As many of you know, this week I received my Honorary Doctorate in Divinity. The seminary that I attended, Hebrew Union College, confers it upon rabbis 25 years after their ordination.
As I told some of you, I felt a bit sheepish about receiving this degree; I didn’t feel that I had done anything to earn it, other than survive 25 years in the rabbinate. Many rabbinic colleagues always joke that the DD degree stands for “didn’t die.”
The Doctor of Divinity is not an academic degree. In the United States, the degree is generally conferred honoris causa, honorarily, by a church-related college, seminary, or university to recognize the recipient’s ministry-orientated accomplishments.
So I flew to New York on Tuesday, arriving at my mother-in-law’s apartment at about 1:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. Up at six. A few hours later, I sat in a circle with my former classmates, so that we could take a few moments to reflect on the past twenty-five years. It was inspiring, humbling, and gratifying to hear where their lives have taken them over the past twenty-five years. And it was interesting for me to reflect on my own journey.
The truth is: my rabbinate has taken me on a more circuitous route than that of many of my colleagues. Though I hadn’t intended to be a congregational rabbi, I ended up spending the first seven years serving two congregations—the first in rural Virginia, the second in Berkeley, or what I fondly refer to as Bezerkely! I spent three years as the Community Rabbi in the East Bay of the Bay Area, and then from 1998 to 2010, my work was primarily as a Jewish Spiritual director (I’ll say more about that later). I created a non-profit, hoping to organize Jewish and interfaith communities around issues of justice (basically, what FAN is doing today). I served at several congregations while their rabbis were on sabbatical, and also served many smaller congregations part-time. For many years, I served on the Board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, including two years as Co-President, and was the Chair of the Committee on Rabbinic Spirituality of the CCAR, the umbrella organization of reform rabbis, and on the committee for rabbinic wellness. I wrote a number of articles, including a few on Jewish spiritual direction that were among the first attempts to put this work into a Jewish context. Though in some respects I felt that my accomplishments were dwarfed by those of my colleagues who have become deans of school, professors, or who have served the same congregation for much of their twenty five years, I realized I too have done and accomplished much—though mine has been a very different path. As the president of HUC, a former classmate of mine, said: no one can possibly know, or measure, what we rabbis have done—guiding families as a loved one has died, welcoming new babies into the world, helping individuals and communities through tragedies and trauma, helping many find greater meaning and strength from Judaism and Jewish traditions. I have truly been blessed over these years to have been present with and for many people at significant times in their lives, and I am eternally grateful that I have had the opportunity to do this work.
I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on what I’ve learned these 25 years. But to be honest, I generally don’t like the focus to be on me. When I became a Bat Mitzvah, reading from the Torah for the first time at the age of 25 during my first year of rabbinical school, I didn’t tell anyone. When the dean found out, he scolded me, telling me I should have let others know so they could celebrate the moment with me. I agree; if I encourage others to share their significant moments with friends and family, then I guess I should as well.
So, where can I possibly begin to share some of what I’ve learned over these 25 plus years?
I’ll start with this: Growth is possible. Whenever I add my own blessing to the daily blessings of our liturgy, praising G-d for creating the rooster so that it cock-a-doodle do’s at the right time of day, for making firm our steps, for raising us up when we are bent low, for making us in the image of G-d, I add the blessing: Praised are You, Source of All, for giving us the opportunity to change and to grow. And change and grow I have!!
Another important learning: my work as a rabbi is not about me. It is about serving: serving G-d, the Jewish People, all humanity. I remember the exact moment when I had this breakthrough. It was just before I stepped onto the bimah for High Holy Day services in Eureka, California. You see: I used to react to every facial expression, every time someone walked out of the sanctuary while I was speaking. I would feel terrible, and criticize myself for days. But all of the work that I had done in therapy, and in particular, in spiritual direction, taught me that it is impossible for everyone to like everything I do or agree with whatever I say. My task is to discern what I believe is right, what I feel called by G-d to do or say—and let that guide me. Sometimes this is hard, especially when I know that it will displease those whom I like and respect. And yes, there are still times today that I forget what I learned, that my ego gets in the way. Learning to place G-d at the center, and not my ego, has been one of the biggest and hardest learnings. My mentor in rabbinical school, Rabbi Jerome Malino, z”l, used to remind me and other students of this: Sometimes we are called on to comfort the afflicted, and/or to afflict the comfortable. Whenever I do the latter, I recognize that there are costs, and I don’t take them lightly.
In order to be able to discern what I believe is right, or what I feel called by G-d to do, I had to learn about the fine art of discernment: how to look carefully, to recognize what is driven by, as Marge Piercy wrote—“the whinings of the lesser ego” and what is driven by something deeper—what I often call The Deep Place of Knowing—one of my favorite names for G-d.
G-d. Over these last 25 years, I have learned much about what G-d means to me, what it means to have a meaningful relationship with G-d, and how to help others have one as well. Ironically, when I was in rabbinical school, we never talked about or explored what we meant by G-d. We never explored what it means to cultivate a meaningful relationship with G-d, or how to pray in a meaningful way. I didn’t learn those things in school. I learned them from my years doing chaplaincy, and then in my years giving and receiving spiritual direction. In 1993, I attended a three-year program at Mercy Center in Burlingame, California, where I learned about spiritual direction—mostly from former nuns and the Sisters of Mercy. I worked with spiritual directors, and then began trying to imagine how to bring that important work to the Jewish world. I offered workshops at rabbinical conferences, at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, and then began teaching in a national course to train Jews to become spiritual directors. I provided spiritual direction one-on-one and in groups for 13 years—until I returned to congregational life—here at Kol Haneshamah, in 2010. In many ways, I feel that that work has been among the most significant achievements thus far in my career. I was among a small handful of people who gave birth to this important work, and now it continues in new forms and places.
As important as this work has been for me, for some reason it’s been difficult for me to share it here, at Kol HaNeshamah. It’s been difficult to find ways to help others explore and deepen their relationship with G-d, how to have a more meaningful prayer life. It’s something I still hope to do.
So exploring G-d and prayer are both subjects that I can say I know a lot about. There are many other things that I don’t. Another thing I’ve leaned over these last 25 years is that I don’t have to know everything. And, at the same time, that I do know something!
This points to something else I’ve learned: Learning is possible. It is possible to learn something if you work at it—whether that is Hebrew, Torah, Jewish mysticism, or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I didn’t learn Hebrew until I was an adult. I didn’t learn how to chant the Friday night Kiddush until after rabbinical school. Learning doesn’t always come easily, but with time and effort, it is possible, to grow in knowledge.
Paradoxically, I’ve learned that the more that I learn, the less I know. This too has been an important learning: things are far more complex, multi-faceted and layered, than they appear on the surface. I’ve learned to appreciate the complexity of things, to have patience to look carefully at different aspects, turning things over and over, this way and that, to gain a deeper understanding.
I’ve also learned that this is true of people: we are such complex creatures! We all have so many layers of “stuff.” I have to admit: dealing with the many ways that people project things on to me, because I am a rabbi, or “an authority figure,” has been one of the hardest parts of my rabbinate. I’ve learned that often those projections are based on unresolved relationships or experiences that have nothing to do with me. I’ve also learned that I too react to others, based on my own unresolved relationships and experiences. But somehow, as I’ve come to understand all of this more deeply, I’ve also developed so much more compassion—for others as well as for myself—because of our complexity! In so many ways, I think, we are all just trying to figure out how to be human, how to evolve in our consciousness and understanding of what being human means.
I know that I still have a lot to learn—as is true, probably, for all of us. One thing that I think I need to learn is how to deepen my relationships with others, particularly with you, the members of this community. I also want to try to help us all deepen all of our relationships with one another—those with whom we are in community. In the world and times in which we live, I believe, this is challenging; so many of us value our independence, our privacy, and keep ourselves at a safe distance from others. I want to challenge myself, and all of you, to push that boundary of safety a little. I’ll be sharing more about this in the coming months.
And finally, finally—one last learning I’d like to share. It’s based on a text I studied with my colleagues on Wed. morning, just before we received our degrees. In the Talmud, Nedarim, 62a, there is a teaching on the verse from the Book of Deuteronomy 30:20: “And you shall love the Eternal your God, and hearken to G-d’s voice, and cleave to G-d.” The teaching says: This verse means that one should not say, “‘I will read Scripture so that I may be called a Sage,’ or ‘I will study, so that I may be called Rabbi,’ or ‘I will study, so that I will be an Elder, and sit in the yeshivah [of elders]; but rather, learn out of love, and honor will come in the end . . .”
So . . . I have not become the dean of a school. I have not become a professor, or the rabbi of one of the largest congregations in the country. But I can honestly say—b’sach ha’kol—in the end of it all—that I have learned and taught Torah out of great love for it and for Jewish Tradition. And whether or not in the end I am honored for that, I am very, very grateful.
And grateful to you, the members of Kol Haneshamah, for being a part of my journey these past six years, and as we move forward into the future, giving me the opportunity to continue to learn and grow.