Why I wrote “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi”

6 Feb
JTS hosted a panel discussion on "Keeping Faith in Rabbis," Feb. 2, 2015. L to R, Rabbi Ed Bernstein, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Barbara Wiston, Jay Wiston, Carolyn Kantor, Rabbi Danielle Upbin

JTS hosted a panel discussion on “Keeping Faith in Rabbis,” Feb. 2, 2015 at Temple Torat Emet in Boynton Beach. L to R, Rabbi Ed Bernstein, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Barbara Wiston, Jay Wiston, Carolyn Kantor, Rabbi Danielle Upbin

The following is adapted from remarks I delivered February 2, 2015, during a JTS panel discussion on the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher. A podcast of panel discussion is available here.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, ties in well with what I attempt to accomplish in my essay, “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate” in the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis. Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, finds Moses overwhelmed in his job. He is mired in the minutiae of day-to-day problems, he’s at risk of burn-out and he’s neglecting his own family. We already know that Moses has worked hard to overcome his own poor self-assessment of himself in taking on the mantle of leadership. God let Aaron serve as Moses’s spokesman, but eventually Moses gains confidence and asserts himself and speaks in his own right. Yitro knows Moses. He knows that he’s trying to do the right thing. He may also know that Moses’s harshest critic is himself, a common trait among introverts. From afar, Yitro can see the bigger picture and steps in to offer Moses some guidance to streamline his work load with the help of others. Moses is able to use the tools offered by Yitro so that he is able to grow as a leader.

Self-Awareness and personal growth are at the heart of my essay: “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate.” You may be interested to know that not everyone at Temple Torat Emet agrees with that assertion. (How could we be Jewish if that weren’t the case?) In fact, a few weeks ago, a lady who regularly comes to my Talmud class and was among the first to buy the book came up to me after services a few days later and said, “Rabbi, I disagree with you,” she said. I was bracing myself for the critique. She said: “You are NOT an introvert! I see you mingling with people in synagogue all the time.”

I was tempted to regurgitate the main points of my essay; then I caught myself and thought why throw a wet blanket on a well-intentioned compliment. I just said thank you. Let me take this opportunity to share why I wrote this essay and what I hope is the biggest take aways for our community. In short, here are the basics: 1) I am an introvert 2) I accept that 3) There are no “cookie cutter rabbis”–every rabbi brings different strengths to the table, and in our era we need all hands on deck and 4) Whatever our personality traits, each one of us is best served when we seize opportunities to grow.

Now for some backstory:

Exactly 20 years ago, an article appeared in the CCAR Journal titled “Dog Rabbis and Cat Rabbis.” The author, Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbock, asserted that dog rabbis–or extroverts–are better suited for the pulpit rabbinate than introverts (“cat rabbis”). Cohn-Sherbock described himself as a “cat rabbi” who struggled in several pulpit positions early in his career then shifted to academia where he has flourished for several decades. In assessing his pulpit woes, he writes: “I tried and tried and tried–yet over and over again I failed to satisfy the demands of my congregation. I fell into every trap. I just couldn’t be the friendly, enthusiastic, sympathetic, and attentive pastor that my congregation wanted.”
He describes his journey to congregations on multiple continents. “I shriveled up inside when I had to act as master of ceremonies. I dreaded bar mitzvahs. I loathed weddings. I detested kissing each lady ‘good Shabbos.'”

Now, I empathize with Cohn-Sherbok’s agony in the pulpit, yet he makes assumptions and generalizations that are neither realistic nor helpful in providing guidance to current and aspiring rabbis in the 21st Century.

In the two decades since Cohn-Sherbok’s article appeared, psychological and social science literature has exploded with groundbreaking research on personality traits. Susan Cain’s best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking synthesizes the scientific literature and argues for a fresh look at the significant role that introverts played in history and can continue to play with greater awareness and sensitivity throughout society. I argue that the Jewish community will benefit from looking anew at the strengths of introverted rabbis.

I learned from Cain’s work that the basic difference between introverts and extroverts is how each processes and reacts to stimuli. Introverts are wired to reflect and inspect, extroverts are wired to react and respond. These traits are hard-wired from birth. Our American society has evolved towards favoring high octane, high volume, highly stimulating people and environments. Just think of the pyrotechnics of last night’s Superbowl Halftime Show. Yet, many people, perhaps as many as half of us, get exhausted when we’re exposed to high levels of stimuli over a period of time. It’s not good or bad, it’s just that evolution has endowed us with different mechanisms for survival in our world.

Anyone who enters the rabbinate does so, I assume, because of a deep sense of personal mission towards serving God and the Jewish people. Certainly, I did. Extroverts and Introverts alike both bring natural gifts to bear in their rabbinates. As an introverted rabbi, I used to envy extroverts for their natural ability to schmooze and light up a room. I was misguided by the dog rabbi-cat rabbi dichotomy, and I was frustrated with myself. I got stuck in a position of envy of something that I was not. Over time, I came to a position of acceptance of who I am and the essential gifts I bring to the table that I believe serve me well in the rabbinate. Once I got unstuck from the mindset of “Woe unto me that I’m not x,” I embraced a mindset of growth (The term “mindset” I derive from Susan Dweck’s masterful work by that name). With that mindset, I am more open to Susan Cain’s metaphor of a rubber band, whereby I can stretch myself beyond my comfort zone in order to fulfill my mission. Some rabbis are personally nourished by exposure to large amounts of people in a social setting. For me, when I schmooze with people at Kiddush, as was noticed by my Talmud student, I do so with the mindset that forging relationships with my congregants is part of my mission of serving as a rabbi. Therefore, I make sure I have the right tools in my toolkit to fulfill my mission.

To come back to Parashat Yitro, when Moses felt stuck, he reframed and retooled. Moses teaches us that self-reflection and growth are essential qualities for leadership, and they are great tools for life in general. Every rabbi, Seminary and synagogue should embrace the growth mindset for the sake of serving God and the Jewish people. When we accomplish this, we have lots of reason to keep faith in rabbis.

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One Response to “Why I wrote “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi””

  1. Ellie Levine February 7, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

    dog or cat to me makes no difference when i needed emotional help you were there for me and helped me work out my hurt and angry and gave me more strength in my belief in GOD

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