Whenever I tell people I’m a rabbi, the first question they ask is, “Where’s your beard?” The next question is usually something like, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?”
This question reflects a number of different cultural forces. The first is the largely secular identity of the American Jewish community. Jews express belief in God in significantly less proportions than other religious groups. They attend houses of worship less than other groups. While charitable giving to Jewish causes, commitment to education and liberal voting patterns continue to distinguish Jews as a group, religious practice and affiliation are irrelevant to a significant percentage of them.
The second cultural norm is the largely professional make-up of the Jewish community. A classic joke imagines the conversation between the mother of the first Jewish president and her friend. The friend says, “Aren’t you so proud of your son? He’s the first Jewish president!!” The mother says, “Oh yes! But his brother — his brother is a doctor!”
American Jews have the highest proportion of college-educated adults in America. The assumption of many parents is that their child will enter the legal, financial or medical profession. Entering the clergy deviates from this pattern. Studies suggest that the longer a family has been in America, the less likely they are to have children become rabbis. A rabbi is simply not a popular job for American Jewish boy.
A Holy Man?
So why did I do it? And why does this matter to anyone besides me (and my parents)? I’ll begin the latter question. It matters because the clergy continue to influence peoples’ lives. Religion can play a constructive or destructive force in our world. Its leadership will largely determine this direction.
And despite their lack of attendance or affiliation with synagogues, American Jews still need rabbis. The prolific scholar Jacob Neusner captured this truth in a stunning observation:
What is still sacred in the rabbi and his learning, calling, leadership? The answer would be “nothing whatsover,” were it not for the testimony of people’s relationship to the rabbi, their fantastic expectations of him. The absurd, pathetic, posturing rabbi, without adequate education for his task, unsure of his role, at once self-isolated and complaining of his loneliness — whatever he is, he is the rabbi. He knows it. The people know it. They (still) look to him as a kind of holy man.
Now Neusner’s language strikes us as sexist today, but I would say his description applies equally to women and men. Neusner’s point is that people still look to rabbis for inspiration, guidance and a sense of the sacred. It does not matter that for every task rabbis perform, there is probably someone more qualified. A therapist can give better counseling. A politician can give better speeches. A university professor can be a more erudite teacher. An executive can be a better manager.
Yet, for an affirmation that life has meaning, for a faith in ancient wisdom and timeless truths, for an understanding of who they are and where they come, people still look to the rabbi. And I am privileged to serve in that role every day.