The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.

They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.

Organ Donation: A Jewish Take

Not every Jew is a reliable source of general information about Judaism. Not all of us have had extensive Torah education, for starters. Some Jews will say, “I don’t know, ask a rabbi” and others will tell you what their bubbe [grandma] told them on the subject. For them, that might be more authoritative than any rabbi.

One of the subjects where there are a lot of bubbe-meisers [grandma stories] going around is organ donation. The fable you might hear is, “NO! If you allow someone to harvest organs from a body, it can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery!”

The question of organ donation is complex. If we are talking about a donation from a brain dead body, and it will almost certainly save the life of the recipient, then Reform, Conservative, and many Orthodox sources agree, this is not only a permitted donation, it is a mitzvah. The principle involved is pikuakh nefesh – saving a life.

Since the onset of the modern era of organ transplantation in the 1950s, leading rabbinic authorities from throughout the religious spectrum have seen in this new technology a new and effective means of fulfilling a divine mandate to save life – an obligation first expressed in the Torah itself: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Organ donation is a new means to fulfill an ancient, eternal religious duty: a mitzvah of the highest order. – from Synopsis of Teshuvah on Organ Donation, by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser (Conservative Movement)

However, that’s the big picture. What about the donation of corneas, which give vision to the blind but do not technically save a life? What about donations that will extend medical knowledge, but not immediately save a life? In such cases, I’m going to say this: talk to your rabbi. Not some random rabbi, not some rabbi on the Internet, but YOUR rabbi. Don’t have a rabbi? If you are serious enough about being Jewish to have such questions, then you are serious enough to need your own rabbi. Get one.

Know that the Internet is full of “authorities” who make all sorts of pronouncements. You can likely find someone who says anything you want to hear, whether that’s “anything is OK, don’t worry” to “no organ donations from a dead body ever, under any circumstances.” The Internet is the Wild West: anyone can call themselves “rabbi” but that doesn’t make them one, nor does it necessarily make them the right rabbi for you.

Questions like the ones above require conversations. You may say, “It’s a simple yes or no!” but no, it isn’t. A lot depends on how you understand Jewish law or tradition (and as much as some folks would like you to think there’s one proper way, no there is not – not even among Orthodox communities and rabbis) and a lot depends on the fine details of a situation. So you need to talk to a rabbi.

And now I hear it coming in the Comments: What do you think about the fine points, Rabbi Adar? What’s on your organ donation card? And here, because I so badly want you to get your own real live actual rabbi, I’m going to say,  “None of your business.”

Bottom line: Judaism does not have a blanket condemnation of organ donations. In some situations, organ donation is a big mitzvah. For more than that, talk to your rabbi.

A Gift for the Rabbi?

One search string I’ve noticed more than once on the list of terms that brought people to this blog from a search engine: “What to give a rabbi for a gift?”

A donation to the rabbi’s discretionary fund is always a fine thing to do; it’s a gift that allows the rabbi to do something good for others. (Discretionary funds cannot be spent on personal purchases of any sort.)

Here are some other ideas:

  • Donation to their honor to a charity you know they support
  • Gift certificate to a bookstore
  • Gift certificate for the rabbi and spouse to attend a sports or cultural event (Tickets for a particular evening can be tricky – rabbis work many evenings.)
  • Gift certificate for restaurant
  • Gift certificate for something you know they enjoy
  • Gift certificate for something you think they would enjoy with their family
  • Homemade preserves or baked goods.
  • A bottle of good kosher wine.

The key to this, as with all gift-giving, is to think about what the person might enjoy. If you know of a particular interest or hobby that your rabbi enjoys, then that will make this an easy choice. Things that they can enjoy with their spouse or family are thoughtful gifts, as time with family is often particularly precious. Something that will provide a small comfort: a free cup of coffee, for example, can be very nice.

You might be surprised that Judaica is not on this list. Many rabbis have all the candlesticks, kippot, tallitot, seder plates, and so on that they can use. The same is true of Jewish-themed ties, earrings, and so on. The exceptions to this are things made by children: if your child colors something for the rabbi, it will be treasured.

Why Can’t Jews Get Married on Shabbat?

“Why can’t Jews get married on Shabbat?” a reader asked me recently. She and her fiancé had made a lot of expensive wedding arrangements, only to discover that very few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.) Now they are scrambling to find an officiant that will agree to officiate before sundown on a Saturday evening in the summertime.

TRADITION – At weddings, couples do many expensive and inconvenient things to honor tradition. Brides may pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a dress they will only wear once. Couples mull over the “old, new, borrowed, and blue” custom. People who do not frequent synagogues or churches suddenly need a rabbi or priest. We do these and other things because on one of the biggest days of our lives, tradition matters. And it is Jewish tradition that weddings do not take place on the Sabbath and certain other days.

SHABBAT – Shabbat began at creation: as the story goes in Genesis 1, in six days God worked to make the world, and on the seventh, God rested. One of the traditions of Shabbat is that like God in the creation story, we don’t create new things on that day. What happens at a Jewish wedding is the creation of a new household among the Jewish People. It’s one of the most important events in not only the couple’s lives, but in the life of their Jewish community and the Jewish world. It should have a good start, and for a Sabbath-observant Jew, “breaking” Shabbat is not a good start.

RABBIS – Rabbis become rabbis because they care deeply about Judaism. Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish week, and it actually “outranks” nearly all the holidays. It isn’t a judgment on the couple or the family; it is a question of the rabbi’s personal boundaries.

So what is a couple to do?

1. Talk as a couple about what you really want out of this wedding. Is Jewish tradition important to you? If so, get in touch with a rabbi and include them in the process. They will be happy to take you through a process of learning the Jewish traditions for weddings and making educated choices about what you do and don’t want.

2. If you are in the early stages of planning your wedding, talk with your rabbi before you put deposits on the venue and the caterer!

3. If you have already made arrangements that cannot be changed, then it’s more complicated. There are some rabbis who officiate on Shabbat, but you may have to look out of town to find one. If it is actually not all that important to have a rabbi, maybe you have a relative or friend who could officiate. Many states have arrangements for one-day officiants. Any marriage that is recognized by the state is also recognized by the Jewish people.

Please don’t be mad at the rabbis you call who say they won’t officiate on Shabbat. They are exercising their right to observe Judaism according to their beliefs. You are exercising yours as well. You and that rabbi just aren’t a good match. Getting angry or calling them names will not persuade them to do what you want.

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. Take your time figuring out what you really want out of it, and the tone you want to set for the rest of your life together. Your wedding day truly is “the first day in the rest of your life.”

It’s a Disability Adventure!

Getting ready to travel
Getting ready to travel

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 there 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.

Report from Rabbi Camp

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!

Choosing a Rabbi

Rabbi Parking
(Photo credit: themarkpike)

In yesterday’s post about online conversion, I mentioned that I had more to say about choosing a rabbi. There was a time, not long ago, when I told people, “call around to your local synagogues” and felt like that was all I needed to say about the subject. Synagogues go through a very careful process in making a covenant with a rabbi; ideally, a committee not only reads resumes, but checks credentials and references. Rabbis are trusted with sensitive information about congregants’ lives. They are trusted to deal ethically with that information, with funds, and with congregants themselves. So synagogues are usually pretty careful in their hiring.

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) and  the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College , as well as the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles (the latter two both Conservative rabbinical schools) require five years or more of graduate study (meaning, incoming students already have a B.A.).  All 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 following:

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.