Monday, August 17, 2009

Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys

If you ask almost any Jew about a career as a rabbi, they will tell you, “It is not a job for a good Jewish boy” (or girl too, if you push the joke far enough).

Is being a rabbi really worse than being a doctor? Rabbis don’t have to deal with insurance companies and arcane billing issues.

Is being a rabbi really worse than being a lawyer? Jokes about lawyers are far more painful than rabbi jokes.

I have served as a rabbi now for 26 years. There have been moments of great joy and times of great personal pain and sorrow. I have watched people embrace their Judaism and pick their lives up from the ashes and find joy and wonder in the world again. I have argued with people who were stubborn and bull headed and a couple of times it put my job on the line. I have led communities through great darkness, including lawsuits and legal accusations and have been honored by the lay leadership for my steady hand in tough times. I have also been accused of being heavy handed and my contract was not renewed because I did what I thought was right and the lay leadership did not agree.

And I would not trade a minute of it all for some other profession.

Any occupation has its job hazards. Police get shot at. Firemen get burned. Doctors get falsely accused of malpractice. Shopkeepers are accused regularly of overpricing merchandise. Mechanics are charged with fixing what isn’t broken. Butchers are accused of putting their thumb on the scale. Jockeys are accused of throwing races etc. There is no good occupation for saints. But rabbis are not saints. Not even close. At best we are simple teachers, trying to help people understand what they can control in life and to have faith when facing what they cannot control.

I have had the privilege of working with social workers close up. They patiently wait for a client to understand he or she has a problem and come to them to help find a solution. A rabbi does not have to wait. I have, on occasion, called a member of my congregation and asked him or her to come in so we could talk about what I knew was a problem they were struggling with.

I have made a difference in the lives of some of the people who I have touched and I consider that to be the most wonderful part of my “work”. We can deal with a load of frustration when we know that our efforts have turned around a life going horribly wrong and got it once again on the right path.

There have been times when I didn’t know what I would say or what I could say to help someone in a crisis, and I felt blessed that God gave me the words and the comforting hands that were needed at that moment to help that person get through the darkness. I feel that all I do is through God’s blessing and I am grateful for the opportunity to be there when needed.
There are limits. I can’t be all things to all people. I am only one rabbi and I have my own corner of the world that I am responsible for. (We call that the principle of Mara d’Atra, the teacher of that place). I try very hard to get things right all the time. I have, more often than I am comfortable confessing, missed the mark and been unable to understand a problem and failed to offer any Jewish wisdom at all. I often talk to other rabbis who seem to have a better sense of what to say in every situation. They know better how to preach and how to teach. I try to learn from everyone I encounter and I have been blessed with many good teachers.

I would love to show anyone what I do all day; the glory and the painfully boring things. The hospital visits and the sometimes disorganized committee meetings are two polar opposites but they also represent what I do all day. Sometimes, in the most mundane activities, I have been thanked for my “brilliant” understanding. I am in this profession for the long haul. I balance the short term setbacks against the long term change that I bring to my community and to all those who call me Rabbi.

Sometimes the hours are long. Sometimes the counseling leaves me exhausted. I balance my time between being the Rabbi of a community and being a husband/father to my family. I think I have done a pretty good job, together with my wife, of raising our children. One of them just was ordained as a rabbi.

She tells me it is a great occupation for a nice Jewish woman.
And I believe her.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Midnight Confession

There is always a great debate that takes place between rabbis over Jewish Law and Legal theory. Some rabbis insist that Jewish Law, Halacha, must always follow the same system that has been in use since the time of the Talmud. It is a system where the law grows “organically”, that is; each new strand of the law is based on what is already a part of the system. Every law, in this configuration, must have a direct tie back to the Shulchan Aruch, the 17th century Code of Jewish Law that is tied to the Talmud which is tied to the Torah/Bible. Since Jewish Law is based on the Torah and the Torah comes from God, there can be no amendments to the Torah. Only the Sages, using approved legal processes, can rule on how any particular law is to be observed, under what circumstances it can be ignored and the extent of its importance in the life of a caring Jew. (Solomon Schechter noted that the law has to be written by and for those who care for the law. If someone has no interest in following the law, they have no say in how the law is to develop. This caring community of Jews he called “Catholic Israel”)
This is a very important way to view law. Jews can wake up every morning and know what the law, the Halacha, requires of them. There are no surprises, nothing unexpected, and it is very predictable. If we were to add, for example, prophecy, to the equation, we would find that the law would become so unpredictable, that it would depend so much on what someone says each day and not on any predictable pattern, that before you know it, people would no longer know what is required of them when they try to live by Jewish Law. The process is not only important for the rabbis, but for every Jew so that we know what is expected of us and where Halacha draws the line.
There is another way to look at Halacha. We understand the law better when we understand the reasons behind the law. If we know what the law requires and why the requirements are spelled out the way they are, then we don’t need to learn all of Halacha, only the guiding principles and we can surmise for ourselves in almost every situation, what Halacha requires.
For example, if we understand that the reason we are forbidden to fast on Yom Kippur if such a fast will endanger our life, is that the health and safety of every Jew is a priority under the law, then we can learn that any action we may do that would endanger our lives would be against this principle of the law. We would not need rabbis to tell us that smoking cigarettes is against Halacha. We would also understand that taking medication on Yom Kippur is not an option, but a requirement if our health depends on it.
Both methods have their drawbacks however. Rabbi Bradley Artson, the Dean of the Zeigler Rabbinical School at American Jewish University gave this address to his graduating class:
No matter how explicit the law may be, we are required to go beyond the letter of the law. Just keeping the law without understanding its reasons can lead us to become “Scoundrels protected by the Law.”
On the other side, if we only go by the reasons for the law, we can fall into faulty reasoning. We could say, for example, “If one God is good, two gods would be better” and not realize that it would be a violation of a different principle that insists that Judaism must have only one God, no more and no less. Or, to use the example above, if we know that we are forbidden to endanger our lives we might think that Halacha would forbid us from driving too fast. But one could reason,” I am an experienced driver and I can drive fast and not endanger myself”, or we might say without consulting a medical expert, “I can skip this medication on Yom Kippur and it will not matter” and thus endanger ourselves and violate the law.
The reality is that Halacha requires both. The law must be structured and there must be reasons. We must not let the structure determine what Judaism stands for or does not stand for. But the reasons for the law need the structure of the law so that it makes sense to those of us who try and live by Halacha.
The place where this gets most confusing is when we confront people who are not convinced that Halacha is a way they wish to live their lives. They say they are looking for a system that they can understand and has reasons for observance that makes sense to them. Until such a law comes along, they are not interested in restricting their lives.
Doing whatever you want is a very seductive legal system. You don’t have to answer to rabbis or even to God. When a person doesn’t want to follow Halacha, any excuse to ignore it is as good as any other. In the world in which we live, why would a person choose to follow a religious system that places so many complicated restrictions on their lives? Does it really matter if we eat pork or not? Why would God care about such things? What has God done for me that I should limit what I eat? The reason for that law was for health, and we don’t have to worry about such diseases anymore. Once we give reasons for the law, we open ourselves up to people asking if “logically” they can basically do whatever they want in the name of keeping the “spirit” of the law if not the letter.
On the other hand, if we rabbis allow some flexibility into the letter of the law, we can draw some people closer to Judaism. Most Jews want to know that Judaism can work in the modern world. Some see Orthodox Jews and think it is great that they can turn their back on society and live the kind of life that they live. Some searching Jews may appreciate what Orthodox Jews endure but they are not ready or willing in their own lives to leave modernity and to establish lives that are so different from what they are familiar with. To tell such a Jew that “there is no such thing as ‘a little kosher’” would be to scare them off from ever considering Kashrut in their lives. Is it okay to light Shabbat candles after the time posted on the calendar? The wrong answer could strand a family far away from any observance of Shabbat at all.
I find myself wanting to be a teacher, not a lawyer, when it comes to Jewish Law. I want to draw Jews closer to Torah, and not dump on their lives the full weight of the law. There has to be a way, in each case when someone comes to us with a question, that we see the “question behind the question” and find a way that they can begin their entrance into Judaism without guilt or frustration that they cannot, do all that God requires. I find myself in the position of the Rabbi who cures the prince who thinks he is a rooster, by joining the prince under the table to peck at corn, and slowly bringing the prince back into the real world. I find myself more and more annoyed with rabbis who ask questions of other rabbis beginning with the phrase: “Is there any way Jewish law allows for ….” We rabbis are the judges and the final authority for our community as to how Jewish Law is to be determined. We don’t always have to be consistent or logical, only we have to know our people and what they can bear, and then begin a process that will raise them up in their observance. It is not a neat logical system, but we live in a world which is not always neat or logical. We rabbis have to be creative, flexible and tailor Judaism for the people who ask us questions. I may not think that take-out pizza is an appropriate dinner for Erev Shabbat, but if that is all a family can do for dinner on Friday, I will have to be happy asking them to “at least” put a white/special tablecloth on the table and to use the “good” dishes. I will have to believe that once they begin to bring Shabbat into their home, it will slowly grow into the kind of observance in which a rabbi can be proud. I will have to guide them, teach them and maybe prod them a bit to stretch themselves to get there. It is a messy and long term project, but it is better than saying, “If you can’t make a proper Shabbat meal than don’t bother until you change your job, the children move out and you can get home early on Friday in time to cook the meal and light candles at their proper time”
There are some places where we can’t be flexible. Intermarriage, Brit Milah, the rules of who is a Jew and who needs conversion all mark lines of personal identity. At some point a decision has to be made and then these issues will or will not apply. Pork will never be kosher, but if removing pork from the kitchen is the first step in discovering Kashrut, I am not going to be quick to enforce the laws of Shechita in that kitchen. It can be kosher enough for the family even if it is not kosher enough for me. When they ask me to join them in a meal, it will be time to get them to extend their understanding of Kashrut so they may join the ranks of others with formal kosher kitchens. I must be their guide on their Jewish journey.