I’m preparing for a big adventure. This week I am traveling to Chicago to attend the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. That’s the organization of Reform Rabbis in North America. I’ll see old friends, we’ll study and pray and tell tall tales, and it will be grand. The night of April 1, I’m going to shave my head.
This is the first time I’ve traveled so far in a long time, and I am a bit nervous about it. You see, my world has gotten rather small in the last few years due to troubles with chronic pain and arthritis. Nowadays, if I want to go farther than a couple of blocks, or if I am going to need to stand in line, I use a scooter. This will be the first time I’ve traveled with it. So there is a lot on my mind: the airports, the airplane, transport from O’Hare to the hotel, the reactions of colleagues when they see me on wheels — it goes on an on. I’m still self-conscious about using this thing. But if I don’t use it, I can’t go. And I am tired of letting my life get smaller; I have work to do!
I had coffee today with a friend who is an old hand at wheelchair travel. He was very encouraging – I might say he even gave me a gentle little kick in the tuchus. It’s easy to hide at home, but here is too much life to be lived, too much Torah for me to live, to give in to that impulse. I’m glad we had coffee, and I’m going to keep him in my heart as I buzz down the hallways of OAK and ORD and down the sidewalks in Chicago.
So wish me luck! Life is about to get really interesting.
I’m sorry I haven’t been posting. I have been engaged with something my spouse once called “Rabbi Camp.” Once a year the Reform rabbis on the Pacific Coast and thereabouts meet in the desert in Southern California. We don’t camp. We stay in a hotel, we eat, we pray, we study, we sleep, we schmooze, and we catch up with old friends. That’s what I’m doing.
The first night here I sat up all night and chatted with my usual roommate here. She’s another rabbi who teaches Intro classes, and we have marathon conversations about all sorts of things. There’s a lot of professional stuff, and also discussions about our dogs.
This morning, at breakfast, I saw a dear friend from my ordination class, and we had a lot of catching up to do, since we hadn’t seen each other in almost six years. She’s back on the West Coast, so she’s here at PARR (Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis). Yay!
We did some text study this morning as a group, and more study sessions later on, along with some plain ol’ schmoozing later. Prayers, of course. And then more connection.
When we are rabbinical students, we’re like puppies in a litter – we live in each other’s laps. Then after five or six years of that, suddenly we are scattered all over the country, some of us even farther than that. And suddenly folks who were part of every single day for years are no longer around. Also, most of us have little time to spend learning with other rabbis. We teach, we officiate, we counsel, we study with our students – but study with other rabbis is very precious.
So this is a special time, getting all “filled up” with new ideas and old friends. I’m not posting much now, but just you watch, lots of good stuff is coming soon. Because I will be renewed!
That said, many people these days don’t find rabbis through the synagogue. Moreover, there is nothing preventing a person from putting “Rabbi” in front of their name and simply setting up a website and some business cards. While there are laws against practicing medicine or law without a license, pretty much anyone can go online and get “ordained” for a fee. There’s also nothing preventing someone from setting up an online “rabbinical school” that requires little of their students.
You may be wondering, why does this matter? If you are looking for someone to stand up front for a ceremony and read a service, maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe then you’re just as well off asking a cousin or a friend – why worry about the title “rabbi” at all? If on the other hand, you want a real rabbi: someone qualified to do premarital counseling, or someone who can be a resource in making Jewish choices, or someone to guide you through a conversion process, then perhaps you will want to choose more carefully.
Particularly where conversion is concerned, the rabbi’s credentials will determine not only how and where you are accepted as a Jew, but how your descendants will be accepted. An ethical rabbi will be honest with you about exactly what conversion with them will mean to other Jews, and they will not charge money for the conversion.
So what is a layperson to do, especially one who is new to the Jewish community? Three things will tell you a lot about any rabbi: ask about their Education, Affiliation, and Experience.
Education. Where did this rabbi study? How many years of study were required? For comparison, I can tell you that Hebrew Union College (the Reform rabbinical school) as well as the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles (both Conservative rabbinical schools) require five years or more of graduate study (meaning, incoming students already have a B.A.). All three require students to live for a year in Israel, studying texts and immersed in the Hebrew language. Their coursework includes not only Jewish text learning, but training in counseling, education, and professional ethics. The Orthodox world has a lot more variety, as does the nondenominational Jewish world, but the same question applies: how many years did you study before you got the title, Rabbi? Were you ordained by a single individual, or by a faculty of learned Jews?
This relates to more than just academics. What was this person willing to invest in becoming a rabbi? How many years, how much inconvenience? It is not only a question of money (although trust me, five years of grad school is expensive) but also a question about dedication to the Jewish People.
Affiliation.To what professional organizations does this rabbi belong? The reason you ask this question is that a rabbi who belongs to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) or the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) has agreed to maintain certain ethical standards, and is answerable to the association if there are questions about his or her behavior. You can ask if they are members of their local Board of Rabbis, or other professional organizations. The idea is, how connected is this rabbi to colleagues? To whom, if anyone, is this person answerable?
Rabbis who are connected to other rabbis also can tap a deep well of resources for you. As a CCAR member, I can ask a quick question by leaving a message online for other rabbis to chime in. If I am concerned about how best to handle a tricky situation, I can pick up the phone and call a mentor or a more experienced senior rabbi. I participate in continuing education, and my colleagues challenge me to do my best.
Experience. Have they ever served in a congregation? Been a Jewish chaplain? Lived in Israel? Worked with Jewish youth? Done prison chaplaincy? Served the Jewish community overseas? Of course, not every rabbi has done all those things, but by asking you will get a better idea of who this person is, and what depth of experience they will bring to you.
A rabbi who has solid credentials and experience will be glad to answer these questions and proud of the answers. Be wary of anyone who seems to want you to feel bad about asking.
No rabbi is perfect. No rabbi is knowledgeable about everything, and perfectly trained in every respect. We’re fallible human beings. But asking about Education, Affiliation, and Experience can give you a better idea of who this rabbi is than you can get from a nice website or a well written marketing blurb.
I love perusing the Google searches that bring people to my blog, because it tells me what people want to know. Today someone typed, “How much to tip the rabbi.” I’m going to expand that a bit, to include the various ways rabbis are paid for their work.
– If you are a member of a congregation with a full time rabbi, the rabbi’s salary is part of the congregational budget.
– If you are using the services of a rabbi who is employed by a congregation and you are not a member, you may be asked to pay the synagogue for his or her time. That “honorarium” or fee will be mentioned when you set up the service (say, a funeral.)
– If you wish to express your thanks, you can always contribute to the rabbi’s discretionary fund. That money is set aside for charitable purposes (not the rabbi’s car payment). Your rabbi will use it to relieve immediate suffering (for instance, by purchasing “gift cards” to a grocery store for a hungry person) or to support the work of a nonprofit organization.
– Freelance or community rabbis (those not employed by congregations) may or may not perform weddings, baby namings, etc. The way to find out is to ask. Generally they have a set fee for these things, but the exact rate will depend on local custom.
– It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah[a charitable contribution] to celebrate happy occasions, to memorialize the dead, and at holidays. That money might go to a rabbi’s discretionary fund, or to a synagogue fund, or to a nonprofit that serves the needy.
– No respectable rabbi charges for conversion to Judaism. There may be a charge to take an “Intro” class, or to use the community mikveh, but conversion itself is not for sale. If someone quotes you a fee “for conversion” it’s time to look for a different rabbi.
– It is not rude or crass to ask up front about fees. If you cannot afford the fee as quoted, say so. The rabbi may be able to help you access assistance for low-income individuals, especially for a funeral.
This information is geared for the United States. However, the last point holds true everywhere: as Hillel said, the shy will not learn. Ask questions!
There was another one of those messages on my voicemail today:
“Rabbi, I got your name from —–, and here’s the thing, we’re getting married this March 2 and we have already reserved the hotel, we just need a rabbi and —– said you taught her Intro class and were really nice! Can you call me back so we can make arrangements? Oh, and what is your fee?”
My heart sank. I looked at the calendar and sure enough, the date in question is 8 weeks away and Shabbat. I will return the call, and I will be happy for them and friendly. And at the end of the conversation, no matter how friendly I am, they will be unhappy with me and it will just be sad. Because you see, I can’t help this couple.
Here are some tips for making your Jewish wedding plans a success:
1. CALL YOUR RABBI ASAP. Before you book the caterer, before you pick the venue, before you shop for a dress, call your rabbi. If your heart is set on a particular rabbi, the rabbi of your youth, you need to get on his or her calendar. Once something is set for a particular date, it’s hard to move. Rabbis’ calendars fill fast, faster than caterers’.
2. IF YOU DON’T HAVE A RABBI, BUT WANT A JEWISH WEDDING, START LOOKING ASAP. Even if you are not set on one particular rabbi, most rabbis will want to take time to get to know you and do some premarital counseling. This will help them give you a nicer, more personal wedding; it will also help you stay focused on what you are doing. You are not just planning an event, you are planning a major life change. The rabbi can help you prepare for it, and many rabbis won’t officiate without doing so.
3. IF YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL NEEDS OR WANTS, START LOOKING FOR A RABBI NOW. By special needs, I mean if one of you is not Jewish, or if you expect any special family challenges, if one of you is Orthodox and the other Reform, if you have any special desires like “no mention of God” or a wedding that is close upon Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday). Not all rabbis feel that they can officiate at weddings that will create an interfaith household. Only a few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat. And you may need a rabbi with special sensitivity if you have a complicated family situation. In any of these cases, you don’t want to be looking for your rabbi six weeks before the wedding, because you are likely not to find him.
The right rabbi can help you navigate a lot of the other hurdles you will face on the way to the chuppah. She can help you deal with overwrought relatives. He can help you not lose sight of the awesome life change you are making. She can help you with the other details of a Jewish wedding, including understanding what they mean: the chuppah [wedding canopy], the ketubah [wedding contract], and so on.
Even the not-quite-the-right-rabbi can point you to other rabbis who might be a better match for your wedding. The sooner you call us, the more likely we can help you.
I’m sure you have noticed that all my “tips” are really the same one: call the rabbi! Sometimes people delay, especially if they think they are bringing something to the rabbi that he or she won’t like. Don’t worry about that: just call. (Trust me, we’ve heard it all.) If it isn’t going to work out with that rabbi, then you will have time to find the one you need.
If having a rabbi officiate is important to you, call the rabbi first. With the rabbi at your side, you can begin to prepare for your perfect day, and after that, for the rest of your life.
We’re about to embark on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, when we spend 24 hours with the fact of our human fallibility, with our failed efforts at reform, with all the mess of being human. We do this in the context of a lot of God-language: God as Ruler, God as Judge, God as Parent (and those are just the gender-neutral options!)
Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God. Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.
And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.
A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.
I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.
The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”
Torah is the process of Jews trying to wrap their minds around the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. At the same time, our tradition warns against falling in love with mere images.
Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed “Godzilla.”
As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth ofHa Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.
יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות
Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.
The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old. This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.
If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens. My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be. Oy!)
So you want to find your rabbi. Here are seven bits of advice:
1. ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.
2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS. You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.
3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them. Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.) You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi. This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.
When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen. Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can. Ask her the questions on your mind.
4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES.Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them. Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!” So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.
5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK. If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.
6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME?August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”
7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG:If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.
If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net. If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.