I Don’t Trust Rabbis. So I Became One.

My road to orthodoxy has often felt like a constant process of disillusionment.

From realizing that communities can’t possibly live up to the depth and truth I discovered in my baal teshuva yeshiva to realizing that the path I had first chosen didn’t have all the answers I was looking for, so much of this journey seems to have been about letting go as much as about adding to my observance.

But the most disillusioning part of it all was the rabbis.

There was the rabbi who had been a hero of mine, and who years later I discovered physically abused his children.

I started seeing another rabbi as building up a cult of personality around him, and grow wary the more I saw him manipulate and control others who disagreed with his points by talking down to them and using his mob of followers to shame them.

A rabbi, a rav, of Crown Heights helped validate and encourage a witch hunt against those who had built an eruv in my community, including incidents of vandalism, people being spit on, and one person following people (and families with children) to shul as he yelled, “NAZI!” on the top of his lungs.

And these are just selections.  The ones that stand out to me as I look back.  There are, of course, so many more.  And stories in the press we need to deal with constantly.  Rabbis who abuse, who hide abuse, who openly encourage racism and other forms of bigotry as religious doctrine.

It is hard to describe the effect this can have on those who’ve started a road toward observance.  Or, I’m sure, any others who rely on role models to help guide their spiritual quests in life.

It is this combining of our identities with leaders, with voices who claim a moral authority over us, voices we trust to lead us to a higher spiritual plane, and who betray that trust, that I think so many of us are struggling with today.

It is a pain that cuts to our core, one that we must deal with, because if we don’t it consumes us.

My way of dealing with it was by only trusting the rabbis who did not ask me to give my soul to them.  The ones who let me disagree without cutting me down.  Most importantly, they were the ones who empowered me to simply be who I am, not the cartoon drawing of a Jew so many rabbis (especially kiruv rabbis) expect of their charges.

This severely limited the rabbis I trust, and it has been a painful transition in choosing who to keep and who to cut out of my life, but one that has saved my Jewish observance.  

And there was one more method of dealing: a philosophy I had come to thanks, ironically, to one of the most revered rabbis in the modern age: the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  The Rebbe was known for many things.  But one of the most famous was that he didn’t create followers: he created leaders.  He was known for saying things like, “If you know Aleph [if all you know is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet], teach Aleph.”  And he would give speeches about how businessmen were even more empowered than rabbis to spread spirituality into the world because they have the merit of being able to see God in action as opposed to just in a book.

Of course, it wasn’t just the Rebbe who taught this.  Hasidim of all stripes have taught that we each possess a unique portion of Torah, dating all the way back to the father of Hasidus, the Baal Shem Tov.  And before that, it was taught in places like the midrash (Shmot Rabbah, for example) that each person received the Torah at Sinai according to their capacity.

It was, I later realized, these teachings that had always attracted me to whatever form of Judaism I was trying to take on.   And what had been so existentially painful for me was realizing that the world I had entered, a society built around the Rebbe’s philosophy, did not truly encourage this sort of thinking.  Because that thinking is dangerous.  It means giving power to the non-rabbis.  To the new people on the scene.  To those who don’t know as much about specific topics, but much more about others.  To rebels.  To revolutionaries.  To non-conformists.

And so I decided that not only did I need rabbis in my life I trusted, I needed to also let go of the idea of rabbis being an access point to wisdom so much.  The wisdom, I knew, existed in all of us.  And thanks to the Rebbe’s messianic obsession, I became similarly obsessed with the idea that we were entering the age where the “lay person” would become the new spiritual leader of the age.

We can see it all around us.  Trust in religious institutions has dropped drastically (about 20% from what it was 10 years ago).  And thanks to a combination of the internet and voices willing to challenge the status quo around them in all cultures (not just Jewish, of course), more and more of the common man and woman are becoming leaders in their own rights.

And so, all this loss of trust in institutions, and the rabbis who have lost the faith of people like me, has become in my mind a spiritual fixing.  One in which we understand that the lay people were always meant to be leaders.  That this is God’s ultimate vision: we are each supposed to take on the leadership of our corner of the world, and in doing so create a mosaic of truth brought out from each person that turns our world into the most glorious spiritual painting of all time.  One where the unique color of the lay person combines with that of the rabbi, each distinct and yet each vital.

And this is how I lived much of my life the past few years or so, especially since my break from much of Chabad, and especially the Crown Heights establishment.  With the rabbis who I trusted, and connecting with and discovering the leaders of the next generation of the Jewish people, the non-rabbis who understood that the charismatic model of leadership was dying and that their voices needed to be added to the mix.

And then one of those very rabbis who had nurtured and trusted in my voice, and in empowering me as I am, came to me.  He said he had an idea, and wanted to talk about it with me.

 

I sat down in the room with him.  He looked over at me and said very seriously, “I think you should become a rabbi.”

Immediately, I resisted.  I wasn’t a rabbi, I never could be.  Or, I didn’t think it was worth learning the things I needed to learn in order to become one.  I had found my role in the world, what I had to offer, and it wasn’t one that meant I needed to be an expert in Jewish law.  I can hardly read Hebrew, despite having Israeli parents.  I suck at studying Gemora, and I spent just as much time at yeshiva watching Lost as learning.

Those were my thoughts: I was a lay leader, and I wanted to show people how to be a lay leader.

But those weren’t my emotions.

Deep down, I felt a fear.  It wasn’t really that I didn’t want it.  It was that I didn’t think I deserved it.

Despite all my thoughts about leadership by and for the people, I knew that part of me looked at those times in yeshiva watching Lost, my lack of interest in Jewish law, my obsession with pursuits that are not always overtly spiritual, as signs I didn’t deserve to even try to be a rabbi.

I expressed my thoughts, but my rabbi looked at me seriously, and I could tell he was reading my feelings.

“Did you know that Reb Zalman used to give creative forms of smicha [rabbinic ordination]?  They would be based on a particular person’s strengths, and not necessarily their proficiency in halacha [Jewish law].

Ordination of rabbis is cultural, despite the appearance that many institutions wish to convey.”

I knew the second point, but was surprised about the first.  Creative forms of smicha?

“This is the thing, Elad.  You’re doing what a lot of rabbis do.  The kinds that want to build congregations or create movements.  For those rabbis, knowing halacha well is a side benefit to that work, but it is not the main skill.  And that’s your skill: building communities.  And you need to start owning that more.  You are  a rabbi, Elad.  You just need to know it yourself.  And maybe others should know it too.”

I started to get excited, started to imagine it.  A lay leader turned rabbi, just for what he had to offer the world.  A creative rabbi.  It sounded so much like what my wife and I had spoken about when we were living in Israel: becoming “creative shluchim.”

But still… something held me back.

“But I’m not a spiritual leader,” I replied, “I’m just… a leader.  One who is religious, and who cares about creativity bringing people together.  But… I mean, I’m not qualified to talk about religious subjects.  Not the way a rabbi would.”

He sat back and looked at me with his eyes arched.

“Oh, really?  Are you sure about that?  How many times have I heard you talk about the connection between Hasidus and creativity?  How often do you use your Torah knowledge to explain how you run communities?  How much of what you do is informed by your unique vision of Judaism?”

I sat quietly, trying to digest, not sure how to respond.

“Elad, it is you who has said that we each have a unique portion in Torah to share.  You tell me that.  Reb Zalman believed it.  And the Torah itself teaches us this.”

I thought some more.  He was right.  Why not.  Why not.  I might as well.  It’s not like I would have to tell anyone.  It would be symbolic more than anything.

As if reading my mind, he went on, “Now, listen.  You can only really do this if you believe you deserve it.  This is not some game of titles.  ‘Rabbi’ is a title which attaches after living into the task. You have to think that you deserve it, that you’ve into the task, or else it can’t happen.

And if you think that you deserve it, you must then also believe God wants it of you. This is no game.  This is serious.  And you must believe God takes it as seriously as you need to.  Do you understand?”

And finally that insecure part of myself, the Lost lover, had to face itself.  Did it have something to offer?  Did I?  Was there a spiritual leader in there?  Did God really want this of me?

But really all that was happening was that I was finally forced to face the very philosophy I had been trying to live by.  The way I had constructed a universe in which I could survive, and thrive, as a Jew, where I surrounded myself with only the very few rabbis I trusted, and then took on whatever leadership I felt was missing.

The problem was that until the moment this rabbi had asked me this question, my insecurities and my biases had still constructed a deeply binary idea of what it meant to be a leader.  One was either a spiritual leader, or one was another kind of a leader.  I was the latter, I told myself.  A creative leader, and one who only had something to offer in that category.  I would never cross over to the other side because I didn’t belong there, because I became religious too late, and when I was in yeshiva, even once I let go of my bad habits and started focusing, I still ended up choosing to run off to follow the rockets falling on Sderot so I could tell their story on Chabad.org rather than sit at night and study more.

It was in that moment, in that one question, that I had to face the cognitive dissonance that had been building in me since the moment I understood that the existing leadership in the Jewish world was not up to the task, not alone, of facing the future of Jewry with strength.

The truth was that I believed in every bone of my body, every blood vessel, every synapse in my mind, deep down to my soul, that creativity is not just an aspect of the physical world, but one that has been deeply embedded in us by God.  It is a way of thinking, not just a method for putting paint on canvas or writing stories.  It is a way of expressing.  And it is no coincidence that the first story in the Torah is about God creating something.  Because creativity is that high of a truth, the very thing that separates us from animals, and the power that allows us to access spirituality.  One cannot believe without imagining.  For it is the power of imagination that allows us to see what our eyes cannot see.  And one cannot express what one has imagined, whether it is our own story or the story God has written for us, without the power of creative expression.

In other words, to me creativity and God are inseperable, and it is in my limited Judaic studies, Hasidic learning, and study of the spiritual creatives like the Romantics, Brenda Ueland, and Julia Cameron that I have based all my understanding of what it means to be creative.

I, like others, like everyone who believes in something nonphysical (and even those who don’t), have an approach to spirituality that I deeply need the world to know about.  The community creation, the storytelling, and the writing, these are the vehicles, the kelim, by which that truth is expressed.

And so I am a spiritual leader.  And so are so many others, whether they have someone like my rabbi to tell them they are or not.

 

And so as he looked me in the eye, and asked if I was ready to accept who I was already, I nodded.  Yes, this was who I was.  Yes, I believed it.

A few days later, I reached out to my rabbi, Sam Reinstein, one of those few rabbis who I trust, and asked him if he’d be up for giving me smicha.  He immediately agreed.  Immediately agreed I deserved it, and immediately agreed to do it himself.  He got in touch with my mentor, and they together decided I’d get smicha in community building, storytelling, and “truth telling.”

It was quick, it was simple, and it mostly happened over email.  But what amazed me was the changes I saw in myself as the days progressed.  A sort of deep confidence started to develop in me.  A seriousness about my mission.  I worked longer hours, I became more focused on making sure my passion, Hevria, this site you are reading right now, became what it was meant to be.  I took my role in Crown Heights, the place that had turned me so cynical, more seriously.  I wasn’t just an outside voice now, I felt, I was an authority who deserved to be heard.

I started writing with a bit of a stronger, more strident voice about things like politics.  Less angry, less hopeless, but with an urgency.

It took me a while to notice.  I just started living like this.  Just started acting it all out.

But a few months after my conversation with my rabbi, I looked at what I was doing.  I wondered to myself how it could be.  What had changed?  And I instantly knew the answer: it was that I was a rabbi.  More: it was that I was forced to finally face the false duality that had lived inside of me until that moment.

In fact, it wasn’t really the smicha that changed me.  It was the question.

“Now, listen.  You can only really do this if you believe you deserve it.  This is not some game of titles.  ‘Rabbi’ is a title which attaches after living into the task. You have to think that you deserve it, that you’ve into the task, or else it can’t happen.

And if you think that you deserve it, you must then also believe God wants it of you. This is no game.  This is serious.  And you must believe God takes it as seriously as you need to.  Do you understand?”

It was only months later, with this change in behavior, with this changed voice inside myself, that I truly did understand.

Yes, I was a spiritual leader.

No, I wasn’t an expert in Shabbat or Kashrut (laws of kosher food) or Niddah (marriage laws).  But ironically, it was this acceptance that I was not a leader in these things that gave me the confidence I needed to trust in my own portion of Torah.  The voice that I had to add, not the voice of others, nor the authority in the important areas of halacha of those who had worked for it.

I was an authority of my own Torah.  In what the Hasidic rabbis I revered had called on me to be an authority in.  I had my own Aleph to teach.

And it was in learning to not trust the rabbis who demanded conformity that I achieved this.  Not through myself, no.  But through connecting to the few rabbis who understood that it was not their job to make me someone I was not, but to make me into the best version of myself.

Through connecting with rabbis who understood that the binary of physical and spiritual is one that only man creates, and thus up to man to eradicate.

To me, that is the ultimate lesson here.  Yes, I had to go through a period of distrust.  But it was in the commitment to finding those rabbis I could trust that I actually found my destiny.  I could not do it on my own.  I could not do it by giving up on the world and striking out on my own.  Rather, something in me understood that there were leaders out there who were committing to raising others up.

In so doing, these rabbis created another rabbi.  They literally created a new spiritual leader.  And it is through them that I have understood what my job is now.

If they can do it, if their job was to see past it, and to raise me up as I am… then it is my job too.

The road here may have been paved with disillusionment.  But it was empowerment that raised me up, that brought me out of the existential pain inherent in losing my spiritual heroes.  It was in finding the right rabbis to guide me that I found the Judaism I was always meant to live, and the role I was meant to play in it.

So it is now my job to do the same.  To help others see that the binaries they have grown up with, of spiritual and physical, of rabbi and lay leader, are false.  To break those binaries by raising up others to be the spiritual leaders they always were.  Yes, it is now my job.

After all, I am a rabbi.

 

Photo credit: Yehoshua Sigala with Tzipora Lifchitz. Image is of Jeremy Pesach Dahvid Stadlin, another funky rabbi.