Why I’m Not A Rabbi

IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW THAT I was once studying to become a rabbi, then you probably haven’t talked to me much during the last 10 years.

As detailed elsewhere, I returned to Judaism in 1997 after a whirlwind tour of the spiritual hinterlands and shortly afterward decided to go to rabbinic school. I was so in love with Torah learning, and so appalled by my childhood religious education, that I wanted to right a generationally shared wrong by teaching Torah to spiritual eclectics like myself.

Accordingly, in 2000 I became one of Reform Judaism’s Para-Rabbinic Fellows (and have since conducted several dozen services, including a handful of B’nei Mitzvah ceremonies). In 2001, I quit newspapering to start working toward the seminaries’ requisite bachelor’s degree.

Which brings us to the first of three reasons why I’m no longer studying to become a rabbi: seminarIES. Unlike the glorious ethnotheolegalism of our forebears, Judaism today (at least in the USA) is sorted into fragments according to how closely one adheres to Torah practice. That’s a big problem for someone who’s more in love with Torah than with the sorting process (and who doesn’t make an extracontextual distinction between “Torah” and “practice”), and doubly so that a rabbi sometimes must speak as a denominational representative.

But the fact is, I don’t like denominations. I like the people involved (though that’s true of most people I meet), but I don’t like that Orthodoxy often emphasizes the ritual over the ethical, or that Conservatism can’t seem to define itself as other than “not Orthodox.” I really don’t like that Reform unilaterally changed the rules of Jewish identity, or that Renewal replaces the Jewish intellectual tradition with tambourines and navel-gazing (more on this later), or that Reconstructionism (and other non-O denominations) is apparently driving away men through feminization of liturgy and the overall service “vibe.” And what I really, really, really, really, REALLY don’t like about denominations is the inherent smugness thereof and consequent sniping at “those other guys.”

My second reason for not becoming a rabbi: I’m too cranky, and rabbis shouldn’t be cranky. (We had an angry rabbi round these parts a few years back. I saw firsthand what that did to the congregation, and to him, before he mercifully removed himself.) I discovered my inner crankypants when my best friend died in late 2002. My life fell apart, and it took a couple years of therapy and medication to learn that one cannot easily balance a variety of vital social roles on something as tenuous as unresolved emotional issues. It seems to me a rabbi needs to exemplify solidity, or at least possess it, before helping other people find theirs.

Reason number three concerns the colossal ego needed by a writer versus the intense humility required of a rabbi. Since “humility” isn’t cringing and whinging so much as keeping a sense of perspective, the idea that I am one small, fragile, temporary mind out of billions seems more like common sense than despair. But as a writer, and thus potentially immortal, my ego is so large as to cause airplanes to dip in gravitic homage when they fly over my house. So deep I have to wear a life jacket whenever I’m around me. So high that even I can’t stack an appropriate metaphor against it. As Robert Anton Wilson said, “Most of the characteristics which make for success in writing are precisely those which we are all taught to repress … (like) the firm belief that you are an important person, that you are a lot smarter than most people, and that your ideas are so damned important that everyone should listen to you.” Essential characteristics of writers — religious leaders, not so much. (See above the bit about the angry rabbi.)

I’m not sure I’m smarter than most people — maybe those I used to write about in the police blotter. (Or maybe not.) But my ideas are so damned important that everyone should listen to me (hence this blog, among other things); and something about being the hub of all that attention tells me that it’s better centered on my keyboard than my services.

That said: I have not given up studying Torah, or sharing it with curious folks (Ann & I conduct a Torah study in our living room every Saturday morning that there aren’t synagogue services). I certainly haven’t given up trying to live like (my best understanding of) a Jew. But I have given up the idea of becoming a rabbi; and since I first announced my rabbinic aspirations in a newspaper column nine years ago — and since people still ask me — it seems only fair to publicize their reverse.

Thanks for reading this far. I’ll see you at the book signing!

8 comments for “Why I’m Not A Rabbi

  1. 2010.04.28 at 1049

    Dear Neal, You ARE a rabbi, just not ordained or otherwise “officially” recognized as such (whatever the hell that means).

  2. 2010.04.28 at 2214

    You’re a good friend! But it’s the official parts that are important to me; that’s why I think someone as cranky and egotistical as moi should stay well away from rabbiing.

    But thank you.

  3. 2010.04.29 at 1543

    You study Torah, you teach, you write, you fully live the life of a Jew, others call you Rabbi – I think this is the definition of being a Rabbi. Maybe you are not a “Pulpit” Rabbi – but does that matter? It’s sort of like being an Artist – you can call yourself one all you want but until others do, you aren’t. The idea of lay Rabbi, the “preaching in a church” (synagogue) aren’t those constructs that are borrowed from Anglican Christianity? Deep reader of Torah, Teacher, observant of Jewish life and society, Rabbi.

  4. 2010.04.29 at 1632

    Exactly, what Daniel said.

  5. 2010.04.29 at 1821

    You guys … Thank you. (I don’t know what else to say, so I’ll say that.) But: “Lay rabbi” is misleading, the more so now that I know its connotations; “pararabbinic fellow” is the title the URJ (then UAHC) gave me. It’s enough.

  6. 2010.04.29 at 1826

    As an outsider atheist goyim with huge respect for what a person believes; it sounds like a lot of bureaucratic stuff to me. However, hierarchy can be important too if it is not stifling. If you don’t already, you will know what you are.

  7. 2019.06.04 at 1643

    Your thoughts on the differences between denominations reminded me of a joke. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

    Two Jews were shipwrecked on a desert island for several years. To pass the time, they built houses, roads, and a reservoir. They installed plumbing, planted crops, and generated electricity with wave turbines. They also built not one but two synagogues. Eventually, a freighter that wandered off the shipping lanes, found them, and offered them passage back to civilization. “Although I must admit,” observed the captain, “that you lead a pretty civilized life here. Buildings, paved roads, really ingenious utilities. But I have two ask: two synagogues? There are only two of you. Why do you need two synagogues?” The Jews pointed at one of them. “You see that one there? That’s the one we don’t go to.”

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