Lately, sadly, there has been cause in my neck of the words for people to bandy about the phrases “bad rabbi” and “good rabbi”.
Oh how I wish there were no such things; that we could live in a world where there were just rabbis who do or do not live up to their potential.
And I’ll admit, I’ve used the term “bad rabbi” in the past, usually describing a rabbi who’s making the rest of us look bad by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or brandishing their ego about, or – dare I say it? – officiating at weddings or signing-off on conversions with absolutely no “prerequisites” (read “integrity”). Sadly, sometimes it’s much more serious than that. But still. Even then. Even now. The words “Bad Rabbi” leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Surely nothing is that black and white.
In any case.
Before ordination, as part of HUC’s infamous placement program, I was instructed to write a Rabbinic Vision Statement. It didn’t help me so much back then, as I had no real concept of what it meant to actually BE a rabbi or lead a community. But I digress. The statement did help to guide me in my first few years, and as I prepared to leave my first job and apply for my second, it got edited (infused with a healthy dose of reality), although in large part it remains the same as it was when first written.
When I want to remind myself of what I think it means to be a “Good Rabbi”, or better yet, when I want to remind myself of the standard I set for myself, I re-read this statement and it reroots me or reorients me or realigns my focus. Something.
In truth, it’s not actually about what kind of rabbi I endeavor to be, it’s about what kind of person I endeavor to be. The two are inseparable. If I achieve one, the other follows.
Anyway. I’ve never posted it here and now seemed like a good time.
MY RABBINIC VISION STATEMENT
No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel…for you have struggled with God (yisra-El) and with human beings, and you have prevailed. (Gen. 37:29)
Our movement’s most recent Torah commentary teaches that the original meaning of “Israel” is difficult to concisely define. It can be construed as “he struggles with God,” or “God struggles,” or “God rules,” or “his struggle is mighty,” and more. Our commentary also teaches us that, “a name change often signifies a change in character”. This change of character not only redefined Jacob, it predefined what our nature as a people would be – a people who struggle with God; a people who witness God’s struggle; a people who are contracted through a brit (covenant) to consider God’s rules; a people who, over the course of history, would struggle mightily; and more.
My understanding of the Jewish People’s purpose and of my own role as a Jew in the world is deeply rooted in this teaching. I believe that we as a people (and thus I as an individual) are meant to struggle – for meaning (Emet), for self-betterment (Shleimut), and for the betterment of the world in which we live (Tikkun Olam). Jewish tradition teaches us that everything stands on three pillars – God, Torah, and The People of Israel. Indeed, each of these pillars is necessary to the struggles for emet, shleimut, and tikkun olam.
The search for meaning is bound up in our awareness of and our struggles against limitation. It often seems a tragic irony that humanity is simultaneously advanced and restricted; that being able to comprehend our potential, we are also painfully aware of what we cannot do. If this is the curse, than I believe the blessing can be found in the simple fact that we are not alone – that together we improve our odds, increase our resources, maximize our potential and provide for one another. I believe that God made a choice to give us awareness, to give us freewill (thereby limiting God’s own power to be directly involved), and to give us one another.
Based on experiences in my own life, and on my observations of the lives of others, it seems to me that while God chooses not to directly act in our world we have the power and the potential to act on God’s behalf. We have the ability to choose right from wrong, to reach out and help one another, and to use the Torah that God has given us as a guide for when and how to do so. When we act to our full potential, we actualize God in our world. When we don’t, God is silenced.
Thus we, The People of Israel, are responsible for enacting and activating God in both our daily interactions and in the world at large. If God is to take care of our world, we must take care of our world; if God is to protect us than we must protect ourselves and one another; and if God is to be present for us, we must each be present for others. I have seen for myself how, with the support of others, and a faith that there is meaning even when it escapes us, we are able to push ourselves beyond our wildest imaginings – when we discover that we are not alone, we discover a strength we did not know we had.
This understanding has the potential to inform all of our actions and interactions. If I truly believe that I am not only created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image), but even more so, that I act on God’s behalf in all that I do, I hopefully – on my best days – feel the weight of that duty motivating me and encouraging me to be the best person I can be – to treat myself and others as well as possible, and to do what I can to make the world a better place.