Spirituality in the Rabbinate

We are becoming more aware of the need to talk and teach about spirituality and our relationship with God. I hope it continues and becomes an integral part of training for future rabbis.

I was ordained in 2007, and accepted the position as the solo rabbi in a very small, extremely remote congregation in southeast Alabama.  My nearest colleague (Rabbi Elliot Stevens) is a two hour drive away.  Mine is the only synagogue in 100 mile radius, and we are located in the buckle of the Bible Belt where it is assumed if you walk and breathe, you must be a Christian.  My congregation is wonderful, and I have really enjoyed my 8 1/2 years here.

However, I should tell you that while I learned so much at HUC, I was not prepared spiritually at all.  We never talked about our relationships with God, we never prayed, except at services. Every meeting here in the south begins with a prayer, and I swear I was a deer in the headlights the first time I was asked to begin a meeting with a spontaneous prayer.

I think the lack of spiritual training hurts us and it hurts our congregations.  I have never once been asked to translate Talmud; in fact, most of my congregants only have a vague idea what Talmud is.  But when I do sermons or adult education on prayer or God, I am overwhelmed by the response. There is such a hunger among our congregants for a relationship with God, to learn about God and prayer.  And it is the area where I seem to have the least expertise.  Thank goodness for good books!

And I have so felt so empty spiritually myself so much of the time.  I cannot pray during services.  I have no cantor, so it is just me leading services and the music.  How can I do all that and focus on God?  It just doesn’t happen. I tried praying on my own using the prayer book.  That did not work at all.  And I am so busy because I am the only rabbi around.  It is truly a 24/7 job. Finding time to enhance my spirituality falls on the back burner.

I have been fortunate to be involved with a group of Christian clergy women, all seminary ordained. We meet once a month to study, or to let our hair down and complain about how the robes never fit right, or why dresses and slacks don’t have pockets to put your portable mike in, or most importantly to share serious problems we are having. There are many people down here who don’t think women should be leading a congregation, so we are a support group for each other.

I was surprised when I found out that all of the other clergy in my group are REQUIRED to have spiritual direction.  Required!!  The nun from the Catholic Church is REQUIRED to go to a spirituality retreat every year.  I wondered why we Reform Rabbis do not have anything like that.  I thought about it for a very long time, and finally approached one of the women ministers to ask about spiritual direction.  Of course, a Jewish spiritual director is out of the question here in Alabama, but I have a director who is Methodist. I have been seeing her once a month, driving two hours each way.  I’m slowly but surely getting my head straight and reestablishing the relationship I had with God before I started HUC.  I find it ironic that I lost the relationship I had with God which helped propel me into HUC while I was at HUC.  In any event, I look forward to seeing Lesley each month, and think I am becoming a better rabbi because of the explorations I am doing with her.

So I want to ask, why do we not have any training in this most important aspect of our rabbinate?  I took four required classes in Talmud, yet never talked to anyone about God, except theoretically as part of a Bible class or Philosophy.  I know now that the Institute for Jewish Spirituality does very good work in this field.  I am also aware that some inroads for spirituality training have been made on the LA and NY campuses of HUC, but I have not heard anything about Cincinnati.  And Rabbi Rex Perlmeter wrote a blog post around the High Holy Days about spirituality programs he is doing through the CCAR.  We are becoming more aware of the need to talk and teach about spirituality and our relationship with God.  I hope it continues and becomes an integral part of training for future rabbis.

Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith serves Temple Emanu-El of Dothan, Alabama

6 replies on “Spirituality in the Rabbinate”

Thanks you for this penetrating and hat-hitting essay, Lynne. I so look forward to visiting your community in March, and while I am there, I would love to talk with you about our relationships to God.

Loved your article. I was ordained in 1981 but started with the first large class of women who were ordained in 1979. My class in Jerusalem also complained about not speaking about God. One year (actually on a trip to Israel I suddenly felt distanced from God and was that way for almost a year. Also spoke about it at High Holidays which really upset a number of my congregants. After about a year I felt that my relationship with God had been reestablished. I wish you luck in your spiritual journey. I believe it has its ups and downs like any relationship.

Lynne, I’m glad (and impressed!) that you had the grit and determination to find what you needed “in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” I’m happy to say that spiritual direction is flying off the shelf at the NY campus with more student demand every year (rabbinic and cantorial) and more spiritual directors coming on board. It’s a wonderful response to a very real need, as you so well have articulated it. Good luck with your own explorations.

The joke when I was at HUC was that we talked about everything except God. I suspect part of the reason is that we are a German intellectual tradition and that doesn’t leave much room for the personal. Also, we tend to have grander transcendent ideas about God and so the imminent love of God that protestants offer is foreign to us. And then I am sure that many of our rabbis love Judaism and love our heritage but have serious questions about God. AND given the complexity and nuance of Judaism that we rightly embrace, it is very hard for us to preach simple things about God. But, even with all that, there is room for a more reflective spiritual life even though I’m not sure what that looks like. I take strength from the intellectual and acacdemic. Many of our folks want less nuance, more direct God talk and I’m just learning how to fake that.

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