Wednesday, 16 Nov 2011

Written by Rabbi Mark Goldsmith

The Perfect Rabbi and How to Find Him or Her

I was a student Rabbi for a year at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood.  Student Rabbis at that Synagogue were allowed to use Rabbi John Rayner’s (z’’l) office to put on their robes and Tallit before leading services.  As a kind of encouragement to us there was a framed poster on the wall of the office.   It was entitled “The perfect Rabbi” and described the kind of Rabbinate that we Leo Baeck College students should surely aim to live up to:

The perfect Rabbi’s sermons last for exactly twelve minutes.  The perfect Rabbi condemns sin, but never upsets anyone.  He works from 8:00 a.m until midnight and his spare time hobby is being a synagogue janitor.  He is happy to be paid £50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about £50 weekly to the poor.  The perfect Rabbi is 28 years old and has the benefit of 30 years experience in the Rabbinate.  He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all his time with senior citizens.  The perfect rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humour that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work.  He makes 15 calls daily on congregational families, the housebound and the hospitalized and is always in his office when you call him.

I think that we can agree that the perfect Rabbi does not exist.  

For five years, from 1998-2003 I had the task of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant from a little later on in the Torah portion.  Eliezer’s job was to find the perfect wife for his master’s son Isaac, from among Abraham’s own tribe.  Does the perfect partner exist?

Abraham said to Eliezer “you’ll know when you see her – she will be just the right woman and will follow you willingly back to Isaac”    After a few days journey Eliezer found Rebekkah.  She was truly a remarkable woman.  How do we know – because when Eliezer, the stranger, met her at the well she single handedly gave water to his ten camels.  Big deal?  

Yes it is when you know that the average camel drinks 15 gallons of water, that’s more than sixty litres, in one sitting (J. Camel Science. 2004, 1: 66-70)  That means that the Rebekkah whom Eliezer found was strong enough to pull a sizeable and full bucket up from a well 50 – 60 times – and all this just for a man whom she took to be a visiting stranger.  Strong and stunning too!  At least that was Isaac’s reaction when he saw her for the first time as she approached near to where he was meditating in the field. (Genesis 24:63)

My task for those five years was not to find the perfect shidduch, marriage partner, for a notional Isaac, but rather to find shidduchin for the Synagogues of the UK as I worked for a half a day a week as Leo Baeck Colleges Rabbinic Recruitment Officer.

You may wonder why Leo Baeck College needed a rabbinic recruitment Officer.  Surely the Rabbinic selection process begins in, shall we say, a higher place.  That has never been the view of Judaism.  The Rabbi has always been someone who, it is hoped, by virtue of their learning, leadership skills, community involvement and commitment – earns the respect of those whom they serve.  Indeed it is one of the points of contrast between Judaism and Christianity that a Rabbi, in theory at least, need not hear, so to speak, the voice of the Almighty calling them to work, whilst a priest is by definition someone who is convinced of their vocation to offer themselves as shepherds to God’s flock.  

Of course in reality this contrast is not so clearcut.  A priest with a strong vocation but little learning, leadership skills, community feel and commitment is likely to have an awful time with their congregation, whilst a Rabbi needs the re-assurance that God supports them in their work to deal with the inevitable difficulties and demands of congregational life.

In Jewish understanding the Almighty ceased to engage in direct recruitment work once the age of prophecy ceased with Malachi.  Furthermore The Almighty made only one direct rabbinic appointment, that of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses, whose leadership, as our Torah tells us, was just as much up for question by the people whom he led as that of any modern Rabbi – so much for the authority that a strong sense of vocation might be thought to give you!  Therefore there has always been a more or less informal means of Rabbinic recruitment – from the promotion of the disciples of the Rabbis of old to succeed their masters as the interpreters of our scriptures, to the support that communities gave to their talented youngsters to enter Yeshiva, to the mentoring of likely people by a Rabbi who, so to speak, talent spots them – something at which Rabbis Lionel Blue, Hugo Gryn, Werner Van der Zyl, Andrew Goldstein and Sheila Shulman , are or have been most adept.  

The more formal approach of there being a Leo Baeck College Rabbinic Recruitment Officer came about due a change in the Jewish life pattern of committed Jewish young people.  In past years they grew up with a particular Synagogue and then stayed in relationship with that or another Synagogue through youth clubs, young married’s groups etc.  Nowadays, our most committed young people end up identifying more with the national Jewish youth movements RSY-Netzer and LJY-Netzer than with their own Synagogue and its Rabbi.  For this reason the level of contact – Rabbi to young person – is not as great as it once was – and there had been a distinct shortage of our own young people coming forward to train for the rabbinate.  

Year after year now there has been a shortage of rabbis for the pulpits available – and with a wave of retirements of the rabbis who trained in the 60’s and early 70’s well under way – this shortage will only increase.  That was why Leo Baeck College decided to do something pro-active – and try to create a bridge between the Youth Movements and Leo Baeck college through activities such as Shadow a Rabbi Day, Learning for Jewish Life Seminars and Workshops entitled “have you ever considered becoming a Rabbi” at Movement events.  

The Rabbinate into which we should aim to draw the most talented committed Jews, is one whose nature has fundamentally changed over the past decades.  The Talmud tells us (Arachin 17a)  “like generation, like leader”.  So as our society has changed its patterns of working and, in particular has questioned the need for hierarchy, we Rabbis, like so many Christian Priests, have cast off our preaching robes, or in my case and that of most of my contemporaries, never put them on, and tried to remove the barriers of authority which we felt were keeping us away from the people whom we were aiming to serve.    We have tried to be less leaders and more empowerers relying not upon the mystique of our position to give us the authority we need in order to function but rather upon the earning of respect, much as religion can no longer call upon people in contemporary society with the confidence that is seen as necessary.  Rather pretty much all Jews and all Christians nowadays make a positive choice in their lives to actually practice and put any store by their religion, so do they make a positive choice whether or not to respect their Rabbi, Priest or Minister.  

In the Talmud, Rabbi Isaac said, (Berachot 55a) “A leader is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.”  Whilst taking this aphorism too literally can have uncomfortable and unfortunate results, as happened in years gone by in various Synagogues, a Rabbi cannot nowadays become a leader jut by virtue of their title.   They need to be able to take a community with them – in the words of Zechariah (4:6) – “Not by might, not by power but by [My] spirit.”  Today’s Rabbi needs to call up the spirit of co-operation, of shared mission for a Synagogue of excitement at the adventure that is the creation of a thriving Jewish community.

It is a tough role that we ask nowadays of our Rabbis, combining many different and even contradictory skills and qualities – to be studious and yet extrovert, to be a personal guide and confidant and yet to exert authority in a community, to build a community and yet to work outside the definitions of success used in businesses, to give deep thought to actions and words and yet to engage in a bewildering variety of activities every day.  

What we need to do every year, Rabbis and lay people together, is to encourage people who could succeed in any walk of life to consider putting their talents and commitment into service to the Jewish community as its next generation of Rabbis.   They need not be and cannot be the “perfect Rabbi” – but they can be the best in themselves and bring their unique offerings of talent and dedication to the future of Judaism.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith
November 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.