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    Reflections on 40 years in the rabbinate

    rabbi_appleThis month of July marks my fortieth anniversary in the ministry. Beginning my career in London, I spent five years at Bayswater, then seven and a half years at Hampstead and now almost 28 years in Sydney.

    From one point of view there seems little purpose in offering observations on nearly four decades of life in the rabbinate. For if there is one subject on which every Jew is an expert, it is the rabbi. Ask a Jew what sidra is read this week, or what the Hebrew date is, and you’ll find that they probably don’t know and may not even be interested. But ask them about their rabbi – his looks, his books, his wife, his private life and, especially, his faults and failings – and you’ll receive a detailed analysis that would do credit to a Royal Commission (that is, if Royal Commissions were allowed to give free rein to imagination, hearsay evidence and sheer pique and prejudice).

    Yet you have to be a rabbi to understand what a kaleidoscope the life is – how it exhilarates you, stretches your thinking, uncovers your talents and offers immense scope for professional, personal and spiritual satisfaction; and how it also aggravates you, affects your equilibrium and family life, brings more than its share of frustrations and often makes you fearful for the future of our faith.

    On the whole I believe I have been fortunate, and have had less problems than some of my colleagues. The three congregations to which I have ministered have been stable and congenial, all in the historic Anglo-Jewish mould of urbane traditionalism, decorous worship, and civility and courtesy in congregational affairs. It saddens me to see that this pattern is less and less evident in our communities today. I fail to see why the miraculous new trends towards greater learning and deeper religious commitment cannot be married to personal and congregational menschlichkeit.

    I have also been fortunate that all my congregations have had a tradition of encouraging their ministers to share their talents with the wider community. Despite occasional hiccups, I have never really needed to complain, as do some rabbis, of being stifled or constricted. In London I was able to involve myself in an amazing variety of communal, civic and even national causes; in Sydney, the senior position I have now held for many years requires its incumbent to be both a congregational rabbi and also a spokesman and statesman on the wider Jewish and national scene.

    Not that I have lacked problems. Being part of the United Synagogue ministry in London cushioned me against making difficult decisions; these were the prerogative of head office. In Australia there is no one to whom to pass the buck, and the responsibility of finding the judicious solution, using the right words, wielding a wise influence, giving the most positive perception and, in short, not letting the side down, can cause agonies of moral conscience and test your nerves.

    In addition, it’s a delicate balancing act when you have to look after a busy, demanding congregation and at the same time be available to the community and the public at large. It is a tribute to my congregants that this is usually graciously and generously understood.

    I have been fortunate in my colleagues, not only in my members. I have unbounded admiration and affection for so many rabbis, and have often wept to see a fine, educated, dedicated, God-fearing colleague receive a raw deal from a sometimes quote boorish lay leader relishing the role of petty tyrant, I have also often been truly inspired and even awe-struck to see a colleague learn how to flex his muscles and achieve miracles in the cause of Judaism.

    In my own case, it may be paradoxical, but some of the spiritual successes in which I have had a hand have lost people to my immediate congregation. Sometimes the message has been, “Rabbi, I’m going to join a shule nearer home so that I can walk on Shabbat”; sometimes (though these people don’t always have the derech eretz to come and tell you in so many words), “Rabbi, your shule isn’t frum enough for me any more — I’m off to a shtiebel. Increasingly, youngsters have decided that the next logical step is to go to Israel, often to learn in a yeshivah, and many (including my own children) have made their home there.

    I have been and am close to many rabbis, especially to my Jews’ College contemporaries from the Isidore Epstein era. Distance has made it difficult in recent years, but we still regard ourselves as brothers. I suspect Dr Epstein would have been proud of us. At the college speech day he often used agricultural metaphors – “It’s been a year of sowing, a year of reaping” – and I believe my generation were a good crop.

    But we do not view the younger generation of rabbis with complete approval. A basic assumption of Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) from the time of its foundation by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler in the 1850s has been that the rabbinate is a profession and its members need professional skills. We know the sages warned against saying, “I want to study in order to be called a rabbi”, but what this means is that you should learn Torah lishmah, for its own sake, not for the sake of some ulterior motive: and every one of our teachers taught us Torah lishmah.

    But what a rabbinical seminary adds, which you don’t get in a yeshivah, is the acquaintance with the issues to which you will have to apply your learning and faith; the skills that will enable you to preach, teach and expound your Torah knowledge; and the ability to apply the halachah to the varying needs of your congregation.

    It’s not a metz’iah to see men enter the rabbinate (sometimes because they don’t know what else to do with their lives) straight from yeshivah, often completely unacquainted with ordinary ba’alei batim and lacking any personal experience of congregational life and without professional skills or even rudimentary knowledge of synagogue procedure. They attract the small groups that are ready for their influence, but the rest of the congregation can be alienated and even lost.

    A rabbinical seminary also offers a broad Jewish education; Shas (Talmud) and poskim certainly, but also Bible and its commentaries, Midrash and literature, philosophy and ethics, liturgy and history – all essential for the culturally competent rabbi and the well-rounded Jew. And it is unafraid of university education, and unprepared to dismiss it as “goyishe subjects” and bittul z’man (a waste of time).

    It’s not an improvement to have rabbis who have only the merest smattering of general education and an in-built bias against university qualifications except where these are unavoidable in earning a living. A rabbi must understand the idiom and cultural milieu of his community; and how can any type of knowledge be treif? Physics, chemistry, mathematics – surely all help us to appreciate the grandeur of the Divine creation. Art, music, literature – all reveal dimensions of the human mind and spirit implanted by God. And if you argue, “Do not some academic disciplines endanger your faith?”, I answer with another question, “Doesn’t life itself challenge your faith?”

    The rabbi must be sound in his faith to start with, and then he will usually be able to find a way to grapple with and overcome the problems as they arise. (After all, did God decide to leave Abraham’s faith untested, and did Abraham refuse to face the challenge?)

    How do I see the future of rabbinate? I cannot agree that it is a dying profession (though the chazanic profession might be – but that’s another issue). Jews will continue to need leaders and teachers, and the need will continue to create the supply. Since more and more young Jews are learning in yeshivot, we will have a guaranteed nucleus of men with Torah knowledge. With the leavening of professional training and general education, they will be able to handle establishment congregations. Even the shtieblach will need rabbis with some professional skills: even the rabbi whose main role is to give shiurim needs more than learning and good intentions.

    I am personally intrigued by the fact that a small but growing number of business or professional men have s’michah (my special interest is that as a young man I studied and graduated in law, and am therefore a lapsed lawyer who forsook the profits of the law for the law of the prophets). Perhaps our communities need to explore how to utilise these men in a part-time or voluntary capacity as rabbis. The original concept was always that the rabbinate was an honorary activity and you earned your living elsewhere. We will, however, have to look into the ethical dimension and ensure that a person’s daytime occupation does not compromise his right to speak in the name of the Toray and be seen to live impeccably by Jewish ethics.

    After so many years I still have my moments when I would gladly abandon the rabbinate and the community and return to the law. But most of the time I willingly echo the words of Moses, the first rabbi, addressed to the Levites: “Happy are you to have the privilege to be ministers to the Almighty!”

    This article was first published in August 2000.

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