Role of the 21st Century Rabbi

A recent editorial in The Forward demonstrates how much the American rabbinate has changed in the 21st century. The economy has made it difficult for many rabbis to find good jobs; and for them to keep good jobs when the synagogue or organization falls on tough financial times. A reduction in the number of congregations due to closures and mergers has also caused a dearth of desirable positions for rabbis in the U.S. and Canada. But there are other factors involved as well. New rabbinical schools (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Ziegler at the American Jewish University, Hebrew College, and the Academy for Jewish Religion) have cropped up in the past fifteen years increasing the number of new rabbis looking for work. The Internet has also made it much easier for the laity to learn synagogue skills — life-cycle officiation, prayer leading, and teaching — that may ultimately reduce the need for a rabbi, although I don’t believe that to be the case.

As the Forward editorial makes clear, “the role of rabbi is being challenged as never before.” Some sociologists like Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University predicted precisely such a change in the American rabbinate based on shifting demographics and the needs of the community. However, I don’t see this as a crisis in American Jewry. Rather, I find this to be an interesting opportunity for rabbis to become more entrepreneurial — both as a way to be necessary and to make a significant contribution to our people. Rabbis who see this as a chance to reinvent their rabbinate will ultimately be the most successful in the new era of Jewish life. And that holds true not only for American rabbis, but for rabbis throughout the Jewish world who have the entrepreneurial spirit.

I’m currently taking part in a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Ukraine and Israel, and writing this blog post on a plane headed from Kiev to Tel Aviv along with a few dozen of my colleagues from the multitude of denominations. One thing I’ve noticed on this mission is that when rabbis meet each other for the first time, in general, they no longer ask each other “Which congregation do you lead?” Rather, the question is something along the lines of, “Where are you from and what do you do?” Rabbis today are exploring much different rabbinic paths of leadership than in previous generations. Growing up I always thought the role of the rabbi was solely in a synagogue. All of the rabbinic role models I had as a child were pulpit rabbis. Today, much has changed and the majority of rabbis do not work in congregations.

Talented rabbis are working in day schools, Jewish Community Centers, camping agencies, communal organizations, college campus institutions, and philanthropic foundations. They are also cobbling together two and three part-time jobs in ways never imagined in previous generations. Several entrepreneurial rabbis are taking a page out of the Chabad emissary playbook and founding new congregations and small prayer communities where there is a need. While not an easy task, these rabbis are finding the “start-up” experience to be exhilarating, significant and spiritually fulfilling. Rabbis are also freelancing their skills more often. As the number of Jewish families and singles unaffiliated with a congregation rises, there is an increased need for rabbis to perform life-cycle leadership roles. With the growth of the internet it has become easy for people to identify rabbis to officiate at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, funeral or unveiling.

A recent article in The Jewish Week showed a new trend for private bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, independent of synagogues, that is prevalent on the East Coast. And that trend is spreading to the rest of the country. As a rabbi who is not affiliated with a congregation, I am called upon often to lead life-cycle ceremonies and I know that is the case with my colleagues around the country who likewise aren’t working in a congregation. Our culture of desiring the best products has reached into the religious leadership marketplace as well. A Jewish couple no longer feels compelled to have the rabbi of their childhood congregations preside at their wedding ceremony. Instead they will select the rabbi who they believe will create the most meaningful, memorable experience. So too with other life-cycle events like funerals. I’m often asked to perform the weddings of young people with whom I developed a relationship working as a rabbi on a campus Hillel or at a Jewish summer camp. Many of these young people have moved away from their childhood communities and don’t have a meaningful relationship with the rabbi of their parents’ congregation, but like everything else in life they are seeking the personable, meaningful, and memorable.

I believe that while laypeople may be able to perform many of the functions traditionally reserved for rabbis, there is no replacement for the vast array of skills a rabbi brings after years of training. A one-year online rabbinic program may be a worthwhile endeavor for many spiritually seeking Jewish people who are not able to attend a five- or six-year rabbinic training program, but they will not be a legitimate substitute for a rabbi. As the Forward editorial articulated, “For many American Jews, there is no substitute for the penetrating power of a brilliant sermon, or the comfort offered by a rabbi who knew the dying person before she became ill. There is no one else to mold and lead a religious community, to carry on and interpret our great tradition of scholarship, or to stand as a moral lighthouse in this foggy time. No one else to represent ourselves to ourselves, and ourselves to other people. Which is why defining and sustaining the role of the modern rabbi is one of the most vital challenges before the American Jewish community today.”

I don’t believe the rabbinate is in crisis, but I do believe that the most resourceful and entrepreneurial rabbis will be the ones to emerge successful in the Jewish world. Professional programs like Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship have realized this and are helping guide rabbis in the new rabbinate. The rabbis who embrace rather than dismiss the new realities of Jewish life will be the ones to make positive contributions to their community in particular and to global Jewry in general. And those rabbis who don’t dwell on the past (“the good ole days of the rabbinate”), but seek out modern innovations to guide their leadership and influence will be the most dynamic Jewish leaders of the future.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Getting Chai on ‘Weeds’ – Jewish Themes Galore on the Showtime Hit Series

Fans of the long-running Showtime series “Weeds” know that writer and creator Jenji Kohan is not afraid to pepper the show with Jewish themes. While the show, now in its final season, has changed its flavor over the years and gained some critics, many devotees still enjoy the story about a marijuana-selling widowed mother from the suburbs and her family’s experiences.

Throughout the different webs of relationships, Kohan, who is Jewish, has managed to bring esoteric Jewish concepts into the series, including in a recent episode that featured ruminations on the power and purpose of immersing in the mikvah. Perhaps because the show is on the subscription-based Showtime network, its Jewish essence hasn’t been widely covered, but Kohan, who considered attending rabbinical seminary, has taken on some controversial Jewish subjects in the past eight seasons. Here are the top Jewish references:

* Unveiling (Season 1, Episode 8): It’s likely that many viewers thought this was a funeral service at the cemetery, but Jewish fans recognized the ritual as the unveiling of Judah Botwin’s tombstone. Once the family returns from the cemetery, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) explains her day to the Drug Enforcement Agency agent who becomes her boyfriend: “It’s where they unveil the gravestone. It’s a Jewish thing. I know you’re thinking, ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ I come from Welsh stock … I’m not Jewish. My husband. He’s dead now. He was Jewish.”

Showtime

The episode also tackles the controversial topic of Jewish lineage when the Orthodox rabbi tells the Botwin boys, Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould), that they are not legitimately Jewish because their mother isn’t Jewish and they had never converted to Judaism. The young Shane is hurt by the news and takes out his aggression on his wrestling opponent, whose foot he bites after yelling “Sh’ma Yisrael!”

* Rabbinical School (Season 2): Nancy’s out-of-work brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) decides the best way to keep from returning to military service will be to become a rabbi. He enrolls in the fictional Hamidrash L’Torah rabbinical school, where he falls in loves with the dean, the attractive Israeli Yael Hoffman (Meital Dohan). While much of the ongoing rabbinical school experience is silly, some rather serious issues are discussed, including Andy’s theological convictions, which come up while he is writing his admissions essay.

* Euthanasia (Season 4, Episodes 2 and 3): The Botwins leave the Agrestic/Majestic community after it burns and relocate to the home of Nancy’s father-in-law. There they find Lenny Botwin (Albert Brooks) and his mother, Bubbie (Jo Farkas), who is hooked up to a ventilator. The Auschwitz survivor regains consciousness and asks Lenny to kill her. The Botwin men discuss the wisdom and ethics of euthanizing Bubbie, but in the end Lenny agrees to have Nancy kill Bubbie.

* Sitting Shiva (Season 4, Episode 4): While shiva is one of the most well-known Jewish rituals, not many television shows have accurately portrayed it. This episode focuses entirely on the Botwin family sitting shiva for Bubbie at son Lenny’s insistence. Several laws and customs of shiva are mentioned during the episode, including the understanding that family members should not cook for themselves. A shiva candle is lit, and friends and neighbors come to pay their respect.

* Levirate Marriage (Ongoing): While Andy mentions the Jewish concept of a Levirate marriage to his sister-in-law Nancy at one point in the show’s history, the theme is an ongoing one. The Torah dictates that an unmarried man must marry his brother’s widow, but that applies only if the widow has not had children. So even if the law would not apply in Nancy and Andy’s case — both because she already has children and she is not Jewish — the constant and sometimes awkward attraction between them seems continually to remind the viewer of Andy’s enjoyment and frustration over the hunt.

* Bris (Season 5, Episode 8): Nancy gives birth to Tijuana Mayor and cartel leader Esteban Reyes’ baby boy, but the father (Demian Bichir) refuses to sign the birth certificate for fear of its effect on his political career. Andy signs the birth certificate as the boy’s father and insists on a brit for the baby, whom he promises to raise proudly as his Jewish son. At the brit, baby Stevie is given the Hebrew name Avi Melech (son of a king).

Showtime

* Mikvah (Season 8, Episode 5): At the end of this episode, Rabbi David Bloom (David Julian Hirsh), the rabbi/hospital chaplain, finally confronts Nancy, who has been secretly swimming in his backyard swimming pool. This is the same rabbi who talks theology with Andy at the hospital when he is concerned about Nancy’s well-being after she is shot in the head at the end of the previous season. When Nancy explains that swimming in the pool feels like a sort of rebirth for her, the rabbi explains the Jewish concept of tevillah (immersion in a mikvah). This is likely the most spiritual and New Age definition of the mikvah ritual that has ever been offered on television.

Kohan has said that she’s not afraid to take on inherently Jewish concepts on the show no matter how esoteric they may be. For the many Jewish fans of “Weeds,” there have been many instances of surprise and pride over the years after unpredicted mentions of a Jewish ritual or theme. As the final season comes to a close, there may just be more Jewish references to come.

UPDATE: I just received word that the show filmed scenes for an episode at Adat Ari El synagogue in Valley Village, California last week. They used the historic chapel for one of the scenes. I’m thinking this can mean a Nancy-Andy or a Jill-Andy wedding… We shall see!

Originally published at JTA.org and cross-posted to the PopJewish.com blog.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller