Going From the Pulpit to the Pews: What Does It Mean to Be a Professional’ Jewish Rabbi?

How much of our own Jewish spirituality must necessarily be sacrificed on the altar, to create a more meaningful experience for our congregants?

Ten years ago, for the first time, I assumed the role of a service leader for the High Holy Days. Not yet a rabbi, but serving in my capacity as a rabbinic intern for a prominent synagogue in New York, I took the bimah and began what would become a decade assuming the responsibilities of the pulpit on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I will never forget my first experience. Filling in for the Senior Rabbi after the Torah Service, I began by articulating the most rabbinic words I had ever uttered: “We will continue with the private recitation of the Amidah from page 237 to page 250 in your Mahzor.”

Then, as the congregation began to pray, I proceeded to have the following conversation in the darkest, most anxious recesses of my brain:

“I should be praying right now; yes, that is exactly what I am going to do. I will take a moment amidst the pressures of the pulpit and I will daven. OK – here I go. I am now davening. Am I davening too fast? I probably pray faster than most of my congregants because of the Hebrew factor, so maybe I will slow down. Yes I will slow down. This is a good pace. But what if they are reading the English? Or what if they aren’t davening at all but simply waiting for me, the rabbi, to turn around so that they know when it’s time to sit down? I know, I will wait until I hear the sound of them sitting down. Yes, that’s it, a few more minutes now should do it…”

Thus concluded my first Silent Amidah of the Musaf Service as a pulpit rabbi.

This individual story I believe is highly indicative of the predicament of the modern clergy person – how much of our own spirituality must necessarily be sacrificed on the altar, to create a more meaningful experience for our congregants? While it is certainly a profound blessing to be tasked with creating a positive religious experience for others, what about our own growth and development as individual Jews striving for and struggling with our own relationship with God?

But as is always the case in our Jewish tradition: “That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiasties 1:9), in other words, our new problems are really just old problems cleverly disguised.

As it turns out, the rabbis of the Talmud were concerned that those who chose a profession whose central goal was holiness, would in fact end up diminishing that level of sanctity over time. In Tractate Pesachim 50b we read, “Rabbi Yehoshua B. Levi stated: Twenty-four fasts did the Men of the Great Assembly observe in order that those who write Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot should not become wealthy. For if they were to become, wealthy, they would not write.” Here we learn that the great sages actually prayed that those who engaged in holy work as their sole profession would not succeed monetarily, lest because of the money, they cease their holy work. And herein lays the crux: what becomes of one’s own spirituality, when spirituality becomes one’s sole profession?

This, as it turns out, is indeed a new problem under the sun. After all, for millennia in our Jewish world the greatest rabbis of each generation had, what we might call today, a day job. The great Hillel was a woodcutter, the prolific commentator Rashi was a vintner, and the ingenious Rambam was a doctor; for millennia being a rabbi was a passion, not necessarily a profession. And this has most certainly changed in our modern world.

Recently, in my own rabbinic life, I have made a significant career adjustment. I went from being a pulpit rabbi in a wonderful community in Rhode Island, to being a camp director for the very Jewish summer camp that I grew up in as a child. I made this move, not because of any existential spiritual struggle or any sense of lethargy from the profession of being a pulpit rabbi, but rather because I felt the impact that a Jewish summer camp experience can have upon a generation of young, American Jews is simply inestimable. I did so because no matter what my profession is on paper, I am a rabbi, a passionate one at that, one who will always need to preach, to teach, and hopefully to inspire.

But this career adjustment does mean one significant change for me this year: this year as the cantor chants the “Hineni,” as we recite the famous and haunting “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, as we beat our chests for the “Vidui,” the confessional, on Yom Kippur, I will be standing in the congregation – not on the bimah. And although I will miss the feeling of delivering that heartfelt sermon, although I will no doubt picture the faces of my former congregants in their familiar places in the pews, and although I may long for that feeling of excitement that comes with calling out the shofar blasts – I am looking forward to one thing in particular: to praying a long, heartfelt, singularly-focused Silent Amidah.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary.