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What Kind of Rabbi Are You?

by Rabbi Jack Gabriel

I’d like to share with you all an issue I have trouble with, that comes up all the time…it’s a question I get asked a lot, especially after I do a service or a bris or a wedding, and someone notices that it’s a teeny bit different from what they’re used to. The question is, “What kind of a Rabbi are you?”

I remember talking to a woman at a wedding I did last winter. She said, “that was wonderful, but – what kind of a Rabbi are you? Are you Conservative, or Reform…or…?”

So, I gave her a long answer, about supporting Jewish renewal; about Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi being my mentor; about reclaiming Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah and ritual from the Chassidic world; about my supporting the Chavurah movement, where the congregation teaches each other and takes responsibility for learning; about not believing in a Judaism run by “professional Jews”, but by all Jews together…Where we learn from and teach each other…

Well, she thought about about all this for a moment, and then she said, “Uh huh…so is that Conservative or Reform?”

So when people ask me what kind of a Rabbi I am…I sometimes have toomany answers…that don’t satisfy them…I’ve tried all kinds of things…Sometimes I say, “I’m a Jewish Renewal Rabbi”…and if that doesn’t ring a bell, I might say I’m a “Chassidi    Reconstructionist”…or a “non-Orthodox Chassidic Rabbi”. If I feel it’s a hopeless discussion, I hit them with, “I’m a heimish-flexidoxic Rabbi” (originally coined by Lakme Elior), or “I’m someone who’s non-reconformadox”…and then I leave…and they must think: “Who was that masked man?”

These days, however, in the spirit of cheshbon ha-nefesh, of taking an honest spiritual accounting of my life, I’d like to frame my answer to this question in more stark terms: Who I am, to myself, is a Post-Holocaust Rebbe.

I grew up in a very wounded Jewish world. My parents were Holocaust survivors. I was born in a DP camp in Italy. My teachers in yeshiva were all survivors, my whole neighborhood in the Bronx were survivors. There was a lot of joy lost by all Jews during and after the Holocaust, and even today, after the museums have been built and after “Schindler’s List” and “Shoah” have taught the world of our loss, there is still a long way to go before the healing has happened.

When I think in these terms, what use to me are denominational distinctions? Somehow, on my journey to becoming a Jewish leader, I made a decision, more unconsiously that consciously I think, to use whatever I thought was important -from whatever source: Jewish and sometimes non-Jewish, sources that made sense -to reach out to other Jews in the Post-Holocaust age, so that together we could make a usable and living Judaism. Because I believe that we have a right, that we have permission, to use the whole range of world information to fill in for the world of lost teachers and Torah that was shot and burned and buried just fifty years ago. So when I do a Caribbean melody to Psalm 136, it’s because I feel the world owes us its melodies, and I have the right to use all of the world’s music and arts and culture to nourish my people. The world owes me at least that much.

So turf wars don’t make sense to me. You know the ones I mean? Between Orthodox and Conservative, between Conservative and Reform, between Reform and Lubavitch, between secular Israelis and the Ultra-Orthodox. Turf wars don’t help me to find God. I look for God in the world, in my life, in my quiet moments, in my occasional ecstasies.

So what is the takkanah, the correction, that I am attempting with my Post Holocaust Rebbe stance? Why don’t I just pick a denomination and stick to it? The answer is, I can’t – it’s too constricting, I’ve seen too much, I’ve done too much. I’m too complicated and the world is too complicated for me to accept denominational answers. I want to represent and present a Judaism that empowers people just as we are. We don’t need to come into a synagogue and leave large pieces of ourselves, of our personal life experiences, at the door when we come in. Also, let’s not leave big chunks of ourselves only in the synagogue. We can bring our evolving Yiddishkeit with us out into our lives, into our daily interactions, into how we respond to people and the world out there.

It’s valid, and it’s awesome, to be in a diverse group of people who share their beliefs, who honor each other’s differences by listening to them; people who are not afraid to embrace their paradoxes, their uncertainties, their many sides; people who wrestle with God and with ideas and with their destiny. That’s being Jewish, to me!

So I see us as spiritual people, using Jewish tools to reach an already existing, already internal holiness. If this sounds too New Age to some of you, I am only paraphrasing a line from Exodus 19:6 – V’atem tee’yu lee mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh “And you will be for me,” says God, “a kingdom of priests, and a sacred People”. Each one of us has priestly powers as our birthright. I really believe this. And making choices is how we exercise that right.

As a Rabbi, then, I am only looking for the right keys to unlock what each of us already has. That is our bond, our nachalah. our inheritance of Sacredness, from our broad Jewish past and present.

So if the Yom Kippur experience, for instance, fails to unlock what you need, what your inheritance is, don’t get cranky or cynical. Maybe it’s not about fasting for you, or about group experiences. But neither should you stop looking for your rightful inheritance in the tradition, in the texts, in the prayerbooks, in the songs, in the stories, in the memories and customs – wherever you need to go to get the goodies, the holy goodies.

There’s a lovely story from Reb Chim of Zenz, who died in 1876. It goes like this:

A man is lost in the forest. He’s been wandering for many days and nights and can’t find the way out. Finally he sees another man and says to him, “My friend, I’m really lost. I’ve been searching for the path out of here for many days. I don’t know where it is. Can you show me the way out?” The second man answers: “I, too, am lost. But I can tell you this, don’t go the way I’ve gone because it doesn’t lead anywhere. Rather, let’s search for the way out, together.”

Friends, the way back to a denominational affiliation is – for me – a way that hasn’t worked and won’t work. For me, the path I follow is to look at the holidays, the halachah (the Jewish codified laws), the customs, the Kabbalah through the eyes of all our great teachers – from Abraham to Moses, from Hillel to the Baal Shem Tov, to Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, to Reb Yisroel Salanter; and from contemporaries like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Judith Plaskow, to Rami Shapiro and Lawrence Kushner; from brilliant musical teachers like Reb Shlomo Carlebach (of blessed memory), and like Shefa Gold, Linda Hirshhorn, Debbie Friedman; to philosophers and theologians like Marcia Falk, Aryeh Kaplan, and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – they all inform my Jewish choices, but I make the eclectic decisions about how I’m going to live. This feels like the only way out for me from the Post Holocaust darkness.

We need to do our own Sh’virat Ha-kelim, our own shattering of forms, in order to get past old anger and woulds and frozenness and stuckness; in order to drop our rigidity of action and vision so we can help each other out of the Post Holocaust forest and into the bright sunlight of a new world and a new Judaism that is just now emerging.

This has always been what we’ve done as a people in the aftermath of disaster. Following the most horrific tragedies, we’ve had to change: after the first exile into Babylon, after the second destruction of the Bet Hamidash (holy temple) and Jerusalem, after the Crusades and the Inquisitions, after the Chmelnicki Cossack massacres, after centuries of pogroms. And now, after the Holocaust, we are changing, too. We didn’t ask for this evolution, but now it is upon us to change or to die. So I pray that we will change.

May we get to where we want to go with a minimum of anguish and upset. May we pass on a clearer and a better path for our children, and to our children’s children. And may God put smiles on our faces and wisdom in our backpacks for the journey ahead. May we be “signed, sealed an delivered” in the best Motown YomKippur-ish way, for a wonderful new period ahead, full of countless blessings and countless breakthroughs. Ahmain!