to change people’s lives.  Because I’ve seen it change mine.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

1 Comment

  1. At the end of June I will be retiring from the pulpit rabbinate after a 40-year career in Reform congregations and the last 30 years in one. For the past 30 years I have refused to officiate at interfaith marriages, though the decision not to do so was one of the most difficult, and often painful, I have made as a rabbi. My reasons for making this decision are twofold. First, I have believed that my s’micha (rabbinic ordination) requires me to do everything I can to preserve and maintain the Jewish people. That is, the decision not to officiate is not about the couple getting married but about me and what I see my role to be. Second, I have believed, based on anecdotal evidence, that mixed marriage lessons the chance that future generations will identify as Jews.

    I admit that good, respected colleagues differ in their views. The argument I hear most often is that “yes” is always more welcoming and affirming than “no.” Believe me, I understand that. In fact, the concession I have made in recent years is agreeing to be present at an interfaith marriage to offer a blessing at the end when the officiant is a judge or justice of the peace.

    I have also come to appreciate the fact that while congregants may not agree with my position concerning interfaith marriage, they do appreciate my consistency. I have often heard that people would be very angry if I would create requirements that seemed to choose one family over another.

    What I have come to appreciate during my 40 years as a rabbi is how complicated this issue is. I don’t know what the next rabbi at my congregation will do or what the congregation will demand of him or her. What I do know is that the Jewish community will continue to debate this issue for many years to come. Perhaps that is a good thing because what we have learned about many of the issues confronting the American Jewish community is that one size does not fit all.

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