Opinion: What I’ve learned in 30 years as a rabbi

“The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect rabbi preaches exactly 15 minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8 a.m. until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.


“If your rabbi does not measure up, simply send this letter to six other synagogues that are tired of their rabbi, too. Then bundle up your rabbi and send him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure: One congregation broke the chain and got back the rabbi they fired 25 years ago.”


I am certainly glad I never read that bit of humor before I was ordained 30 years ago this week. Yet there is an element of truth in the joke. People expect that we rabbis in congregations are Jewish experts at everything; every question can be answered because we have an infinite amount of time to handle every event, meeting, committee, class, service and program; use phone calls, e-mail, letters and postcards; and deal perfectly with every baby, toddler, child, teenager, college student, the single, the married, the young and the old. We actually are the harshest critics of what we do when we fall short of our own expectations. Through my 30 years of rabbinical experiences, I have learned to have the highest expectations of myself, because I can never know exactly what generates how a congregant may view his or her rabbi.


Along the way, I have learned that my actions speak far louder than the words of my sermons. When I spoke about homelessness in Indiana, and then urged my congregation to help with the founding of the South Bend Center for the Homeless, there was a connection between word and deed. And when my sons became bar mitzvah, and each wanted to plant a tree as a mitzvah project, they were witnesses to our concern for the environment. We are living role models of Judaism, and that is most important for our children. I can’t speak about workers’ rights without caring for every waiter, busboy, parking lot attendant, carwash jockey or store clerk I meet. I can’t talk about the holiness of our Sabbaths, festivals and sacred times if I don’t observe them. I can’t profess concern for Israel without visiting there, learning about the land and the state, and teaching about the importance of Israel to us as Jews. Rabbis cannot be hypocritical.


Our sources from the ancient past continue to speak to me about life in the present. I have learned to extract from our tradition and from my teaching the way to make our texts speak to modern life. This world may be filled with a little device that holds more technological power than the first spaceship, but the stories of our biblical heroes and heroines, prophets and judges, the questions raised by the talmudic rabbis about ethics and morality, of what is right and what is wrong, about how people are to deal with one another, maintain extraordinary relevance today. 

This past week, as we discussed matters of lifnim mishurat hadin — going beyond the letter of the law — my adult students raised profound links to the ancient texts ranging from the daily news to sophisticated philosophical questions. Even more so, our younger students approaching bar or bat mitzvah and their tichon high school years must learn how our ancient sources can speak to us each and every day.


And that requires that we rabbis continue to put the fuel of knowledge in our spiritual tanks. Early on, I learned the value of continued study and rabbinic camaraderie. Meeting colleagues over the ancient texts of our tradition, learning from them and with them, has given me the energy I try to bring back to the congregation. It authenticates us as rabbis. It reminds us of why we became Jewish role models and teachers. Study connects us to Hebrew and to the essence of our faith. It brings us close to the only people who truly understand what we do — other rabbis. From rabbinic gatherings, to my work in local regional and national associations as member and officer, to my fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I live by “oh hevruta oh mituta” — comradeship or the death of the spirit (Ta’anit 23b) “for the Torah is not learned alone but in pairs” (Brachot 63b).

Martin Buber was right: Relationships matter. Rabbis uniquely enter the incredibly holy and personal space of individual lives and family processes. So much of what we do is never seen at all by the congregation — it happens in private, in the office, at a home or hospital or nursing home, without the whole congregation or its leadership watching. It is in the inner personal relationship that we live our Torah. Every child has to feel that his bar mitzvah is the most important. Every bride has to feel that her wedding is going to be amazingly special. And every funeral is unique because family dynamics are unique. There are no cookie-cutter recipes for such moments. A wise president of my temple once said every bar mitzvah is the same, and there’s none like any other. We rabbis have to be fresh and inspiring and personal and warm to the limit of our abilities. And our presence at such moments can, in the eyes of the family, represent the totality of Jewish faith and tradition.

Not every moment, however, is easy, sweet, meaningful and enjoyable. When tough moments do come, rabbis may receive criticism because we are in the public eye. Whether fair or not, listening carefully, dealing with the critic kindly and understanding the comment are essential. We must remember that perception is reality. And we cannot shrink from facing that perception even when it may hurt. Apologizing maintains a balance in the relationship even when it is strained. I have visited people in their homes to apologize, even if I felt wronged, and being direct and honest about such moments has helped bring healing.

Two final and essential lessons: We rabbis are privileged to teach God’s Torah. We have to be God wrestlers ourselves, Yisrael, a people deeply bound to and engaged in a hearty and constructive dynamic with God. Some may think us odd to be believers when they themselves are not. Most have given up on their fourth-grade concept of God but not refreshed themselves from the springs of our heritage with a new idea, a radically different concept. That’s why I challenge every bar or bat mitzvah and confirmand to struggle with a personal and individual God concept. We rabbis must be God-enthused, God-intoxicated, God-enveloped,  because if we are not, how can we possibly expect others to relate? And when we are personally challenged — by the death of the young, the innocent, the suffering that has neither logic nor reason —that is when we must draw deep from the wells of our faith.

Most important, we have to place our family on our pedestal, always in front of our eyes, always before us, always before the consuming, demanding, energizing, crazy and sometimes ridiculous pressures we face. Family gives us our strength, our hope, our nourishment, our love. Many synagogues have the words inscribed near the Holy Ark, “I have set the Eternal always before me.” Rabbis need to have the words inscribed on the walls of our offices, “I have set my family always before my rabbinate.” When we take care of those nearest and dearest to us, we can be genuine. If we don’t, we can rightfully be called phonies. A congregation that cares for its rabbi and his or her family welfare ensures that the rabbi will be able to continue to give as much as possible back to the community. It’s a relationship based on our covenant.

In Torah portion Beha’alotcha, Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’ leadership and criticize his wife. Yet the Torah responds, “[T]he man Moses was more humble than anyone on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Nachmanides interprets this to say that Moses never quarreled, never expected anyone to hold him in esteem and did not boast about his merits. Moses recognized his own faults, personal flaws and limitations, even though he was chosen by God for his holy task. We rabbis must follow the example of Moses as we remember our history, work each day in the midst of the community with its heartaches and joys, and always keep our eyes on our goal of reaching the Promised Land.


Morley T. Feinstein is the senior rabbi of University Synagogue in Los Angeles.