Monday, May 23, 2011

Wanna Be A Rabbi?

Don't Give Up Your Day Job:  Not everyone who becomes a rabbi goes to rabbinical school, and not everyone who goes to rabbinical school becomes a rabbi.  Abq Jew is one of those who went (without actually being admitted; it's a long story) and didn't.

Why didn't he?  Somewhere along the way, Abq Jew found out that the rabbi has to sit on the bimah for the entire day of Yom Kippur - all the services, all the prayers, all the cantorial ... stuff.  Sometimes with a choir.

That's the story Abq Jew has told for the past thirty-odd years.  But the truth is - he couldn't get past the Jewish Theological Seminary's in-person Talmud entrance exam, administered by Rabbi Saul Lieberman, of blessed memory.

Rabbi Lieberman was such a formidable scholar that ... when he went to interview at JTS, he was warned: "Don't tell them you know the entire Babylonian Talmud by heart."  Sure enough, when asked about the extent of his learning, Rabbi Lieberman claimed to know only half the Talmud.  "Which half do you know?" he was asked.  And Rabbi Lieberman responded: "Which half would you like to hear?"

Abq Jew profoundly and profusely apologizes.  It's an old joke - and  my rabbinical school colleagues, many of whom went on to brilliantly successful careers, swore (Billy Nader) it really happened.  But the truth is - it took smarts and "background" and sitzfleisch to become a rabbi, especially at the Seminary, especially in those years.

Since those years, Abq Jew has begun to think about What Might Have Been (it's a symptom of old age).  Here are a few things that Abq Jew has learned since his Seminary days:
  • To have any credibility within the Jewish communities of North America, you are way better off with the title "Rabbi" than without it. This is true despite any knowledge or experience - "background" - you may have.  The titles "Dr" and "PhD" are helpful, but are most powerful when combined with "Rabbi". 
  • The title "Rabbi" has traditionally been conferred based almost entirely on scholarship. When push comes to shove, ya gotta know your stuff - in order to serve your congregation and community. This was especially true of the Seminary, and Abq Jew suspects it still is. Six years of study barely skims the surface of the Sea of Talmud.
  • Scholarship is no longer needed in order to serve your congregation and community. What is needed today is leadership - and leadership is not taught at rabbinical school.
  • Love of Judaism, skilled performance of Jewish rituals, and being a rabbi are very different things.
There are today many more alternative paths to the title "Rabbi" than ever before.  And that's a good thing. Still, the experience of rabbinical school is so unique, so powerful, that it has stayed with Abq Jew through the years.  It was an honor and a privilege just to eat in the same dining hall as my teachers and colleagues.

Want to know what rabbinical school and the rabbinical profession are like these days? Jean Meltzer-Maskuli, a Daytime Emmy award winning writer and rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, posted this delightful video to show us.

Jean writes a blog, From Hollywood to Holyland, and occasionally writes for Punk Torah. If you're thinking about rabbinical school - and especially if you're not - you'll find Jean's writing well worth your time. About the video, Jean writes:
I never thought this simple, little Purim Shpiel video made for my dear friends and colleagues at RRC ( would garner so much attention! I have lots to say from all the feedback I've received from across the globe, but here's the really important part of it...

While this video was made in jest, I want to be clear... there has not been one minute of one day since entering the rabbinate, when I have regretted my decision.
So watch and enjoy.  And remember - there's always law school!

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