‘A Voice Calling in the Desert’: Personal Reflections on the Concept of Vocation in the Jewish Clergy

This week we begin a new book in our annual cycle of public Torah reading in the synagogue. We turn to Leviticus, which begins with words that are at once evocate and ambiguous: “And He called unto Moses…” (Lev. 1:1). I find myself asking familiar questions: Why is God’s name not mentioned immediately? Why is the aleph of the word va-yikra (“and He called”) purposefully written smaller than all the other letters? And, since the Torah is eternally relevant, I ponder the notion of being called by the Divine. Is it really possible to hear the voice of God?

This year I face a different question: Am I being summoned to serve as a leader and shepherd of God’s community? It is one thing to feel drawn to a life of intense piety and intimacy with God. Indeed, the Hasidic master R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl interprets the miniature letter aleph as the element of God within our heart that is always calling us to return to our Source. But it is something else entirely to feel summoned from the very depths of my soul to become a religious leader.

I am halfway through the final year of a course of study leading to rabbinic ordination. Most of my students already address me with this title, even those who know that I am still in training, and it is representative of the ways I’m learning to move in the world. Recently I have been reflecting upon the journey that has brought me to this life of service. Or, to use a term I’ve learned from colleagues of religious community, I have been considering my vocation.

This term has no clear Jewish equivalent, and there is no indigenous Hebrew word for the Jewish clergy. Of course, there is the title of rabbi, or rav. But semikhah (rabbinic ordination) is really just a master’s affirmation that his disciple may act as an arbiter is cases of Jewish law. Rabbis are no more obligated to fulfill the commandments than other Jews, and Torah study is a religious ideal shared by all. Weddings and prayer services can be conducted quite easily by laypersons. Entering the rabbinate has historically entailed a commitment to learning and teaching, but it does not mean formally accepting a clerical office.

There is also the model of the rebbe, the dynamic spiritual leader at the center of a Hasidic community. They are inspiring figures who guide their flocks in all aspects of their lives, and charisma more than scholarship defines the rebbe’s role. Contemporary rabbis are increasingly called upon to synthesize these two models, acting as spiritual guides and pastoral counselors in addition to—and often in place of—teachers of law. This is especially true of the liberal Jewish denominations, and it is becoming more so in Orthodox community as well.

In Yiddish religious leaders are called kley koydesh, a title we share with the “holy vessels” once found in the Temple. This tender phrase suggests both a resolute commitment to a life in God and an awareness of being but one small instrument in a far grander theater of religious service. Yes, rabbis are vessels cradled in the divine hand, but we share this in common with all of our brethren: “we are like clay, and You are the potter; we are all the works of Your hand” (Isa. 64:7). As kley koydesh we play an integral role in our congregants’ religious lives, but the image also captures the vulnerability of being a rabbi—we are held by our students in return.

Our tradition does offer many stories of answering God’s call. Some are destined for a life of service. Jeremiah was singled out for his office as prophet before he was born, and Samuel’s mother promised him to God before his conception. Others biblical figures were summoned much later. Moses “turned aside in order to see” the mystery of the burning bush (Ex. 3:4), altering the trajectory of his life in order to respond to God’s summons. Abraham was seventy-five years old when he first heard the call to “go forth” (Gen. 12:1). However, both were met by the Divine after taking the first steps on their own. Moses found the bush in his wanderings through the shadowy realm “beyond the wilderness” (Ex. 3:1), and Abraham had embarked on his journey to the land of Canaan (Gen. 11:31). Are we to infer that God calls to those who have already begun the search?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m responding a personal call. According to the Zohar, a classical of Jewish mysticism, Abraham was the only one to answer a call of “go forth” that was echoing throughout the entire world. But even if the call is universal, surely we’re not all meant to be religious leaders! This quandary reminds me of passage from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain:

… there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example (p. 458).

Everyone receives vocation of a life of service, though the nature of this summons and its answer come in many forms.

I have been a teacher as long as I can remember. My undergraduate degree in Jewish Studies prepared me for graduate work in Jewish thought and a career in the professoriate. But in applying to PhD programs I realized that needed to choose whether or not I wanted to teach from within the tradition as well. I don’t remember any single moment in which I first realized my calling to become a rabbi, but as the years pass I have felt this conviction welling up inside me with ever-increasing strength. Nearly six years ago I began working toward a PhD, but I have sought out teachers who could guide my training as a rabbi at the very same time. And, over time, I’ve come to recognize that both my commitment to academic scholarship and my teaching as a member of the Jewish “clergy” are elements of my calling. Can it be that my vocation includes both? Can there be an answer to a divine summons that are more nuanced than a black and white, either/or career decisions? I have not doubt.

I would love to hear from fellow travelers who are currently studying in a seminary or working as members of the clergy. Do you remember a moment in time in which your vocation was clear, or is something you’ve always known? Are you ever frightened that you didn’t make the correct choice? What distinguishes the vocation of someone who becomes a member of the clergy from that which leads to a life of devotion as a layperson? And do you know when you are correctly following God’s call?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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2 thoughts on “‘A Voice Calling in the Desert’: Personal Reflections on the Concept of Vocation in the Jewish Clergy

  1. things that come over a long time are worth trusting…
    and one thing that life proves- things that from the outset seem like “forever’ decisions, often end up as stepping stones– perhaps the most important thing is like Reb Shlomo said, to do it with all our heart…
    regarding the Merton quote (my original point;)-
    you don’t think he would have written “and if you cannot do so by example, then by word!”

  2. ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ —Frederick Buechner —

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