Rabbinic Mentoring: Enriching Rich Lives

By Rabbi Steven Sager

A contemporary rabbi lives with two major commitments: one, to being a faithful personal carrier of Jewish life, and another, to being an exemplar and leader in the communal work of joining the Jewish past to the Jewish future.

Between these two commitments, a rabbi’s life is stretched taut, drawn into a tension that, like all tensions, can both paralyze and propel. A rabbi is a private individual who is also a public figure, a leader and authority who is, at the same time, an employee of a community. The commitments and perspectives of a rabbi are constantly shaping and being shaped by evolving personal and professional needs as well as by changing communal values and goals.

The intersection of the personal and the public is crowded by the convergence of the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual aspects of a rabbi’s life. Having acquired a venerable set of ritual skills and a body of traditional knowledge, along with modern professional training, a rabbi must apply ritual, rational, and technical learning to complex and unique life moments in community. These moments might touch personal depths as they test, challenge, or defy the technical expertise and academic training of the public leader.

Much of what a rabbi needs to know could not have been taught in school. Rather, a rabbi’s necessary knowledge comes from joining a canon of texts to ever unfolding contexts and from applying learned skills to lived experience in moments when theoretical vessels must carry living water.

In the company of seminary teachers, a rabbinical student sets out to learn. However, as a rabbinic career develops, it is another kind of teacher – a mentor – who helps a practicing rabbi to discover that in order to learn, one must first set out.

For the purpose of this essay, it is sufficient to say only a few words about the profile of a mentor; then, to sketch the assets and attitudes brought by the rabbi to this mode of ongoing learning. And finally, to elaborate some ways in which mentoring might function.

Put briefly, a mentor must possess and cultivate a capacity for imagination, exploration, inquiry, empathy, and openness to the important themes that make for meaning within his or her own personal and professional life. A mentor must be a reflective, thoughtful model of connectedness.

As for the other half of the mentoring partnership, a rabbi brings a number of assets that only experience can develop. Experience encourages a curiosity that has been ripened and focused by both successes and failures. A rabbi ready to explore such a body of experiences is not a student who begins at a deficit; but is, rather, the bearer of significant knowledge. A rabbi ready for mentoring is poised to leverage that which is known into that which he or she needs and wants to know more deeply for the sake of personal and professional growth. A fortuitous consequence of the mentoring relationship is that it affirms the traditional importance of a rabbi as a learner.

Rabbinic mentoring should help a rabbi to:

Value and explore personal and professional experiences. The deepest treasure to be mined in a program of rabbinic mentoring is the treasure of the experienced self, a rich cache of what philosopher, Donald Schon, called “knowing-in-action.” Knowing-in-action is the unique knowledge that comes when unfolding moments demand joining technical skill to intuitive response. Rabbinic mentoring must enable a rabbi to reflect thoughtfully and with imagination on an ever-growing body of experience. It is only in experience that technical training and personal artistry join to produce a unique moment never before encountered in an academic or theoretical framework.

Raise up the authentic voice that resonates with conviction. Authenticity is a rabbi’s most powerful voice; it carries intellectual, spiritual, and emotional honesty. Yet, a rabbi often relaxes into the abstract and theoretical. The authentic voice announces the rabbi as a fellow traveler whose truthfully spoken question, reflection, or observation is likely to represent the lived experience of others. Authenticity reaches deeper than abstraction. Psychologist and educator Carl Rogers explained this conclusion as “a learning which has been most rewarding, because it makes me feel so deeply akin to others. I can word it this way: What is most personal is most general…” Authenticity can be more potent than authority.

Bring the personal resources of experience, intellect, spirit, and authenticity into conversation with classical and modern Jewish sources. Learning in conversation exemplifies the ongoing work of bringing traditions and lived experiences into a coherent whole. Such learning is crucial for a rabbi’s creative and responsive Jewish living as both an individual and a leader.

In an effective strategy of rabbinic mentoring, a mentor joins a rabbi in sustained engagement with text sources that address a question of authentic importance for a rabbi’s personal and professional life, such as; a question that concerns the nature and role of faith, the role of private and public prayer, or responses to loss.

The rabbinic mentor serves as a hevruta – a study partner, a traveling companion – ready to give as a mentor and ready to take as a fellow learner. Together, mentor and rabbi develop a curriculum of ancient and modern texts that invites personal resources of experience, spirit, and imagination into conversation with sources across the centuries that have shaped – and have been shaped by – the images, rituals, and languages of Jewish life.

The rabbinic mentor need not be an expert in a rabbi’s proposed area of exploration. It may be precisely the lack of a given expertise that the mentor must leverage into collaborative exploration. The rabbinic mentor must have the ability to identify relevant sources and then enter, along with the rabbi, into a mode of learning in which experiences and texts are mutually illuminating; helping to inform and expand the focus question and develop the quest for personal and professional relevance that naturally follows. The exploration that will unfold is not theoretical or abstract; nor is it located solely in a text. Sometimes, the text is the text; sometimes the rabbi, or the mentor, is the text – and the text is commentary. The collaborative work of mentoring is an exercise in associative relevance, not of academic rigor.

Sustained mentoring can be of great value throughout a rabbinic career. In early years, mentoring can help a rabbi to consolidate the most personally meaningful elements of seminary learning and student intern experiences into a working model for rabbinic practice. Mid-career mentoring can help a rabbi articulate more sharply important personal and communal principles; helping to infuse themes with new character. Late-career mentoring can help a rabbi shape a legacy that honors a career and aids those who carry rabbinic work forward.

There is currently no sustained structure for the ongoing mentoring of rabbis. Certainly, high quality programs for rabbinic enrichment are available, from spiritual enrichment and text study to courses in media technologies and organizational development. But no rabbinical organization yet offers or promotes a program through which its members can explore their nuanced and complex individual rabbinates in sustained ways that enrich both the personal life and the public career.

These broad strokes begin to describe an approach to rabbinic mentoring that enriches rabbis as individuals without prescribing ideological boundaries. Programs of rabbinic mentoring created along such lines could be shared and supported by all rabbinic movements.

Rabbis are among the greatest assets of Jewish life; they are assets that appreciate in value as they appreciate and value their personal and public, intellectual and spiritual selves. Institutions that design rabbinic education and that offer support to rabbinic careers would be well served to develop mentoring programs that help rabbis enlist their resources and experiences in the service of rich, thoughtful, and creative personal and professional lives.

Rabbi Steven Sager, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Sicha, a Jewish education start-up that specializes in Rabbinic Enrichment. Sager is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Duke Divinity School and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Rabbi Sager also sits on the board of the Alliance For Continuing Rabbinic Education (ACRE).