Tag Archives: Keeping Faith in Rabbis

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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Discovering the miraculous in our actions

19 Dec
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z"l, contributed to the recently published "Keeping Faith in Rabbis." He died December 18, 2014, at the age of 89.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z”l, contributed to the recently published “Keeping Faith in Rabbis.” He died December 18, 2014, at the age of 89.

What is the job of a rabbi? We can all think of many things based on our experiences. A rabbi often functions as service leader, preacher, teacher, spiritual counsellor, manager, writer, mediator, strategic planner, fundraiser and many more.

The modern rabbinate continues to evolve. In 21st Century America, we have to ask how contemporary challenges that our Jewish community faces will shape the rabbinate and how the rabbinate must respond to challenges to shape the Jewish community. A new book, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, is a collection of essays that explore the evolving American rabbinate. I am proud to say that I am a contributor to this volume with the publication of my essay “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate.” In coming weeks, I hope to discuss my essay further. For now, I want to turn to another essay in the book, “The Loneliness of the Rabbi,” by Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Rabbi Schulweis died on Thursday at the age of 89. He had an illustrious career as the Rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, a vibrant Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. I did not know him personally but was inspired by his writing and teaching. He was a powerful and engaging speaker, a brilliant yet accessible theologian and a passionate advocate for social justice. He was a Gadol Hador, one of the giants of the Jewish world in our generation. In his essay in Keeping Faith in Rabbis, he addresses rabbis directly as to their sacred duty.

He writes:
“Rabbis, you are the children of prophets. In you is the solace that comes from loyalty to the conscience that has led you to this sacred vocation. In you is the moral passion that kept the prophet alive, who when he confessed that he felt the derision against him, and was tempted not to mention God’s name was overwhelmed by the word that was “in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones.”

There are many things that a rabbi does, but based on Rabbi Schulweis’s teaching, I would like to suggest a common purpose among our various forms of service: the rabbi’s job is to guide others to seek out and discover God’s presence in one another and in our world. When we help others achieve this and add meaning to their lives, we are successful.

The task of finding God’s presence in one another and in our world lies at the heart of Shabbat Hanukkah. On Shabbat Hanukkah we wrestle with two questions: 1)What exactly is the miracle of Hanukkah that we celebrate? 2) Why does Shabbat Hanukkah always coincide with Parashat Mikketz (and is there a connection between the two?—OK, that’s a third question.)

Let’s address these questions. Our ancestors saw miracles in the story of Hanukkah, but differed on precisely what the miracle was. There are two separate Hanukkah miracles described by different voices of our tradition. In our liturgy, we say the prayer Al HaNissim, which praises God for the miracle that delivered a military victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, the pure over the impure, and the righteous over the wicked. In the Talmud, however, we find the legend of the single cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days instead of just one. Our tradition gives voice to both of these founding myths, and both are valid and important.

So, what does Hanukkah have to do with the central episode of the Joseph story that we read this Shabbat, Parashat Mikketz? They always fall together, but why? On the surface, this is a pure coincidence. Our Torah reading cycle was not coordinated with the cycle of festivals and special days on the Jewish calendar. For this reason, we have the separate Maftir Torah reading and special Haftarah reading that are singled out today for Hanukkah. Nevertheless, our annual mingling of the story of Joseph in Egypt with our commemoration of the Maccabean revolt against their Greek oppressors, begs for closer examination.
The Joseph story is itself the most naturalistic narrative in the Torah. On the surface, God is not an active player. Every event can be read in purely naturalist terms in its descriptions of human behavior. We have sibling rivalry, parental meddling, deception, lust, political ambition, guilt, and revenge. We recognize these experiences from our own lives, and we identify with the characters as a result.

At the same time, there are just too many coincidences in the story for it to be entirely arbitrary: Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave, which leads to his serving in the house of Potiphar, which leads to his imprisonment, which eventually leads to his interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, which leads to his appointment as Pharaoh’s #2, which leads to Joseph’s brothers coming to bow down before Joseph, begging for food. God is never described by the narrative as the direct cause of this chain of events, but Joseph attributes everything to the hand of God and forgives his brothers as a result.

In the Joseph story, God’s presence is well-hidden. God never speaks but is portrayed as working all along, though in ways not apparent to most of the actors. Joseph himself ascribes God’s role in orchestrating the chain of events in his life that ultimately leads to his reunion with his family and his forgiveness of his brothers (Gen. 45:5).

Rabbi Neil Gillman notes a parallel between the Joseph story and the Hanukkah story. If we look at historical accounts of the second century BCE, we find not only the persecution of the Greeks toward Jews, but the internal struggles between the Maccabees and the Hellenists, Jews who sought to live completely immersed in Greek culture. It is a story rife with political intrigue, assassinations, and civil war. The Maccabees emerged as the winners during this period of great strife. On the one hand, their story can be told in naturalist ways: the story of an oppressed people rebelling against an imperialistic kingdom, fighting to regain their freedom and their right to worship as they wished, and winning because of their military might and political sense. It was only subsequent generations, starting with the Maccabees themselves, who interpreted the series of events as miraculous, the work of God’s hand in human history.

We see an interesting phenomenon in the Joseph story and in Judaism’s response to the Maccabean revolt. In both cases, God is seen as having played a role in the unfolding of events, even as God’s presence is not readily apparent at the time the events are happening. By extension, the coincidence of Parashat Mikketz and Shabbat Hanukkah is perhaps not a coincidence at all. It may be our tradition’s way of saying that God is present throughout our lives. Our openness to seeking out and being aware of God’s presence is a step towards adding meaning to our lives.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis helped countless numbers of Jews encounter God’s presence through guiding them to discover God’s presence in other people. In the process, he helped bring fresh meaning to modern American Judaism. On this Shabbat Hanukkah, I pray that we will follow the example of Rabbi Schulweis. Let us tap into our human ingenuity and compassion to bring about good in the world so that future generations will look back at us and say that through our efforts God performed miracles.
Amen.

“The Roar of the Cat Rabbi” now online

5 Dec
"Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education," edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, launched on December 1.

“Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education,” edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, launched on December 1.

My essay “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate” is now posted on the “Keeping Faith in Rabbis” website as a sample chapter. The book is also available through Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

An essay in “Keeping Faith in Rabbis”

2 Dec
"Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education," edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, launched on December 1.

“Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education,” edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, launched on December 1.

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my essay, “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate” as part of the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher. In my essay, I argue against a tired metaphor from 20 years ago that said the pulpit rabbinate was only for “dog rabbis,” or extroverts, while “cat rabbis,” or introverts, should look for work elsewhere. I reject this false dichotomy and draw upon the latest in groundbreaking social science research and my own 15 years serving synagogues. I attempt to show that both introverts and extroverts have important skills to apply to the congregational rabbinate and have the capacity to stretch to incorporate new skills while remaining true to their authentic selves. I’m honored that my essay is included in this volume along with 30 other essays from distinguished thought leaders in the Amerian Jewish Community.

Here’s how the editors describe the volume: Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education is an original book of essays by rabbis, academics and lay leaders who explore the question, “What goes into the making of a 21st Century rabbinical leader?” Keeping Faith in Rabbis does not prescribe formulas for rabbinical education. Rather, it is an intentionally curated conversation across ideological boundaries that both celebrates the work of rabbis and suggests new paradigms of rabbinical education and leadership.

Keeping Faith in Rabbis is available from Avenida Books and on Amazon (Print edition $17.95 | Kindle edition $9.99). If you’re interested in Jewish community or in questions of where the Jewish future may lie, this book is a terrific resource — and also hopefully a conversation-starter, both in our communities and in other religious communities where the questions raised in this book will resonate. Pick up a copy today!