Sunday, April 25, 2010

Someone Call a Doctor! (TBE Bulletin Message)

On the 27th of May, I’ll be receiving an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I’m grateful for the honor, but this has prompted the question as to what exactly an honorary doctorate is and why anyone would want one.

Reform and Conservative rabbis often get these diplomas after a certain amount of service to the Jewish people beyond ordination, usually around 25 years. So the honor has more to do with survival than accomplishment (setting aside the question as to whether they would give one of those things out posthumously). I suppose it could be said that surviving 25 years in the rabbinate is quite an achievement, particularly in the pulpit rabbinate.

But why a doctorate? Why measure success in a spiritual profession on intellectual terms? Shouldn’t a rabbi’s success be rewarded in other ways having less to do with academic achievement? When I get my doctorate, does that title supersede “rabbi?” No it won’t . The title rabbi indicates a mastery of knowledge, but it means much, much more. Besides, we already have a doctor in my household, and one is enough. I defer to her on all matters doctoral.

So, no need for you to address those envelopes “Doctor and Doctor.”

And shouldn’t my work of encouraging people on their Jewish journeys be reward in and of itself? I didn’t need a new title to reap the rich rewards of seeing a number of our teens soak in a life-changing experience at last month’s March of the Living (from which I am writing this). If JTS is now supposedly in the business of taking Judaism out of the ivory tower and bringing it to the people, the rabbi of the 21st century should be a person of the people, not some highfalutin D.Div.

That’s not to say I won’t accept this honor. For one thing, it comes with lunch. And it will be a deep privilege to share this moment with my family and leadership from TBE, as well as a few dozen colleagues who will be similarly honored at our alma mater. Some of these colleagues have become true leaders on the Jewish scene. I am proud of them and want to see their achievements recognized. I’ve also got a great deal of pride in what I (read: we) have accomplished all these years (since all but four years of my rabbinical career have been spent here.

So I’ll accept the title “doctor,” but only on a part time basis. Meanwhile, I’ll work harder to truly earn that title - in the new specialized field of Mensch-ology. As the Jewish Week website’s new Jewish Ethicist, I’ll have to earn my stripes by fire.

But the only degree I am seeking now is a degree of difficulty. As we approach the holiday of Mount Sinai, Shavuot, mountainous challenges us await us here at TBE, and even loftier opportunities. Encouraged by the honor I’ll be receiving, I think I’m up to that challenge. I know that you are!

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