Friday, January 24, 1997

Still a Young Rabbi After All These Years (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, January 24, 1997

In a few weeks I'll be turning that magical age of 40. A dozen years ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine entitled, "A Young Rabbi," exploring the quandaries of ageism in my profession. So what's the scoop? Has "A Young Rabbi" finally grown up? Does rabbinic legitimacy begin at 40, or are rabbis still expected to have gray beards and the all-knowing countenance of one who is nearing the end of life's tumultuous journeys?

The passing of years has definitely changed some things. My college classmates are now partners in major law firms and multi-millionaire investment brokers, and most major league ball players were born after my bar mitzvah. Senators and judges can now call me "rabbi" without sneering, "this pip-squeak could be my grandson," and some in my community are telling me how hard it is to confide in "those young rabbis" as if I were not one of them.

Twelve years ago, I wrote: "My congregants ask themselves: `How can this rabbi be mature enough to comfort mourners when he hasn't known a lifetime of personal grief? How can he advise parents about their children, when he hasn't reared children of his own? How can he represent us before God when he hasn't been through our suffering, when he hasn't seen what we've seen? Can a rabbi who is not battle-scarred be truly a rabbi?'"

I added, "These anxieties have eased as the congregation has gotten to know me. But I'm not sure the congregants know that, if anything, I fear the consequences of too much experience. When I perform weddings, I want to sense the exhilaration I felt at my own. When I visit the sick or bereaved, I want to approach them, not as a trained professional, but as one who is in some way personally affected by their plight. I prepare for each funeral as if it were my first, for it was at my first that I was best able to share in the raw unadulterated grief that consumed the family."

Approaching 40, with many years of marriage, two young children and possibly half my life behind me, I now know all about the first steps of babyhood, the aging of parents and losses of close relatives. But there is always going to be something that I haven't experienced. I have yet to collect my first social security check and cuddle a grandchild. I haven't gotten divorced or been diagnosed with cancer. I haven't run the New York Marathon. I haven't eaten shrimp. I haven't died.

Further, as I age, I find myself more and more removed from those things I experienced long ago. I recently sent e-mail to my synagogue's college students, recalling the tension of finals period. But can I really recall what it was like to be an undergraduate 20 years ago? The simple fact of their getting e-mail from their rabbi underscores the radical changes that have taken place since I first unpacked my Smith Corona in my freshman dorm. I counsel singles and engaged couples all the time, but I can't even remember my last date prior to meeting my wife.

I can tell you all you need to know about nursery school, however. The people I can best commiserate with are, in fact, the same ones I was closest to years ago, because they are going through the same stages of life as I am. Always were. Always will be.

Incredibly, people often expect their rabbis to be utterly empathic about every stage of the life-cycle, at the same time. And indeed, there are Sundays when I will skip merrily from brit to wedding to shiva house -- and that's before lunch. There is always a tradeoff. Younger rabbis will have greater personal experience in some areas and older rabbis in others. But all should have the basic human understanding to handle any situation.

Although my children are younger, I probably know more about seventh graders than most parents of seventh graders. While I know less about the pains of arterial-sclerosis or Alzheimer's, an approachable rabbi should be able to sit at a hospital bedside and help a patient of any age, no matter what the rabbi's generation.

I no longer feel unadulterated grief at funerals, but not because I've become numbed to the pain of death. It's just that I've seen so many deaths that I've come to understand it to be a necessary stage of life, that without it we could never experience true happiness.

I still agree with what was "A Young Rabbi's" punch-line:

"It is sad that so many Jewish communities seem to insist that their rabbis shed their youthful innocence as quickly as possible. Once the rabbi loses his exuberance, even the most vibrant of communities becomes threatened with a similar stagnation. Perhaps early career burnout would be less of a problem if rabbis didn't feel compelled to spend the first half of their careers trying to look older and the last half trying to regain the vitality of lost youth."

Forty is prime-time in my profession, an age considered seasoned enough to command respect but young enough to ward off crustiness. Most large congregations looking for the "ideal" candidate look for one in my age range.

But I believe now, as I did then, that discrimination based on age is as wrong as that based on sex or income. Our sages understood that we should not look at the flask but at the contents within. It takes time to taste the wine, even if it turns out to be delicious grape juice. We mustn't rely on superficial impressions in selecting leaders. It is quite possible for a peach-fuzzy rabbi of 30 to be more mature and compassionate than a gray-beard of 80. Why should I be considered a better spiritual leader simply because I am 40, male and an ivy league graduate? Isn't measurement by those criteria the antithesis of what it means to be spiritual?

In many ways I am a better rabbi now, but mostly because ten years ago, my current congregation decided to take a chance and get to know a 30-year-old whippersnapper with lots of crazy ideas. I'm better because the relationship has deepened with time, not because I'm a decade older. The fine wine in the flask isn't me, it's me and them.

Twenty years from now, I fully intend to seek God as fervently, pursue and impart knowledge as passionately, be as open to change and amazed by each new experience as I was 12 years ago. With luck, I'll be as wise.

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