Sunday, June 24, 2007

So you wanna be a Rabbi??

(also posted on

Jack’s Shack
posted a question about what it takes to be a Rabbi.

I suspect that if you conducted a survey of traits required to become a rabbi piety and devotion might not even make the top of the list. Right up there at the top would be stories and story telling.

The following day I was asked to give a talk about what skills a Rabbi needs and what training or learning would be most effective to prepare people to go into the field of Rabbanus.

So I decided that I’d better put down some thoughts.

The first thing is to ask why someone would want to be a Rabbi? Rabbi Zeira fasted 100 times to pray that nothing happen to Rabbi Eliezer, who was the Gadol hador, Rabbi Zeira was concerned that if the yoke of leadership fell upon him he would not be able to learn Torah properly.
Similarly, Yosef HaTzadik died before all his brothers (though he was second to youngest) because he ruled over them.
The Mishna in Avos is explicit – ‘hate Rabbonus’ (I know it means leadership and authority, but it is the same word as ‘being a Rabbi’).

But, you’ve made your decision and I can’t convince you otherwise – OK, this is what I think you need:

Firstly, it (almost) goes without saying that you will need smicha. Generally this means passing a test in Yoreh Deah (kashrus). The quickest way to do this is through R’ Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg. I don’t believe this qualification will really help you practically with your Rabbanus, but, like every qualification, it is a necessary evil. The truth is that you also must know the laws of Shabbos, Nida and Aveilus, as well as be acquainted with every other area of Halacha. To do this (to a minimal standard) in my opinion would take at least 5 years of full time study. Not as much as a PhD, but more than most people are prepared to spend. In addition, it is essential that you know large sections of Talmud (I was going to say ‘all’ the Talmud, but unfortunately that is not going to happen), most of the Mishna, all of chumash with the major commentaries and the rest of the Bible.

All of those are just the (minimum) academic qualifications. But the real skills that a Rabbi needs are the following (some of which can be taught, some learnt, and some I think are more personality than anything else):

Basic counselling and therapy skills (and even more importantly, the resources to create a network of specialists that you can refer people to, or ask for advice)
This includes marriage counseling, depression counseling, drug awareness, awareness of abuse and how to deal with it, bereavement counseling and a general understanding of the human condition.

Public speaking and writing skills. As a Rabbi you will be judged firstly on your ability to speak in public, both in sermons and to the wider public. You will also be expected to write for the local media, Synagogue magazine, etc.

Teacher training – even if you are never in a classroom situation, you will always be a teacher. Perhaps a gemara shiur, a chumash/ parsha shiur, or just a quick Halacha between mincha and ma’ariv. You have to not only have something to say, but be able to present it clearly and in a way that will engage your students and encourage them to come and learn more from you.

Ability to lein (at least the first aliya of every parsha). When there is nobody else around you have to be able to step into the breach at very short notice.

Knowledge of hashkafa. You must know what is acceptable Jewish thought, what is heresy, and what is ‘what you are supposed to think’ even though it is ridiculous. Included in this is the requirement of ‘know how to answer a heretic’. Resorting to childish responses that you once heard in Yeshiva, or assuming that there is only one right answer to every question (and you know it) is embarrassing and will end in failure.

Political maneuvering. Many a Rabbi comes to his downfall because of bad political moves. Even though it is all ‘vanity’ and false, you must know who are the important players, how to speak to them, how to encourage others to get things done, and how to make sure that your viewpoint is heard and (often) accepted. Even more important, you have to remain strong and know how to say ‘no’ to people without creating enemies and without abusing or undermining your authority.

History – it is embarrassing when Rabbis have no concept of history. You must know at least a basic outline of what happened where and when. Did the story of Chanukah happen before or after the story of Purim? Was the Shulchan Aruch written before or after Shabbetai Tzvi? When was the famous argument between R’ Yaakov Emden and R’ Yonasan Eibeschitz?
Coupled with this, it would help if you have the ability to be a good story teller. Usually every speech or class is enhanced by the right story told well (and can be ruined by the wrong story told badly).

Sense of humour. Goes without saying.

Warm and caring personality. You have to genuinely care about your flock, and relate to their problems and issues as your own. However you also have to be able to leave those issues behind when you come home so that you can function without having a nervous breakdown.

Time management skills.

Stress management skills.

Motivation and desire to continue to learn. Without a passion for learning (both Talmudic texts, and if necessary secular ones) you will not be an effective teacher or communicator. Plus – your own sanity is at stake. If you can’t make time to learn each day you will fail.

Unending patience and understanding

Ability to play guitar (this is an optional extra – essential for all the Carlebach wannabes)

And the most important thing (which is why I left it to the end, so that only those who have the patience to read this far will qualify) – shimush. The Talmud is explicit that the most important thing that qualifies a person to be a Rabbi is serving other Rabbis. Elisha, who was one of the most successful prophets in history, is praised for having poured water on the hands of Eliyahu Hanavi.
You must spend time in the presence of other Rabbis, observing, learning, getting a feel for how to make a decision, how to ask the right questions, how to read between the lines of the question and what to do and where to look if you don’t know the answer. This is the real difference between a Rabbi and a library of books. Anyone can look things up in a book, or search the internet for information. Hopefully the Rabbi is the one who knows what to do with the information and how to understand the question.

This last thing is what is most sorely lacking today, and probably the most difficult thing to get (there is a shortage of Rabbis to apprentice to, and lack of time to do it). But it is this, I think more than anything else, which separates the ‘men’ from the ‘boys’. Any of the other things on this list can be compensated for. Shimush talmidei chachamim is the only thing that a Rabbi absolutely needs.

And of course piety and devotion. Essential. To quote R' Shraga Silverstein "Ideally, the teacher's subject should be himself, and he must do all he can to make the subject worthwhile". Or to quote Shlomo HaMelech "At the end of the day, when all is heard, fear G-d, for that is all there is for a person".

Good luck.

Rabbi David Sedley

Your thoughts please:

No comments:

Post a Comment