Fears of a Future Rabbi, By Joshua Stanton

Posted on December 14th, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics, InterViews


Many religious leaders like to feel in control and give others advice. Though I am still a very much a rabbi-in-progress, with three-and-a-half years of study to go before ordination, I think it would show a great deal more strength for clergy to admit their shortcomings and be honest about how often they (and fairly soon soon we) don't know what to do or how to do it.

In the spirit of seeking, rather than giving, advice, I wanted to share some of the fears that I have about my future career - and lifestyle - as a rabbi. I was recently asked to record these as part of a professional development course at Hebrew Union College but thought they might be of interest here and foment conversation about the difficult life's choices that many religious leaders face.

As I look forward to life as a rabbi, I have a number of aspirations, tinged by concerns about achieving them - or missing the mark. In some ways it is as though rabbinical school is a prolonged Yom Kippur. I am 'cleansed' through learning but somewhat removed from the world in which I will eventually live. Challenges seem remote, but hopes are all too close. (Food, thankfully, is more abundant at Hebrew Union College than I have found it to be on Yom Kippur!) In short, I have insufficient practical experience and eyes all too widely opened with expectation.

My biggest concern is quite honestly ennui. If I have an unexceptional career, will it all have been worth the trip? If I don't push a social justice agenda, should I have just gone to Wall Street? If my congregation doesn't blossom, should I have just joined the non-profit sector?

A lack of certainty also concerns me. Even as junior rabbis - extreme circumstances aside - we can at least be assured of two or even four years of steady work. For now [as students], all that exists is uncertainty. Admittedly, excitement also dwells in the uncertainty. What can I do with the next forty years of my life? Could I change the Reform Movement? Could I learn how to be the next great (insert name of prominent rabbi)? What do I need to do to get there? Can I do what it takes? I should really get around to studying more!

Beyond the personal, egotistical concerns of the rabbinate reside even bigger hopes and worries. Can I be a rabbi and a family man? Will I be a good husband? Will I be a good dad, if I become one? Will I still be able to support my wife's career in full - by cooking, cleaning, helping out around the house - or will hers suffer as mine grows? Will the reverse happen? Is our marriage really egalitarian, or only so long as neither one of us has a career on the chopping block? How can we resist the urge to prioritize ourselves and our work?

In this continuum of hope and concern exist two visions for my rabbinate: one of a happily married man presiding over a growing congregation, with a broader vision about where to go next. In the other lies a divorced man, unable to either be a successful family man or rabbi. In all likelihood, I will not realize either vision for my life (in at least one of the two cases, thankfully). What it will be lies ahead - much as the rest of the year stretches out after Yom Kippur ends. It will hardly be clear-cut.

One Response to “Fears of a Future Rabbi, By Joshua Stanton”

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