A recent issue of the Jewish Forward featured an article on new rabbis. The new rabbi is called to be: a scholar, educator, CEO, community organizer, pastoral counselor, chaplain, fundraiser, public speaker, etc., but what about this is “new.” Back in the late 1970s my colleagues and I drew up the same job description, and thought that we too were doing something new. We weren’t then, they aren’t now. And what’s worse, both then and now, is that the “spiritual” is still missing from the rabbi’s job description!
For decades our rabbinical schools and Jewish institutions have secularized the rabbinate in hopes of staying relevant to a largely secularized Jewish community. The problem is that the secular needs of our people are being well met by secular institutions and professionals. What isn’t being met is their need for meaning, wisdom, and spiritual depth. This is the work that rabbis should be trained to do, but are not being trained to do.
One of the things that was supposed to excite readers about the new rabbi was all the work opportunities open to them outside of congregational life: rabbis working as chaplains, social workers, CEO’s of non–profits, and more. I’m happy for new rabbinic grads that there are job opportunities for them outside congregational life, but the reason they need them is that the congregational structure of American Jewish life is failing. Rabbis are entering unusual jobs because the usual ones aren’t there.
You want something new? Try this:
Rabbinical schools should train rabbis to be wisdom teachers, spiritual mentors with the skills to help people make meaning out their lives, and contemplative practitioners who can teach the skills of meditation, prayer, chanting, and the like—skills that people desperately need to survive the madness of an America spiraling downward morally and a planet on the verge of ecological collapse, and that just might keep the worst effects of consumptive capitalism from becoming the norm.
Rabbinical schools should subsidize graduates (not all, but those with promise) and send them out to transform the world rather than get a job. Subsidized rabbis can dare to be bold. Instead of going to wealthy philanthropists to fund a new building project, rabbinic institutions should go to venture capitalists with business plans for transforming the world, and put their best and brightest in charge of these ventures.
There is a real need for rabbis, but not the rabbis we are training. And simply tricking new rabbis into thinking that what they are doing is new rather than training them to actually do something transformative is just mean.