I wanted to be a rabbi

It was during college that I first considered the notion of studying to become a rabbi. I was an awful engineering student and apathetic about my studies. Clearly, my greatest passion in those years lay in community building and learning about Judaism. After four years, I graduated with an engineering degree, poor grades, and no ambition to find work as an engineer.

I could have pursued the rabbinate at that point, but I didn’t.

What if my eagerness was merely directionless floundering? What if I was only grasping at straws? What if mine was nothing more than a youthful fantasy born of desperation?

Four years later, I had earned a graduate degree in public policy and moved to Washington, DC as a contractor at the Department of Energy. During my interview for that position, I was asked to speak at length about my graduate research, leading me to believe that my work at the DOE would be equally stimulating. Unfortunately, several months later, enveloped on all sides by the inflamed bowel linings of the US government, I knew with certainty that it would be nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, I had made my kitchen kosher as soon as I moved into my own apartment in DC and enthusiastically started hosting weekly Shabbat meals. I quickly became active in two different Jewish communities, and my dearest friends in Washington were among those who attended a lay-led, local Torah study program with me every week.

Through members of my extended Jewish community, I learned of an institute in Jerusalem that offered an intensive, yearlong text study program for Jews of all persuasions. My weekly, hour-long learning was meaningful and empowering, but more than anything else it whetted my appetite for deeper understanding of Torah, Talmud, and other classic Jewish sources. At nearly thirty, I was still sloshing about in tradition’s shallows.

After three years in Washington, DC, I decided to quit everything and move to Israel for a year of learning. I could still become a rabbi, I thought. It wasn’t too late for me.

During my first year of study in Jerusalem, I surfed waves of boundless enthusiasm over the sea1 of the Talmud. I knew that I would be staying for another year long before it came time to fill out the application form; and I preemptively met with representatives of a suitable rabbinical school in America. I was on track.

* * *

Then, during my second year in Israel I started dating my wife and decided to remain permanently in Israel. (a story for another time)

This decision derailed me.

Israel, you see, is where rabbis from around the world dream of retiring to. They serve their congregations, teach at their various schools and institutions, and perform life cycle events for the members of their communities. Then, ever so nostalgically and with due pride, they hand their reins to the younger generations of Jewish leadership and move to the Holy Land.

Due to the sheer number of rabbis in Israel, it is nearly impossible for the vast majority of religious leaders to sustain themselves here as Jewish professionals. Rabbinical students come here to learn, perhaps even to be ordained, and then they move away to build their careers. Those who move here before retirement knowingly give up their rabbinic careers and seek other prospects.

For several years following my decision, I continued studying, profoundly struggling to accept reality, but the truth was unbendable. I couldn’t have it all. I had given up my entire life in America to pursue the rabbinate, only to give up the rabbinate for Israel. I struggle to find words to describe my inner turmoil during that period of my life.

By coincidence, I was actually offered a plum job as a Jewish educator shortly after my daughter was born, which would have required me to travel regularly to Europe to work with young, Russian-speaking Jews. Painfully, I turned it down. Before Israel, before fatherhood, it would have been a dream for me, but I couldn’t be away from my family for nearly half of the year, including most Jewish holidays.

* * *

After reading my blog post ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, my brother asked me if I had any regrets about pursuing Jewish studies in my early thirties. “You at least learned a bunch.”

“No,” I responded, “I wish I had immediately started studying Judaism after college and become a rabbi at a young age.”

* * *

Footnote

Shir haShirim (The Song of Songs) contains the following verse, in which a lover is describing her beloved (5:14):

יָדָיו גְּלִילֵי זָהָב, מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ; מֵעָיו עֶשֶׁת שֵׁן, מְעֻלֶּפֶת סַפִּירִים. His hands are like rods of gold set with beryl; his body is like polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.

In Shir haShirim Rabbah, an aggadic midrash on Song of Songs, the author expounds upon this verse, offering an interpretation. He writes, in part:

מַה גַּלִּים הַלָּלוּ בֵּין גַּל גָּדוֹל לְגַל גָּדוֹל גַּלִּים קְטַנִּים, כָּךְ בֵּין כָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר פָּרָשִׁיּוֹתֶיהָ וְדִקְדּוּקֶיהָ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה הָיוּ כְּתוּבִים. מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ, זֶה הַתַּלְמוּד, שֶׁהוּא כַּיָּם הַגָּדוֹל, הֲדָא דְאַתְּ אָמַר (יונה א, ג): תַּרְשִׁישָׁה, הֲדָא מַה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (קהלת א, ז): כָּל הַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים אֶל הַיָּם. What are these ‘waves’ (galim)? Between all the big waves, there are small waves, and so too between all the sayings, the sections and the nuances of the Torah were written. ‘מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ’ (‘m’mulayim ba’tarshish’) refers to the Talmud, for it is like a great sea; so you say (Jonah 1:3): ‘תַּרְשִׁישָׁה’ (‘Tarshishah’); so you say (Ecclesiastes 1:7): ‘All the rivers run into the sea’.

This is classic midrash, in that the author deliberately reinterprets several words from the verse in Song of Songs in order to make his case, which is that the Talmud is like the sea:

  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘galim’ in the Song of Songs is generally translated as ‘rods’ in that specific context, but this same word can mean ‘waves’.
  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘tarshish’ is generally understood to mean ‘beryl’, but it is also the name of the kingdom that God commanded the prophet Jonah to visit.
    • And – since Jonah traveled to ‘Tarshish’ first in a boat and then in the belly of a fish (i.e. through the sea), the author understands this to suggest that the verse in Song of Songs is referring to the ‘sea’, as described in Ecclesiastes.

So – in case you were wondering – the Talmud is often compared to the sea.

QED?

8 thoughts on “I wanted to be a rabbi”

  1. I can relate! Sometimes our paths take a drastic turn. I started my own chavurot and shiurim, but wish I had discovered my true purpose at a young age.

  2. Shalom Ben, In my humble opinion, the world does not make a rabbi. God does. If God is speaking to your heart to be a rabbi then you must be a rabbi. The world makes it hard for you to be a rabbi, but God knows who are His and your heart is free to love Him whenever and wherever you like.

  3. The choices we make and the paths we take are always interesting. At one point, I wanted to be a cantor or Jewish military chaplain. I didn’t pursue it and it ultimately wouldn’t have been a good fit at all.
    One thing that helps is remembering that I don’t have to expect my day job [which actually, I overall like] to be my everything. There is usually another outlet for passions, even if it isn’t primary income source.

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