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Blurred Lines: The Role of a Rabbi

Thanksgiving can be a great time to be with extended family. . . Especially when it isn’t your own.

Even so it’s hard not to long for the familiarity of home, childhood memories, food that mom used to make.  Of course going home can also involve family drama and return us to familiar roles no matter how old we are or how much we have achieved.  This can be even more complicated when it’s you, the rabbi, spending time with family.

When I am with my extended family for holidays, especially Jewish holidays, I find myself in a strange space negotiating my role as relative and rabbi.

Often times I am with my in-laws, in their home for Passover.  When I have a seat at their Seder table, what role should I play?  I have the most Jewish knowledge at the table.  I have ideas that could enliven the Seder.  Yet, I have a different role too; I am a participant and son-in-law.  I’m not the family rabbi, I am not in charge and I admit it’s nice to have the “night off” and enjoy watching my father-in-law lead the Seder.

Rabbi Charles Briskin

Roles at the Seder are easy to negotiate. How do we respond when we are called to help family members or friends in their time of need?  What is our primary role? Rabbi or family member/friend?

A little over a month ago, my uncle died.  He was 86, and had been in declining health for some time. I called to check in with my aunt and cousins.  ‘Hi Terri” I said, when my cousin picked up the phone.  “Rabbi Chuckie,” she said with relief upon hearing my voice. (Only family who have known me since I was 10 or younger can call me that!)  “Rabbi Chuckie” I thought to myself?  I’m not their rabbi, I’m family.  I gently reminded my cousin that I am the family member who happens to be a rabbi.  Even so, I was pulled into that rabbinic role of helping my family in their (really in our) time of grief and loss.

I was then asked by their family rabbi to help officiate at his service and offer a eulogy.   Was this because I was so close to my uncle and could offer special insight?  No.  I was being honored for my title.  It wasn’t easy being the rabbi for so many people who have known me since I was called “Chuckie.” I would’ve preferred to have been sitting next to my mother (my uncle’s sister) rather than on the bimah.  However, those lines were blurred.  That day I was the rabbi more than the nephew.

These two experiences are powerful reminders of how complicated and blurry our roles in private life can be as spouses, parents, children, in-laws and friends who happen to be rabbis.  Where do we draw our boundaries?  How flexible must they be?  Are there times when we can truly step outside of our rabbinic role simply to be the truest essence of who we are, stripped of the vestments that we place on ourselves and that others place on us as well?  I am sure Edwin Friedman and Jack Bloom have written about this already, and I should return to their works to see what they suggest.  My sense is that we simply need to be attuned to the way we project our more public role (as rabbi) even when we are trying to be family or friend first.   Our relationships with those who knew us before we became rabbis are vital and can be quite liberating as well.  Nevertheless, among the many things we are to them, “rabbi” is one of those roles we play.

We should accept the way others view us. We can never turn it off completely.  If our friends or family members need us to provide rabbinic guidance, do it.  That’s what a good friend would do.  And the opportunity to name a friend’s baby or stand under the huppah with a cousin is a unique blessing.  Know, too, that we can offer something even more substantial.  The power of a deeper connection that goes well beyond the rabbi-congregant relationship.  Our primary role is friend or family member.  However, be the best rabbi you can in that time, especially a time of need.  It is the blessing of this role and offers unparalleled opportunities for profound moments of sacred meaning.

 Rabbi Charles Briskin serves Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA

5 replies on “Blurred Lines: The Role of a Rabbi”

I would not obsess too much on the blurring of roles when we are with family and friends. Being a rabbi means that we possess some special gifts that others do not possess. In the eyes of those closest to us, those gifts, and that role, are a part of who we are but definitely not ALL of who we are. In all loving relationships, we strive to bring as much of ourselves to the table. We are more than willing to offer up to our loved ones whatever we have. Sometimes that includes our rabbinic gifts. When those we love need us to share with them that rabbinic part of who we are, we should be offering it as a gift of our devotion. If we had a brother, a sister, a cousin, whatever, who happened to be a doctor, and we got sick, how would we feel if we turned to our doctor/loved one for some medical advise or assistance and they turned us down, saying something to the tune of, “I am your cousin, brother, etc., not your doctor.” When our family members want us to participate in their life cycle events, they just don’t “want” us to participate, they “need” is to participate. They need us because we bring to the moment a unique combination of rabbinic skills and personal intimacy. Yes, there are times, especially at funerals, when we wish to simply shed our rabbinic persona and be just family; to be a mourner rather than an officiant. However, once those hands are laid upon us in the act of smicha, their impress is indelible. Outside the confines of our own home, there will always be a part of us which is “the rabbi,” even if it is “Rabbi Chuckie”; that merging of the rabbinic persona and the lifelong companion.

My mentor, Rabbi Eugene Lipman, did not officiate at the b’nai mitzvah of his own three children. He sat with the congregation and kvelled. When asked to participate simply due to our title, it is often possible to say that ‘I’d rather be a congregant/guest/mourner, thank you.’ I think we get points sometimes for agreeing not to be front and center. And there are, of course, those times when we simply can’t refuse to be ‘rabbi’ even when we really want to sit it out! Occasionally, the ‘no, thank you’ comes back to bite you!

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