How Does One Become a Rabbi?

Image: HUC Ordination, New York Campus (Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion)

I got a message recently asking, “I think I might like to be a rabbi. How does one become a rabbi?”

Here is what is involved in becoming a Reform rabbi. Other movements have similar processes, although I don’t know the details of those programs. (Perhaps some reader who is an Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi will help us out, in the comments.)

  1. Language studies. As part of the application to Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, I had to pass a written Hebrew exam demonstrating that I had the equivalent of a year of college Hebrew.
  2. Application to the school. It was a lot like a grad school application, except that there was also a psychological evaluation, and I needed to get a recommendation from my rabbi. (That included the unspoken assumption that I had a rabbi.) I traveled to the campus in Cincinnati for an interview with the admissions committee, who asked a lot of questions about my personal life and my plans for my life as a rabbi.
  3. Finances. If they said yes, then I was responsible for my expenses including tuition for a minimum of five years [according to the website, those are currently expected to be slightly over $50.000 a year, minus any financial aid]. Most of my class had a mix of financial aid and loans; many had quite a bit of student debt by ordination. There is no “part-time study” option; the assumption is that rabbinical study is a full time, 24/7 commitment.
  4. Year in Jerusalem. Upon acceptance, I was expected to make arrangements for a year of study in Jerusalem. I was single, but I was welcome to bring spouse (if I had one) and children with me. I left my cat with my best friend, kissed my college-age kids, sold my house and furniture, and got on a plane to Tel Aviv. I spent the year at HUC Jerusalem doing intensive study of Modern Hebrew, learning the fine points of Biblical Hebrew grammar, learning the services for weekdays and holidays, and getting a crash education in Israeli life, history, and culture.
  5. Four years minimum full time study at a stateside campus. I attended the Los Angeles campus; there are also HUC campuses in Cincinnati and New York. All rabbinical students take a regular course load of classes in Jewish texts and traditions, as well as professional courses in pastoral counseling, etc. They also work at internships, either serving small congregations or in other settings. I served a congregation in the Central Valley, worked for a year as a chaplain intern at a facility for Jewish elders, and served the congregation for the deaf in the San Fernando Valley. In my case, four years was not enough; for a variety of reasons, I chose to study in Los Angeles for five years instead of four.
  6. Ordination. At the end of the stateside study, if the faculty agrees, one is ordained to the rabbinate. Employment is not guaranteed: candidates enter the “placement” process and are interviewed by those congregations and institutions that are hiring. Most graduates find full time employment, but not all.

This is a process that requires a lot: sacrifices in time, finances, and much more. I had been to graduate school once already, and thought that rabbinical school would be similar. It was as demanding and much more: rabbinical school challenged me academically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. (Granted, I was 48 when I entered, and most of my classmates were in their 20’s.)

As I said before, the Conservative and Reconstructionist schools are similar. There are also nondenominational schools with programs that are more flexible. There are schools that require less of students, for instance, by not requiring time in Israel or allowing for part-time study. However, there is no reputable school that confers ordination without demanding some serious effort and long term commitment from students. For a look at some other schools and programs, this 2014 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency may be helpful.

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Ask the Rabbi: “I’m studying for conversion, and the rise in anti-Semitism scares me.”

Image: My Jewish congregational family, gathered in the shelter of a chuppah for a blessing. (Photo: Temple Sinai website.)

“Dear Rabbi Adar, I’ve been studying for conversion for the past several months, and the rise in anti-Semitism really scares me.”

The questions usually arrive without question marks. It’s not hard to see the question in there: “What am I getting myself into?” or even “Why would any sane person sign up to be part of a people who are so hated?”

When I get these notes, I try to answer honestly: Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s getting worse. No, I don’t know what will happen in the future.

The other thing I emphasize is that this is not a test. It is OK to be scared. It is OK to say, this is too scary and it’s not for me. It is also OK to say, yes, it’s scary but I choose to continue on the path to Judaism.

One of the things my rabbi said to me when I was a candidate back in the 1990’s has stuck with me ever since: “You don’t have to become a Jew for us to think you are a good person. You are already a good person, without conversion.” What pushed me forward was my own desire, my own need to become part of the Jewish family.

I have never regretted becoming a Jew. I give thanks every morning that God has made me a Jew, and the Jewish people were willing to have me. At the same time, I won’t lie: we are living through a frightening time in history. Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence are a part of American life at the moment.

The last thing I say to people who send me these notes is: Go talk to your rabbi. Tell them about your feelings and confusion. You will not flunk Judaism for saying that you are uncertain. It is in confronting those fears that we sort out who we want to be, what we want for our children, what we want for our descendants. There is no single right answer, only the answer deep in your own heart.

Go sit with the Jews, when you feel shaky. It may seem counterintuitive, but as a people, we draw strength from one another. When bad things happen, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than with my mishpakhah, with my Jewish family. Whether that’s in my synagogue, or someone else’s synagogue, or at teh Jewish Film Festival, I feel better when I am surrounded by my people – and that’s how I know for sure that they are, indeed, my people.

How Can a Non-Jew Comfort a Jew?

Image: Two people hold hands, one comforting the other. (Pixabay)

Someone reached the blog today with a great question: “How can a non-Jew comfort a Jew in a time of —?” Unfortunately, the line was cut off, but I still love the question.

The main way that Jews comfort one another is with presence. That means we spend time with the person who is suffering. If they are nearby, we might actually be physically present with them; if they are far away, we might do it with a phone call or a card.

“But what do I SAY?” I can imagine the questioner asking me.

If the trouble is grief over the death of a loved one (or for that matter, a pet) we say very little. In fact, it is a tradition is Judaism to speak to mourners only when they speak first. Instead, we spend time with them, we feed them, we do housework for them, we help keep life going for them.

Things not to say: “He’s in a better place,” “She’s with Jesus now,” “You’ll get over it.” We assume that death is a terrible blow to the bereaved, and accept that some people do not ever completely heal from some losses. We do not necessarily believe in an afterlife (we might, or might not) and theological discussions are a bad idea at such a time. Instead, just be present to the person – comfort them with the fact that you are still their friend.

If the trouble is something else, it is still good to stay away from theology. “It’s all part of God’s plan” is actually not very comforting to a lot of people, not only Jews. Instead, try, “I’m here for you.”

Be careful with offers of prayer. It is fine to offer to keep someone in your prayers but it may be misunderstood. For some Jews, there is an echo of being prosetylized at in the past. Offering to pray with a Jew is best done with silent prayer. Jews do not pray in Jesus’ name.

Be very slow to give advice. In fact, don’t give advice unless the person asks for it. If you are bursting with excellent advice, ask first: “Would you like my advice?” and if the answer is no, back off. I know, it’s hard, but one of the ways to be a really good friend is to not give advice when it isn’t wanted.

Comforting a Jew is very much like comforting a non-Jew. We’re all human. Life is sometimes hard. What is more comforting than anything is the warmth of human presence and an extended hand.

Ceremonial Handwashing for Jews?

Image: A person washing hands with soap in a white sink. (Shutterstock 2604171440)

A reader asked: “I was recently at the home of friends for Shabbat dinner, and they all trooped into the kitchen to wash their hands before the blessing for bread. They washed with a funny two-handled cup in the sink, and mumbled a blessing as they did it. What was going on?”

Reader, what you saw was netilat yadayim, the washing of hands. There are specific moments in Jewish life when we wash our hands. In Reform households that observe this mitzvah, you’ll most often see it as handwashing before the blessing for bread (motzi) with a meal.

The blessing you heard was as follows:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-Is, who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.

The procedure is to remove rings, then pour the water over each hand with the cup. A natlah, or two-handled cup may be used for this purpose. Then the person dries their hands and they may refill the cup for the next person coming. Some individuals simply use the tap for washing.

Jews practice ritual handwashing at the following times:

  1. Before breaking and blessing bread made with the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye) (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  2. Upon rising from sleep (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  3. When leaving a cemetery
  4. When leaving the bathroom
  5. After touching the private parts
  6. Before prayer
  7. Before the the Kohanim (priests) bless the people in synagogue

Why the ritual handwashing? The Torah verse usually cited as the source is in Leviticus:

Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:11

It is part of a passage about the treatment of persons who have discharges from their bodies, and the verse is taken as an asmachta, a hint, that rinsing one’s hands is a mitzvah. Centuries later, with the advent of germ theory, we learned that regular handwashing is indeed a very good idea.

Taking time to wash my hands thoroughly and mindfully was required when I was a chaplain, so that I would not spread disease from one patient to another. I soon learned that it gave me an opportunity to pause and clear my mind between encounters with people.

It is another Jewish practice that can enrich my life by slowing me down a bit. Now I wash with soap and water and scrubbing (more effective than a ritual pour) but it is a spiritual discipline with measurable effects in the real world, a mitzvah because it prevents the spread of dirt and disease.

This video, from the Jewish Living Series of the Perelman Jewish Day School, demonstrates the traditional ritual of handwashing before the blessing over bread.

Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.

 

 

Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:  “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

 

This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.

 

 

Chatati

Image: In ancient times we used a scapegoat to atone for our sins. Now we just have to take responsibility for ourselves. A little goat.

Chatati means “I sinned.” I intended to delete an abandoned draft (4 Rabbis) and accidentally published it. Then I deleted it. And now my regular readers are wondering where the new post went!

I am very sorry. Rabbi Adar’s Adventures in Bloggerland continue. I shall be more careful going forward!

Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

V0016569 Mr. Punch wrapped up in blankets in front of the fire, eatin

Image: 19th c cartoon by John Leech, “Mr. Punch has the Flu.”Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.”

4,605 people died of flu in the United States in 2014 but less than half of the adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some will say, “It’s a personal choice.” You doctor will likely say that it’s a personal choice. Your local conspiracy buff may tell you it’s all a plot.

However, under Jewish tradition, it’s a mitzvah – a commandment – that we get a flu shot unless there are strong reasons against it, such as an egg allergy.

“Where are flu shots in the Torah?” I imagine someone asking indignantly. Well, here are some places:

You shall watch your lives very well. – Deuteronomy 4:15

Torah insists that we care for our bodies, that they are gifts of God. Flu is more likely to kill infants, old people, and people with suppressed immune systems, but has also killed people in otherwise good health. Flu is mostly preventable.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone fall from there. – Deuteronomy 22:8

We are commanded not only to preserve our own lives, but to prevent death or injury to others. While this commandment specifically has to do with a roof hazard, the rabbis interpreted it to mean that anytime we become aware of a risk associated with our home or our persons, we have to do something about it. Think about the people you contact every day: are any of them very young, very old, or immunity compromised? Are any of them caretakers or visitors to such persons? Then your case of mild flu could put someone vulnerable at risk of serious illness or death.

I once worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. Someone – we never knew who – came to visit while they contagious with a slight flu. (It had to be slight, because the nurses were ferocious about visitors who looked sick.) Over the next few days, it was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallways; resident after resident sickened and died. Likely the person who brought the bug in never knew what they had done.

I get my flu shot every year. I strongly recommend that you get yours, unless there is a very good medical reason against it. We never know whose life, whose family we might preserve.