A Rabbi’s Mission Statement; A Personal Perspective
I am often asked what denomination of Judaism I belong to. I respond that I am merely a Jew and practice the religion that descends from Abraham and Moses. I belong to ancient people whose ancestors founded monotheism and chose to accept upon themselves the dictates of Torah at Mount Sinai. I also belong to a people that have a profusion of philosophies and a disproportionate number of philosophers. However, I don’t allow my obedience to God to be encumbered by labels and I refuse to be pigeon-holed as orthodox, conservative, or reform. I am a Jew, and quite honestly that should be enough. And if perchance some take offense with my inconclusiveness, I join the ranks of Abraham, Moses, Hillel, and Maimonides who were all label-free Jews. Jonah too, in his response to the captain’s question stated: Ivri anochi, v’et elokim ani yare – I am (just a plain) Hebrew and fear the lord.
Some may look at my resume and unfairly typecast me as unenlightened, intolerant, and anti-progressive, while others think that at best I am slightly heretical. My bio states that I am an orthodox rabbi serving as a pulpit rabbi in an orthodox synagogue, but that fails to accurately define who I am. My coreligionists on both sides of the religious landscape are dangling on a precarious and dangerous balancing act. The liberals are moving so far to the left as a means of offsetting the conservatives moving so far to the right. While the conservatives pursue an extreme right wing agenda to offset the radical liberalism permeating society. Often, the only compelling justification for a new rabbinic edict is the fear of being labeled as too lax and lenient. The new standard of the religious right is that all is forbidden because we haven’t proven with absoluteness that it’s permissible
I too, maintain a delicate balancing act; I heed the rules and regulations of Judaism’s founding fathers but realize that at times their limited scope of relevant medical, scientific and technology render some of their rulings obsolete and unsustainable. Rabbinical scholars have decreed that heart transplants are forbidden while smoking is permissible; that in vitro fertilization using donor eggs produces an illegitimate offspring but bloodletting is permissible on Shabbat due to its medical benefits. My aim is to make Judaism more relevant for the ‘Jew in the pew’ and not to produce religious clones of myself. I try to promote a Judaism that enhances each individual’s spiritual journey without curtailing their individuality with predefined parameters of success. I am honored to serve a community where the majority of members are not strictly orthodox but nevertheless are comfortable having an orthodox setting as their spiritual home. I believe a rabbi must be fearless in maintaining the sanctity of the religion, but more fearless in maintaining the sanctity of man. It is often said that it is far easier to be strict than to be lenient but our true halachic leaders pursued creative loopholes to advance lenient opinions.
I follow a Judaism that may be the precursor for one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Our sages of antiquity ruled that not only is a defendant presumed innocent until proven guilty but most halachic ruling are based on a similar principle. An animal after being ritually slaughtered is presumed kosher unless it is proven to be un-kosher. All food is permissible unless there is a reason to prohibit it. Work on Shabbat is permitted unless it is categorized as one the 39 forms of labor that are exclusively forbidden. And finally no mission statement can be complete without articulating a basic tenet of our religion stated in Pirkei Avot: Ṿe-heve dan et-kol-ha-adam le-kaf zekhut. All people (rabbis included) should be considered meritorious unless it can be proven beyond the shadow of doubt that they are meritless.
Rabbi Jack Engel
The bonus page –
I also think it is vital to the future of Jewish continuity to focus on our commonalities rather than on our differences. I believe that Jews from all denominations sing the melodious tunes of Adon Olam and Yigdal. These songs not only signal that the services are nearing conclusion and kiddush is about to commence, but more so tells of the faith we collectively share in recognizing that God above is master of the world. Thus, a priority of any rabbi’s mission statement is to publicly declare a sincere belief in Hashem as the creator of the earth and the one and only God.
Since all monotheistic religions maintain that there is a god above it behooves us to ponder a little deeper into what our mission statement should include. It is often said that the three laws: Shabbat, kashrut and taharat hamishpacha (family purity) are fundamental for ensuring Jewish continuity. By analyzing these three concepts we can gain a unique perspective of many of the most essential elements of Judaism.
On Shabbat we cease the pursuits of life and focus on living life. It’s a day when families join together in celebration by acknowledging that Hashem not only created the world (zecher l’maaseh b’reishit) but can also intervene in the world today (zecher l’yetziat mitzraim). In the Friday night kiddush we praise God by stating that He not only created the world but also removed the shackles of Egyptian authority over the Israelites.
But Shabbat also highlights the importance of living a life of happiness. In the Amidah on Shabbat morning the first words are: Yismach Moshe b’matnat chelko – Moses was happy with his lot. The correlation between Shabbat and happiness synthesizes the quintessential embodiment of Shabbat. Instead of a preoccupation with what we are lacking, the Shabbat presents the opportunity to delight in what we have. Moshe lived in an era where the divine presence hovered above the Israelites. They had just been released from slavery and experienced the miraculous splitting of the sea. Yet even after the divine revelation, the Jews erred in their ways and continued to rebel against God. That is the setting of yismach Moshe and a defining moment in his life. He knew his constituents but was willing to hone in on the inner beauty of his fellow man and express joy. Moshe as leader realizes that love, acceptance, and joy are not rewards for good behavior; they are qualities that a leader must display to inspire others to seek a religion that is tolerant and forgiving.
The laws of family purity are complex and beyond the scope of this article. Yet the purity of the family is an essential ingredient of Judaism. As a rabbi I have witnessed my share of family squabbles: children not attending a funeral of a parent and siblings refusing to sit shiva in the same house. The root issue may be money or religion but the net result is that the grief it causes cannot be alleviated by either money or religion. The laws of purity are read this Shabbat to indicate a special relationship between festivals and purification. While Shabbat focuses on joy and kashrut on interpersonal relationships, often those behaviors can be a mirage. It often requires the purification of the soul to cleanse your heart and mind from long held stereotypical attitudes.
A mission statement for a rabbi is really no different than a mission statement for life. As we begin preparations for Passover and join together with family and friends, I hope the words of this article will serve to enhance respect and civility during the seder. Let’s start by reminding ourselves that we join together as the Jews did before receiving the Torah: with one mind and one purpose to acknowledge and appreciate that our freedoms today are due to what Hashem did thousands of years ago. In spite of differences, we all share similar DNA and history. Pesach is also referred to as Shabbat and thus the central theme of the Seder is to rejoice and be happy. Furthermore, since more people keep kosher during Passover than any other time of the year, may the spirit of kashrut enhance mutual respect and eliminate tendencies that often foment dissent and discomfort. And finally, may we use these fleeting few hours of the Seder to create a spirit of purity and tranquility in our home.
Rabbi Jack Engel