At my first gathering of Rabbis Without Borders today, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the Co-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, suggested that more and more, American Jews are in need of the Torah of Rabbis and not the Profession of Rabbis. This was very hard to hear. In essence, Rabbi Hirschfield, who has been recognized by Newsweek as one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis, told a bunch of American rabbis that our profession, as we know it today, is at risk of becoming irrelevant. 20% of rabbis face the real possibility of being out of work according to Rabbi Hirschfield and Rabbi Irwin Kula, the other Co-President of Clal.
American Jews still need and want what rabbis have to teach them, but they are not so willing to pay rabbis for our knowledge. Rabbi Hirschfield cites the trend away from paid clergy in the Protestant community and asserts that the Jewish community tends to eventually embrace Protestant trends. As a career rabbi who has invested a great deal of time, energy and resources into becoming the best “professional” clergyman I can be, Rabbi Hirschfield’s suggestion that I and my colleagues might soon be irrelevant made me extremely uncomfortable.
As a rabbi in South Florida, I often see how highly trained, reputable and experienced rabbis who have earned their rabbinic title only after years of extensive study at nationally recognized rabbinic seminaries are being marginalized, replaced by people who have every legal right to call themselves “rabbis”, but do not have the impressive credentials of rabbis who were ordained by national seminaries. Arguing over who is and who is not a legitimate rabbi is a waste of time and will get us nowhere.
Instead, my colleagues and I must ask ourselves: “how do we keep ourselves relevant?” This question must be asked and a serious conversation must be started. I feel so strongly about this because I do believe that rabbis who have spent years studying Torah in a seminary while developing cutting-edge educational techniques and learning about the complexities of the Jewish community have valuable tools to offer American Jews. These tools are our stories, our passions, our understanding of why Judaism matters. These tools, if shared appropriately, have the potential to connect American Jews to Torah and unleash their own Jewish story.
Continuing down the same old path that we rabbis have been on for many years now, working in our synagogues, training b’nai mitzvah, teaching adult education classes, leading services – this is not what is going to keep us relevant. Lots of people can do these tasks – tasks that are essential and not ones we should walk away from, but tasks which lock us into positions that can be replaced by someone with less training and skill.
I am not willing to see the American Rabbi as irrelevant. But, as I type these words, I know that this mean that I must be willing to take chances with my rabbinate, push down my borders and seek new paths that will allow me to inspire my community and others seeking a real connection to Judaism. So, as I complete Day 1 of my Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, I say: “bring it on!”
Thank you to all who inspired me today.