When I accepted a position at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, a very unusual Jewish institution, I spent quite a bit of time explaining to colleagues just what it was that I was hired to do. Sixth & I belongs to no denomination. It houses Orthodox tefillot (prayer) and intermarriages in the same building. Its two rabbis are not from the same movements, and their job is to enable kinds of Judaism beyond their own limits (neither of us are Orthodox, and intermarriages are not performed in my brand of Judaism).
The organization also spends as much time serving as a headquarters for secular thought and music not necessarily connected to Judaism as it does serving religious life. My friends still have not fit all the pieces together, and question why I would choose such a place instead of a more traditional synagogue.
In truth, I think my generation of rabbis is just different. (I was ordained in 2008, quite happily, by the Ziegler School in Los Angeles.) And a different sort of rabbi looks for an unusual home.
We younger rabbis are not distinguished by ability. Those who came before were far more knowledgeable. Rather, we are distinguished by circumstances that force us to redefine the nature of our work.
The religious ground beneath the feet of Americans has moved so quickly in the last century that the ideals of religious life and leadership that we inherited have not been able to keep up. Rather than knowing exactly what we are to do, young rabbis have a real question as to what our role should be.
Is our job to tell people how God wants them to live? Is our job to affirm the way they are already living? Is our job to lead them to God? Is our job to show them that God is waiting for them wherever they go? More radically, is our job to somehow leave God out of the spiritual equation until people choose to insert Him/Her/It on their own (asked of me surprisingly often)? Are we to live in a way that is an example for others? Are we to live apart, more priest than fellow traveler?
When we ask the people we serve these questions, they answer simply, “yes.” It doesn’t matter that the ideas are mutually exclusive, and that they cannot exist in the same community; there is always a different constituency that needs each.
Even as a rabbinical student I realized that I could never fill all of these roles for all our people. It would be a kind of foolishness, to try to personally inhabit such divergence – not because these roles are flawed, but because I could only give insubstantiality to such a breadth of desires. How then, to be a good rabbi? How then, to teach and live a life of worth? How to be useful?
My generation is not the first among American rabbis to have to deal with this conundrum. But the move toward individuality, innate rebellion, and inclination toward a thousand denominations has only sped up in recent years. Added to this acceleration is a new dynamic. Most Jews in their 20s to 40s are third-generation immigrants; our identities as belonging here, in the States, and as belonging to Judaism are held easily, lightly, and without sensible contradiction (a phenomenon documented ad nauseam). So affiliation, belonging to X group and being seen doing so, really means little to us.