Growing Rabbis

[What goes into the making of a 21st Century rabbinical leader? In this latest series of essays to be published on eJP, we share thoughts from Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D., Rabbi Ellen Lewis, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg and Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D. The first three essays originally appeared in, “Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Educartion,” Avenida Books, December 2014. The fourth is a new essay written for eJP that looks at how we may respond to the paradigm shift currently underway in the North American Jewish Community.

eJP is grateful to the authors, publisher and editors (Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher) who have generously made these essays available to our eJP community.]


By Rabbi David A. Teutsch

When I was a rabbinical student over forty years ago, the seminary curriculum consisted primarily of acquiring knowledge and professional skills. Of course both of those are critically important for working as a rabbi in the 21st Century American Jewish community, but given the challenges rabbis face today, that formula has proved inadequate. That is part of the reason that at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College – and increasingly elsewhere – the discussion has shifted from a focus on rabbinic education to one on rabbinic formation. That shift is critical no matter what kind of position – congregation, Hillel, chaplaincy, education, community organizing, programming or freelance – a rabbi serves in.

There was a time when seminaries assumed that their students were knowledgeable, spiritually engaged and ethically grounded Jews. Seminaries today recognize that is not a safe assumption. Many students come to rabbinical programs in search of their place in Jewish tradition. Seminary is a place for them to shape their Jewish lives. Contemporary seminaries therefore have to be concerned with strengthening their students as Jews as a step toward the students growing into rabbis. That adds immeasurably to the complexity and challenge of rabbinic formation.

Of course, the curricular emphases vary seminary to seminary based not only on differences in theology and in assumptions about proper practice, but also on the history and organizational culture of the institution. Nevertheless, the fundamental components of rabbinic formation that the schools need to address remain the same: acquisition of academic knowledge, mastery of sufficient Torah learning and text skills, articulation of personal belief and theology, development of spiritual depth and spiritual practice, cultivation of menschlichkeit and the Jewish virtues, understanding of the contemporary Jewish community and its environment, and practical skills relevant to ritual, pastoral work, teaching, administration, group work and leadership.

That’s a very long list! But more important than any one entry on that list is the necessity that all of those things be integrated into a seamless whole within the character of the rabbi. The sum is far greater than the parts, as all of us know who have a rabbinic mentor whom we admire. One can acquire more facts or skills later, but if one does not enter the rabbinate with an evident love of Yiddishkeit and of Jews, as well as with integrity and spiritual seriousness, nothing else can make up for that lack. The particulars in any good rabbinic job description spell out expected tasks and relationships, but they cannot be expected to deal with the critical questions about what rabbis need to do to cultivate their personal spiritual resources, to undertake sufficient self-care and to develop the network of familial relationships and friendships that rabbis need to sustain themselves. So the components of rabbinic formation ought not to be developed within departments and programs that are largely separate from each other. Good rabbinic formation depends upon integration of the entire curricular and co-curricular experience and full integration can be fully achieved within a seminary setting only if it is a goal to which the whole faculty and the academic administrators are dedicated. One excellent integrative experience is Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which brings together hands-on pastoral work with group support that emphasizes not only the development of skills, but growth in self-insight, help with growing edges and support in integrating the experience with one’s personal theology.

The emergence of spiritual direction, musar, worship labs, meditation training, attention to personal practice, chanting circles and increased exploration of Hasidic texts are all part of the effort to create greater spiritual self-insight, ongoing and self-sustaining spiritual practice and an improved spiritual toolbox. Awareness of the holy dimension in all of life should shape rabbinic consciousness and guide rabbinic teaching. The consciously spiritual aspect of rabbinic training needs to be integrated with study of codes and of ritual leadership so that spiritual development integrates with the rest of rabbinic study.

Inculcation of virtue and of skills in ethical decision making is an equally critical area that in most schools is still in its infancy. Rabbis need to master professional ethics to guide their personal conduct. They also need to gain substantial insight into bioethics, sexual and family ethics, speech ethics and organizational ethics so that they can teach these critical subjects and provide guidance to Jews and others who come for help with concerns and dilemmas that arise in their daily lives. These together with case studies, tokhacha, faculty and mentor role modeling, and explicit exploration should help rabbis deepen their menschlichkeit. This Yiddish term has a compound meaning that includes everything that is implied in being fully human. A mensch is someone who reflects the full range of Jewish virtues, including integrity, humility, courage, empathy, kindness, generosity, caring, and sensitivity. Most Jews will forgive a rabbi for almost any mistake for which the rabbi sincerely apologizes, but they will not forgive a rabbi who does not love them, and they will not easily forgive a rabbi who is not a mensch. We cannot assume that rabbinical students come to seminary as fully formed moral creatures, so work on the moral development of rabbinical students needs to be an integral part of the seminary experience.

One of the goals of rabbinic education should be to minimize future burnout. How can seminaries accomplish this goal? Seminaries can attend to the conscious development of rabbis’ spiritual lives and increased attention to self-care help. They can ensure that rabbis have good skills in group work and leadership. Shaping realistic expectations about what rabbis can accomplish helps as well. Rabbi Ira Eisenstein once said to me at a particularly hard moment early in my rabbinate that burnout is caused not by hard work, but by heartache. If designed to do so, rabbinic education can help rabbis to develop resilience, to set realistic expectations, to take note of their successes and appreciate their positive impact, and to avoid conflicts that are not l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven). That will only occur if rabbinic faculty members are trained to undertake this in their role as advisors and teachers. Mentors, too, need training if work in this area is to be part of their mentoring responsibility.

A recent survey showed that rabbis are often resistant to publicly stating controversial views they hold. I deeply believe that rabbis ought to function as moral and spiritual leaders, and that means having the courage to speak out and the wisdom to discern how to do that effectively. One sign that rabbinic training has improved will be the greater willingness of rabbis to articulate difficult stands when morally called for and to take the resulting heat with equanimity. Surely that is one of the tests for menschlichkeit.

This is a highly challenging time to be a rabbi. The rate of political, economic, social and techno-scientific change is greater than ever before, and every indicator suggests that it will continue to accelerate. One of the things that people turn to religion for is a sense of continuity, of contact with eternal verities in the face of flux in the rest of their lives. Helping Judaism adapt while at the same time connecting Jews to timeless teaching requires flexibility, excellent listening skills and maintaining perspective. Of course rabbinical schools can teach students what is cutting edge while they are in school, which currently includes such things as use of social media for outreach. But what is new now will be soon be outdated. More important is teaching them the skills of adaptation. When I was a rabbinical student, there was almost no thought given to LGBTQ issues or to how to serve the intermarried family. I wrote my senior thesis on a typewriter. No one was yet talking about the way that settlements on the West Bank would impact any future peace negotiations. There was no thought of the Internet or cell phones. Successful rabbis must adapt to ever shifting social and technological realities. Developing character and openness to change is critical to the success of the next generation of rabbis because we cannot possibly anticipate the changes they will see in their lifetimes.

The rabbinate can be a lonely profession. Often there is only one rabbi working in a particular setting. Rabbis need to seek out chevrutas, clergy support groups, mentors, supervisors and ongoing professional education if they are to continue to grow and maintain perspective as they move through their careers. They will do so only if they are trained to recognize the importance of these activities while they are students. Learning experiences that help students see the value in devoting time and money to these activities can help to sustain careers that will span most of a century.

I did not devote much of this essay to the key questions of language acquisition, decoding Jewish texts, the study of history and a host of practical curricular questions. It is around these kinds of questions that there will necessarily be the greatest differences between seminaries. And seminary faculties are used to focusing on these questions and continually tinkering to improve their curricula. This is a process that goes back hundreds of years. I trust that each faculty does the best it can. But we are still in the early stages of thinking about rabbinic formation more broadly. Our largest challenge as we look ahead is the creation of rabbinic leaders whose vision, inner lives, and caring for others can continue the advancement of Jewish civilization.

Rabbi David A. Teutsch serves as Director of the Center for Jewish Ethics and the Louis & Myra Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He was Editor-in-Chief for the groundbreaking six-volume Kol Haneshamah Reconstructionist prayerbook series, and he is currently working on A Guide to Jewish Practice that takes a values-based approach to both ethical and ritual matters; the first volume of the Guide won a National Jewish Book Award. He has previously served as Executive Director of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot and as a congregational rabbi. As honors graduate of Harvard University ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he earned his Ph.D. at the Wharton School, where his dissertation dealt with organizational ethics. Rabbi Teutsch is a widely published writer and a well known organizational consultant and trainer.