I’ve recently written about different aspects of the Rabbinate, mostly in the abstract. Aside from describing the challenges of the profession, there hasn’t been much about the personal side to the Rabbinate. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, especially considering my first year as a Rabbi, and spending the past few weeks at home reminded me of the many dimensions of a Rabbi’s life.
That, and I’m currently stuck in an airport.
Perhaps the greatest personal challenge a Rabbi faces is distinguishing or balancing his professional life with his personal life. Unlike most professionals who have the option of leaving their work at the office, the Rabbi is always a Rabbi. Wherever he travels, the Rabbi is expected to act impeccably as a representative of Judaism and his congregation. Depending on his congregation, the Rabbi must always be on the job, whether he is on “vacation” or even if it’s late at night. If a Rabbi is stopped on the street, he is expected to be able to answer any halakhic or haskafic questions, and sometimes to perform counseling on the spot. For two examples, my father was once called back from a Florida vacation because he needed to perform a funeral and he was woken up at 2:00 AM by an irate parent complaining that the Shul’s nursery school was diluting the apple juice.1 There really isn’t any time that a Rabbi can simply say, “I’m off now” – or at least with respect to the congregants.
This can get especially difficult in familial relationships. Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the RJC warned a group of us in Gruss about being a Rabbi to a spouse or being a Rabbi to the family. The needs of a congregant are sufficiently different than the needs of a family, and so require different relationships. But since the Rabbi must be prepared to be a Rabbi within his own home, there is no physical distinction where he may psychologically differentiate between his personal and professional responsibilities.
I’ve seen many Rabbis develop different personas – my father being one of them. With these types of Rabbis, there are noticeable differences between them being “on” and “really on.” Although they will not necessarily shirk their responsibilities, their mannerisms, tone of voice, and even responses may be different. For example, a Rabbi giving a derasha or shiur, or mingling with the congregation at Kiddush, will address his congregants differently than if he would be approached in his house. He will still be “on,” but to a different degree.
I’m a little different in this regard. Perhaps because I’m a son of a Rabbi I’ve assimilated many traits which might seem Rabbinic. Through simply observing how my father has addressed, advised, and counseled countless congregants, I’ve seen how words and gestures can be used to inform, convince, or comfort and I’ve adapted my own personality accordingly Additionally, my mother has also contributed in this regard; though she will never admit it, she does play the role of rebbetzin quite nicely. At any rate, being raised in a Rabbinic family has understandably affected my own personal development.
Instead of having two different personas – one personal and one professional – there is simple one. Me. People ask me halakhic or hashkafic questions all the time, and I try to answer as best as I can. People come to me with personal crises, and I try to help them work through their issues. If I can’t do anything, I’d still listen, try to understand, and then refer them to someone who would be better suited. All the above might seem as Rabbinic traits, but I’ve been doing this long before I’ve been ordained. At some point, it just became part of me. It’s not that I see myself as a Rabbi, but as a good friend.2
Me being me also affects my official Rabbinic roles. My derashot in the bridge shul were often riddled with bizarre literary or cultural references – many of which are assumed that Rabbis do not or should not know.3 When I give shiur or learn with someone privately, I explain things not as a Rabbi, but as I personally would.4 When friends of mine read my papers, or even this blog, they tell me that, “they can hear me saying” what I’m writing. Even when people come to me for help, there’s so much of me infused in how I talk to someone.
Occasionally, I’ve found this amalgam to be confusing. Sometimes people come up to me because of my title as a Rabbi and expect a certain type of detached relationship. Rabbis are not usually threatening and are most often open to talking to people. Sometimes these turn into friendships, but even then lines are blurred.
In real friendships, and including dating relationships, there ought to be a balance of giving and taking between the participants. Rabbinical roles, by their nature are one-sided with the Rabbi giving and the other receiving attention, care, concern, time, effort, etc. Too many of these relationships can be extremely draining and unhealthy for anyone, including Rabbis.
Look at a marriage for example. Good Rabbis ought to be trained in active listening and putting in time and emotional energy to understanding his spouse. While this is important if not essential to maintaining a healthy marriage, this communication cannot be completely one sided. The Rabbi may understand what his spouse wants and needs, but it is inappropriate for him to suppress his own feelings for the sake of appeasing his spouse. When the Rabbi continuously ignores his own needs and feelings in deference to his wife, he does himself a disservice and perhaps will make him unconsciously resent his marriage.
In different circumstances, I have experienced this feeling several times and it’s not terribly pleasant. Since I have a dual role with friends, I do not mind giving time and energy to them and I do not expect anything in return. Giving constant unreciprocated emotional support is draining, but I don’t begrudge my friends for that.5
In terms of dating, I’m a little more demanding. One person I recently dated was unusually needy. I had spent considerable time and energy trying to work on building a relationship, but after spending many hours (if not days) talking through her feelings and needs, actually became upset when I started to insist for some degree of reciprocity and a more equitable balance of emotional support. The Rabbi part of me would have no problem giving freely. The “Josh” part of me is beginning to realize that I couldn’t live like that.
Despite the assimilation of Rabbinic traits, there still needs to be a distinction between professional and personal relationship. In my case it happens to be a little more difficult, but I’m learning to deal with it.
If you’d see me in an informal setting, or decide to randomly IM me, you might find me personably. If you see me as a Rabbi, I could be considered unique or a heretic. I don’t necessarily act like a Rabbi – for better or for worse – and I probably don’t think like you’d expect one to either. If viewed as just another person, I’m just friendly guy who happens to know some things about Judaism.
Either way, I’m just trying to be me.
1. The argument was that she was paying full tuition and therefore deserved full apple juice. Yes, she was insane.
2. Or at least I try to be.
3. Fortunately, only a few people picked up on those, and they knew me well enough.
4. Best example I can think of offhand is that I once compared a Kabbalistic concept of the dangers involved in having “wrong” kavannah with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.
5. I don’t get upset with individuals but with the circumstance of imbalance in general. It’s partially my fault as I’m not so comfortable asking people for help, but that could just as easily be genetic as it is Rabbinic. Maybe it’s worth exploring in another post, but this is enough psychoanalysis for now.
One rabbi I know always has a glass of wine after Friday night kiddush and then says he’s too drunk to answer sheilos.
“Unlike most professionals who have the option of leaving their work at the office, the Rabbi is always a Rabbi. Wherever he travels, the Rabbi is expected to act impeccably as a representative of Judaism and his congregation.”
The same is [supposed to be] true (on a different level, granted) of Jews in general. Wherever one travels, a Jew is expected to act impeccably as a representative of Judaism, his nation, and (I dare say) God. Sure, there is a greater societal expectation of Rabbis, but in some way, isn’t that just a human implementation of the expectation that God has of all of us and that we ought to all have of ourselves?
Obviously, there are other parts of the special role that a Rabbi plays that you identified that apply to “regular Jews” even less, such as the expectation of knowledge and a readiness to counsel. (Regular Jews have a portion in these responsibilities too, though, that is, to be a Talmid Chacham and a Ba’al Chessed.)
I really enjoyed this post. Although at my end of the Jewish world it’s relatively rare for congregants to seek halakhic opinions from our rabbi, we do tend to seek counsel and empathy and advice, and I suspect he sometimes finds it challenging to be “on” all the time. I suspect it’s also a challenge to negotiate the different requirements of “friend” and “rabbi” — when I call him up to chat about where my career is going, am I calling as a friend or as a congregant? I don’t always know, so how could he possibly know which side of him I’m seeking?
Anyway — I empathize with the challenges you face.
Thank You for that.
I’m doing some research on what the life of a Rabbi looks like an I came across this. I have much respect for you. I can see that you have to face situations that many people do not have to face. It seems like you know what you are in for and did not choose this life hastily. There is a lot of wisdom in your words.
Thank you for giving me, an outsider a view into your world.
May G_d bless you.