Teaching Teachers

Jewish Light Editorial

“Receiving ordination, however, is not the end of the rabbi’s career as a student of the Torah. On the contrary — it’s just the beginning. A community rabbi will continue his search for knowledge and truth for the rest of his life, in the hopes of attaining greater clarity and comprehension of God and the Torah.” 

— Rabbi Moshe Schapiro, “What is a rabbi?” (templesanjose.org, 2008)

As we reported in the Oct. 15 edition of the Light, rabbis from across the area have participated in activities related to the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown and other police-related killings since the Ferguson incident.

Some congregants and others have expressed concern about Jewish clergy involvement in these events because we don’t know the facts of the underlying cases, which is certainly accurate. Many allegations have surfaced regarding the death of  Brown, resulting in a late-summer surge of protests, demonstrations and community unrest, and frustrations about the case in particular and social injustice in general. Other deaths have sadly followed with their own murky fact patterns and swirls of speculation.

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Some congregants are thrilled about their rabbis’ efforts; others, not so much. The arguments against rabbinic participation go a few different ways. Why subject your own name and the name of your congregation to attention and criticism, especially if the cases don’t turn out in a particular way?

We can’t pretend to know the full gamut of objections, but we can, in the proud rabbinic tradition, try to answer some of these questions with a question of our own:

Is it right to say that without ultimate knowledge of the facts in these cases that it is wrong for Jewish clergy to participate in the public demonstrations?

Our answer is a qualified no, for a number of reasons.

A rabbi is a teacher, and as the quote atop this editorial suggests, one of the most important attributes of a good teacher is the quest for lifelong learning. That learning in turn allows the teacher, in this case, the rabbi, to share perspectives with his or her students about how current events intersect with Jewish law, custom and values. 

But there are no barricades by which the acquisition of wisdom is kept within the synagogue door. Those who fully embrace their role as teachers learn from any number of sources and experiences in their lives. They study not only Jewish texts, but also news, culture and community to understand how to best grow in their professional roles. 

Sometimes that contemporary study extends beyond books, periodicals, television, the Internet and social media. Experiential learning provides some of the best teaching moments for anyone who educates in their livelihood. And participating in person, as with the Ferguson and other demonstrations, provides a perspective that is hard to otherwise replicate.

Is it possible to make mistakes while attempting to learn, to broaden one’s experience? Of course it is. In fact, experiential participation provides the highest likelihood of mistake-making.

But who ever said that we’re not allowed to make mistakes? In fact, who ever said that the best learning could truly take place without making mistakes? It usually doesn’t. If you ask rabbis whether they’ve made mistakes along their personal and professional growth paths as they minister to their congregations, who among them would answer in the negative? Not a soul, we suspect.

So if rabbis attend, or even participate in, a public rally, protest or demonstration, it might be that they discover for themselves what the right scope of involvement is for themselves personally and as congregational leaders. They might find spiritual connections with other clergy. Or uncover in themselves leadership skills and attributes they didn’t even know they possessed.

Or they might discover that they’re uncomfortable with participating in rallies during  which epithets and objects are hurled at policemen who did not commit any bad acts whatsoever. What better way to determine the appropriate and inappropriate boundaries of leadership behavior than by attending and observing in person?

Certainly, we don’t think the scope of behavior that’s acceptable for rabbis is unlimited. We would not want to see our community’s clergy committing acts of physical violence, shouting vulgarities at police or otherwise disrespecting individuals in the course of their participation. That kind of behavior isn’t suitable for anyone, certainly not for rabbis.

But ultimately, the way we learn is not only by seeing or hearing, but by doing. And for those rabbis who have sought involvement in the aftermath of this summer’s events, it is incumbent upon them not only to teach us what they’ve learned about Ferguson and beyond, but what they’ve learned about themselves by being there.