During my first week as a rabbi 45 years ago, even before I had a chance to shelve my books in my office, I was visited by a middle-aged husband-and-wife whose tears and tone suggested death and bereavement. Indeed, they were mourning, but not the physical passing of a loved one. Their grief was for their son — I’ll call him Sam — who was educated in our synagogue’s religious school and who celebrated his bar mitzvah on its pulpit. He had lately committed both his spiritual and material assets to an Eastern sect and its guru. Would I talk with Sam and persuade him that Judaism could nurture him more than his newly found faith?
When I met with Sam, his sincerity and serene demeanor were impressive. He related to me that neither the Jewish education nor the discipline of university studies satisfied him spiritually or intellectually. Only the warm embrace of his guru and his fellow disciples responded to his spiritual yearnings. Sam peddled costume jewelry in the streets of New York City in order to support the residence in which he lived with other acolytes.
Sam’s story was not unique. It was representative of many of the young people emerging out of the 1960s. The formal religious institutions that we rabbis crafted were irrelevant to their iconoclastic mood. No institution was beyond their challenge. They didn’t abandon religion, but experimented with alternatives to their parents’ traditions, or established new ones.
If Sam was typical of his colleagues, the way I responded to him was typical of mine. I failed in that meeting because my focus was too denominationally narrow. I foolishly argued for my particular brand of Judaism rather than display the entire menu of spiritual possibilities within our religion and culture that might respond to his search: Orthodoxy, chasidism, Talmud study, scientism, Jewish counterculture, and the various shades of Reform Judaism. The boy became a man, and never again practiced the faith of his bereft parents.
I stumbled in that encounter because in 1970 my definition of the rabbi’s rule was as a spiritual sergeant at arms. I envisioned my job to keep order, reprimanding people for wandering too far, ushering them into their proper seat in the synagogue. With some exceptions, my colleagues and I were more capable of building particular religious denominations — Conservative Judaism in my case — than shepherding the wayward along a variety of routes.
I look back at that initial test now because my reaction was one outcome of an ongoing struggle that many rabbis and clergy of various faiths wage within themselves. We strive to find the proper balance between being so principled on the one hand that we are unyielding as a hard nutshell, or so flexible on the other that we are like spiritual marshmallows. When shall we insist on the verities absorbed from books and professors at seminary, and when should we, instead, create opportunities through which the seeking and searching can find comfort?
Locating that exact balance is a complex process. In addition to the voices of his or her teachers, the rabbi sometimes hears contradictory sounds — sometimes described as “the voice of the prophet” or sometimes “the voice of the profit.”
Religious conscience is shaped by the hoary dictums of biblical and Talmudic passages. But the wherewithal to materially provide for one’s own community is provided by the congregation, logically concerned about budgets and attracting members. The former voice urges principled and hard stands; the latter insists on compromise, occasionally to the point of religious illegitimacy.
The role of the suburban rabbi in 2015 is to serve as a spiritual mapmaker on a personal level. He or she must sketch diverse routes that may assist one person or another, and even the same person in different stages of a lifetime.
The measures of success in one congregation after 45 years are subjective and ephemeral. I know that I have tried to evolve beyond seeing myself as a spiritual sergeant at arms into a spiritual guide. How I would relish a second chance with that young man who exited from my study and vanished from our map 45 years ago.
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J., since 1970.