What We Talk About When We Talk About Rabbis

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rabbis

A newly minted spiritual leader, humbled yet questioning, looks at the field he’s joining.

Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel, a program centered on the homes of rabbinic families that is committed to providing hospitality, learning and service to young adults.

Last month I was ordained as a rabbi. I joined the ranks of those far more learned, wise and experienced than I, and in so doing I am linked to a chain that connects me to the sages of old and the sages of now. Their names fill my bookshelves: Heschel, Soloveitchik, Kaplan. Their ethos permeates my spirituality: Carlebach, Schachter-Shalomi, Schneerson. Their presence in my life directs mine: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Mychal Springer. I am indebted to these men and women who believe in the timeless truth of our Torah and brought me to where I am today.

And where am I today? Where are we? Synagogue affiliation plummets, Israel appears to divide more than it unites, Iran’s “Death to America” chant looms, and the Eastern European accent of Holocaust survivors will soon be a sound of the past.

Our leaders? It seems that every other day another rabbinic scandal, often involving an Orthodox rabbi, occupies the headlines. From fraud and lies to abuse and cover-ups, the good work of so many devoted leaders gets lost amid the crimes committed by a few.

“Is this the Torah and this its reward?” Moses asks God upon seeing the brutal murder of Rabbi Akiva by the Romans in the marketplace, according to the Talmud. Certainly, our Torah, our rich tradition and historic heritage deserves better. Surely, countless rabbis strive to do good.

And yet they — we — are human. We are profoundly fallible. We are capable of egregious error and wrongdoing. This isn’t a justification of a rabbi’s behavior by any means, but it should give us pause as we ask ourselves: what is it that we expect from our rabbis and leaders, and more personally, what do we expect of ourselves?

I yearn for a Torah of vulnerability. I crave a religious leadership that is honest to its tradition, in tune with the needs of its time and THE struggles of its communities. I seek rabbis who offer compassion, wisdom and empathy, who are unafraid of saying, “I don’t know.” I gravitate towards rabbis who are activists and organizers, knowing when and how to effect change.

But in order to build community with others and serve our utmost potential, we, rabbis, need to invest more mindfully in our mental health, our families and our own support systems.

The chasidic master Rabbi Elimelekh of Lezhintz teaches that it is imperative for one to find a trustworthy friend, a chaver ne’eman, with whom one can share all of life’s struggles. “And one should not leave out any matter,” writes R. Elimelekh, “out of embarrassment or shame, because it is through the telling of these words which breaks the strength of the evil inclination.”

What would our communities look like if we invested more in a rabbi’s therapy than in a rabbi’s discretionary account? What if rabbinical training programs offered continued educational opportunities for their graduates and rabbis in the field, to explore the impact of their work and relationships on themselves and their communities?

I feel humbled in light of the great rabbis whose title I share with sincere trepidation. And in the same breath, in order for our new generation of leaders to have a lasting impact on today and move towards greater transparency and honesty, it is incumbent on our rabbinic leadership to descend from the pulpit and enter the pews. We all need to pay heed to the Psalmist’s words: “Remove from me the way of falsehood; and grant me your Torah graciously.” Let us seek each other’s well-being. Let us work together and learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses in our collective goal of repairing a broken world.

Avram Mlotek, who just received ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, serves as the rabbi at Base Hillel, a new initiative in Jewish engagement in Lower Manhattan. His writing appears regularly in The Jewish Week.

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