By Sam Glaser
A turning point in the life of any individual that gets serious about his or her Jewish heritage is the moment that they find a rabbi. Everyone needs to have someone they call “my rabbi.” Someone with whom they can relate, someone with whom the buck stops, whose advice they respect and “hold by.” You can blame your rabbi, i.e. “My rabbi told me this is what I have to do,” until you’re ready to initiate your own momentum. The famous line is that “a good rabbi comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” At times in your life you will be in either situation, and your rabbi must have the sensitivity to know how to respond in each instance. Effective rabbis gently coax you on a path of growth. They introduce you to mitzvah options and help you choose a direction that is unique for you. Rabbis serve to connect us with our history; they are a link to the written Torah and also embody the oral, less structured Torah that confronts modernity and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.
You will know you have found your rabbi when you feel confident that you can relinquish control. You allow your rabbi to be the arbiter of Torah philosophy and best practices. In the secular realm you have to figure out the game of life on your own, shopping around for a mix and match world-view and hedging your bets with whatever combination seems advantageous at that moment. Unfortunately, having your foot in many doors means that you eventually have no leg to stand on. Choosing a path requires closing doors! The term “decide” has the root “cide,” in other words, we have to kill off options in order to commit to one. Some go their whole lives trying to keep all options on the table; it’s no mystery that this indecision wreaks havoc on relationships, employment and spiritual progress. My friends, I can testify that God springs into action to help you realize your dreams as soon as you close the loop and commit to the calling of your Jewish heritage, whatever that may require. Yes, taking a plunge down the Jewish “rabbit hole” is scary but your journey through this wonderland will be guided with personalized rabbinic wisdom. So find a rabbi and get on with the life you were meant to live!
Your newfound rabbi will have spent countless years training to learn the craft of spiritual leadership and deserves the utmost respect. Rabbis have to wear many hats. They are often the chief fundraisers for their organizations. They have to shmooze with both the power players and the meek. They represent the synagogue in the greater Jewish community and also among the clergy of other faiths. They are the top dogs in the synagogue corporate structure and interface with the educational, administrative and governing teams. Rabbis are also the pastoral leaders of the congregation, dispensing words of solace in times of individual, communal and international strife. Rabbis are usually authors of inspiring text and are counted upon as orators to express that text with originality and spontaneity. It’s not a job for the faint of heart!
On the flip side, rabbis are subject to intense scrutiny and can’t help but ruffle feathers. They have to guide the community on a path of wisdom and growth but be careful not leave
constituents behind. Rabbis don’t ever get time off. Even when they are enjoying a vacation, the congregation expects them to remain at their beck and call. Rabbis don’t experience the essential weekly release of Shabbat to the same degree as the laity. In fact, the Sabbath and holidays are the times that they are most in demand! Their families tend to be somewhat mutant. After all, rabbis are typically workaholics with precious little time for family matters. Rabbi’s kids are scrutinized only slightly less than their parents. Of course, rabbi’s spouses are criticized if they don’t become part of synagogue life, or conversely if they are too involved. Said spouses often become unpaid employees of the synagogue, like it or not.
Furthermore, rabbis have to walk a consistent path of holiness and grace in public and in private. This is especially challenging in an era of invasive social media and ubiquitous cameras/cell phones. There is no teshuva for rabbis. Rabbis that fall short of living up to the immense ethical expectations are left to crash and burn. They cannot kiss and make up. Their transgressions are discussed with a hush and a wagging finger or worse, exposed on the pages of the local paper for all to enjoy. When any given rabbi blows it, their contracts are promptly voided; they are shipped off to another locale or have to leave the rabbinate in shame. I’ve even seen situations where the body that issued semicha (ordination) denied ever having done so. Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) by the official communal representative of morality is such a shanda (grievous error) that for many of my friends in the rabbinate there has been no second chance. Make sure you have your act together if you are aspiring to the rabbinate!
When shopping for a rabbi there are several factors to consider. First and foremost, you have to find the rabbi inspiring. They have to touch you deeply and give you enlightened perspective both on our ancient texts and current issues. One person’s inspiration is another person’s ennui…finding YOUR rabbi is based on your unique needs and perceptions. For this reason you may find that your rabbi is not your spouse’s rabbi. Next, they have to be humble and approachable. A rabbi must exude love and concern and make you feel like an important part of the synagogue family. They must model ethical living and be fluent in the language of both the Judaic and secular world. After all, that’s where you live, and your rabbi has to be able to intuit what you are going through. Most importantly, your rabbi must have the chutzpah to nudge you to grow. We need rabbis to get us out of complacency, to help us take on spiritual challenges, to increase our mitzvot. Your rabbi should give you impetus to say Hineni, calling on you to make a verifiable difference for your family, your community and the world.
The next question in this process is where to look. For many of us, that’s a moot point. We live where we live, and only have so many local options. That’s OK. We also live in an era where you can affiliate with your local congregation but look to another more distant rabbi for Torah guidance. We have the miracle of high-speed internet and nearly free long distance phone calls. If you have a great rabbi for you in your hometown, consider yourself blessed. But if not, it’s time to activate your personal search engine! All the gifts of 24/7 Jewish living can be yours…the only thing stopping you from “rabbi shopping” is you. Read books and articles written by influential rabbis. I’m confident you will find some that speak to you. Yes, most of those rabbis, even the famous ones, will welcome a relationship. While I think it’s best to have only one official rabbi, in absence of that one perfect personality you can subdivide your spiritual guidance. Whatever it takes to get you on a sanctified path and stick with it.
Some of us are raised with a certain set of customs, with Jewish practices that we are comfortable doing and others in which we’re not so interested. I’m writing this essay to beg you to consider getting out of the comfort zone…to take on new challenges and stretch. If your local rabbi is not going to push you into connecting with your Creator via taking on new mitzvot, then that rabbi isn’t for you! That rabbi can still be a friend, a resource, a tennis partner, but it’s not your rabbi. Your rabbi approaches our traditions with joy and makes a relationship with God palpable. Your rabbi makes Jewish living look so good, like a sumptuous banquet! As I’ve said, the book of Jewish law is called the Shulchan Aruch, the set table. An ethical, loving, deeply connected rabbi will inevitably make Judaism so attractive that you can’t help but want some of that for yourself.
There are treasures and obstacles in all the Jewish denominations. It’s hard to be both politically correct and honest but I’m throwing caution to the wind. What matters more than whether your rabbi trained at HUC, JTS or YU is if they have both heart and gumption. There are rabbis that I deeply respect in all movements in Judaism. I work with Reform through Chassidic institutions and I can verify that all denominations have something to offer the k’lal (whole group.) That’s why there are twelve tribes in our ancient heritage…as the Talmud says, “these and these are the words of the Living God.” As long as a respect for halacha is maintained, I think there is something to be said for a “post-denominational” outlook. In other words, when shopping for a rabbi, don’t accept a denominational ceiling to growth. If you hear the statement: “well, we don’t have to do this because we are _______ Jews,” run for the exit. For example, Orthodox can’t desist from acts of loving-kindness to gentiles and Reform can’t overtly cast off the commandments (they are commandments, not “suggestions” after all!) The key here is finding guidance that will help you grow while remaining balanced, open-minded and without losing yourself in the process.
At the risk of generalizing, when choosing a denomination there are good and bad points to each of our major movements and I’m going to go out on a limb and list some caveats. Some may think that the Yeshivish and Chassidic worlds offer a panacea for all society ills but they are grappling with losing their youth and finding it harder avoid the lure of mass media and manage technology. The lack of a Western-style education can paralyze individuals that are striving to interface with the “real world.” The Modern Orthodox are smug in their rootedness in Jewish wisdom and embrace of modernity but arrogance and inward focus is often the result. As you may have guessed, I’m a big proponent of Orthodox-style mitzvah observance but I warn that it can devolve into obsession-compulsion, peer pressure-induced one upmanship and the lifestyle is financially draining. Many love to bash the halachic waffling of the Conservative movement and prognosticate timetables for its demise. That said, there are Conservative communities where Judaism is flourishing with a dedicated core of congregants that are Sabbath observant and mitzvah focused. Lastly, Reform takes a beating from the right wing but is the bastion of appreciation for Jewish art and culture, social justice and simple, spiritual joy. Some may assume that the lack of true “informed choice” and the “freedom” from the divine imperative of Torah renders Reform obsolete; let me state for the record that I know several Reform rabbis that perform epic roles of leadership in the spiritual well-being of their congregants.
One of the biggest criticisms leveled at “liberal” Judaism is the comparative weakness of
communal structure. In fact I’ve heard from Conservative leadership that the movement’s failings are due to the consistent shedding of the right wing. In other words, if you get excited about your Judaism and seek daily practice, in most Conservative synagogues (but not all) you will be very lonely. Unfortunately, the rule seems to be that the clergy may be on the “derech” (path) but the congregation for the most part only shows up on High Holidays and for friend’s bar/bat mitzvahs. If you suddenly get interested in keeping kosher you are going to be eating alone. If you want to ramp up your Shabbat observance you will have a hard time relating to the chevra that assembles every week, especially if you are under forty years old. Those with heightened Judaic enthusiasm usually find their way to a Modern Orthodox or Chabad shul and never look back. It’s less an indictment of any given philosophy and more about the astounding impact of a dedicated community. It was the presence of my dynamic learning and chesed (kindness) focused community that made my growth possible. Or at least a lot more fun. I write this with pain in my heart since my Jewish memories are Conservative memories, from amazing summers at Camp Ramah and Israel programs, to Sinai Temple’s dedicated Hebrew School teachers and clergy.
The crucial role of community cannot beoverstated. Rabbi Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers states “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” don’t distance yourself from the community. As I’ve mentioned in my parenting essays, a Jewish community sets certain expectations of all members and therefore the parents don’t have to work quite as hard to educate their progeny. It’s so much easier to thrive in mitzvot when it’s simply the way everyone lives. To go it alone can be harsh and is certainly less fulfilling. Even the coolest Mac cannot substitute for a flesh and blood chevra (peer group.) As frail humans we usually don’t have the degree of resolve required to “run up the downward escalator” of spiritual life. Moving to the epicenter of a Jewish community can make all the difference. That’s easy in a big city; you just need to be able to afford the “shtetl tax,” referring to typically inflated Jewish neighborhood property values. Those in smaller towns can still find (or build) minyans of like-minded individuals and will likely have to put time into their learning on the web and traveling to Torah centers from time to time.
Choosing a rabbi can be the single most important move one makes in initiating a powerful Jewish journey, second only to finding a great spouse. I want to take this moment to thank my amazing rav, Rabbi Moshe Cohen for all the patience, generosity and wisdom that he has shared with my family. Yes, it takes dedication and powerful intention to find your own rabbi. With the guidance of your newfound Jewish “guru” anything is possible for you in your life. Hopefully your own exponential growth will inspire others to attempt the same path, to partake in our perpetual feast from the “set table” of Jewish life. B’hatzlacha on your journey.