The most important work of my sabbatical has been to examine closely the meaning of my rabbinate, considering what I have learned and how I have grown and changed as a rabbi over the years. That work is reflected in this brief essay. I am boundlessly grateful that my sabbatical efforts have reached fruition in my election as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Rabbi Chanina taught: Much have I learned from my teachers, still more from my colleagues, but most of all from my students.” (Talmud, Ta’anit 7a)
My journey in the rabbinate, beginning with my time at Hebrew Union College, has been a never-ending learning experience. At each stage, I have learned – first from teachers, and often through interactions with colleagues, but most of all from the men, women, and children who have called me “rabbi.”
My professors placed Jewish texts at my fingertips, and those words continue to form the bedrock of my learning and teaching, as I bring ancient wisdom to bear on modern challenges. When I was a child, my father, a lawyer, had told me the difference between a good law school and a great one: The good one teaches all the laws; the great one teaches how to think like a lawyer. By my father’s measure, HUC-JIR was a great rabbinical school.
If I imagined that my rabbinical education was complete on the day of my ordination, I was mistaken. Instead, learning and growth have marked my rabbinate at least as much as they characterized my years of schooling.
Early in my rabbinate, I encountered colleagues and congregants who embraced diverse styles of Jewish worship. Raised in a Classical Reform synagogue, I was most inspired by the majestic music of the pipe organ and a formal ritual conducted by berobed rabbis, now including me. Soon, though, I came to appreciate an entirely different, equally valid, style of Reform worship. Off came the robes, and with them the distance between pulpit and pew. Music would be more participatory. At the same time, I became increasingly aware that some congregants, of all ages, resonate most to the decorous splendor of Classical Reform worship. I came to understand that Classical Reform worship addresses God as transcendent, separate from the world and “above” it, calling us to reach for the highest. Contemporary Reform worship facilitates connection to God as Shechinah, the in-dwelling presence of the Divine available in each of us and in all God’s creation. Judaism teaches us that God is “big” enough to be both “God Almighty” and Shechinah. I resonate to both images of God, and my congregants have taught me to appreciate and to hone my skills at leading two styles of worship, each of which address a different aspect of God’s presence.
Early in my rabbinate, I did not officiate at any marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew. I had learned a logical position, and I stuck to it: In a Jewish wedding, couples speak their vows “in accordance with the laws of Moses and Israel. How – I asked, rhetorically in those days – could a person make the most important commitment of his or her life “in accordance with” laws to which he or she is not subject? Maturing as a Rabbi, though, I leapt off my high horse, and I listened to the young men and women who were coming to me, asking me to be with them at their weddings. I heard them describe what I came to understand as a Jewish marriage: Two people committed to a Jewish future for their union and their family, even if one of them would not be Jewish. I came to believe that I should open my heart and open the door of my rabbinic study to interfaith couples exploring a Jewish marriage. Education is important for them as it has been for me: An introduction to Judaism course is a prerequisite, so that both parties are conversant in “the laws of Moses of Israel” as they take the most significant vows of their life.
When I was in school, I had the inestimable opportunity to study Torah Commentary with Rabbi Larry Kushner. I learned a great deal about making Torah come alive each week. At the end of the semester, though, my written evaluation from Rabbi Kushner consisted of three words: “Resistant to singing.” Kushner had begun each class with a niggun. I am embarrassed to say that he was right. Open as I was to Kushner’s intellect, I was closed to the spirituality he modeled. Over the years, I have adapted to a variety of ways reaching God, especially through music. Still, my teaching was always from the head, intellectual, without a spiritual bent. Then, at the urging of a congregant, I began to study Mussar, Jewish ethical literature. Initially, my goal was utilitarian: I would study the material so that I could teach it. But Mussar changed my life, as it demanded that I identify my shortcomings, journal about them every day, determine my soul’s unique curriculum based on those failings, and concentrate daily on small steps to cleanse a soul that might not have been any more sullied, but surely was no more pure, than any other. As I prepared to share Mussar with the scores of congregants who had responded to my call to join me, I knew I would need to reach hearts, not just heads. The Mussar Institute uses chanting, but I was no expert. As I walked to that first class, though, I was moved. I began that session with a niggun, a tune without words, but then I added words that addressed the middah, the ethical trait, we were studying that day. I was no longer resistant to singing. More importantly, my congregants were moved. On the day I forgot the niggun, a participant caught me, and we did not proceed without it.
In the earlier years of my rabbinate, as an Assistant and Associate Rabbi, I witnessed the way that my Senior Rabbis and the congregations’ lay leaders divided authority between them. The Rabbi was the unquestioned authority in all things religious, and he did not seek input from lay leadership. On the other hand, lay leadership did not include the Rabbi in management matters, unless absolutely necessary. This division made sense to me, until I saw its limits. Lay leaders helped me understand that, as strongly as they supported my religious leadership, they wanted a rabbi who would make liturgical decisions after serious conversations with engaged congregants. Moreover, as the congregation faced financial challenges, lay leadership was eager for my partnership. The transformation from the “CEO” model to a partnership was never quite complete at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, and I have learned from the mistakes I made in that transition. All the same, I learned to be open to new modes of collaboration, and lay leaders were my most valuable teachers.
As I prepare to move to a new congregation for the first time in more than twenty years, I know I will be challenged to learn new customs and patterns that will at first be foreign to me. I am undaunted, though, as I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as a rabbi, every day of my career. Once again, I expect my colleagues, and most of all my congregants, to be my greatest teachers.