What I Learned as a Rabbi

The rough, unfinished draft of a 1995 essay titled “What I Learned as a Rabbi,” was found by Rabbi Gold’s daughter after his death. In this essay, Ben-Zion describes his impressions of American Conservative synagogue worship in relation to traditional synagogues of his youth in pre-War Poland, where worshipers were knowledgeable about Jewish tradition and text. He explains how his own experience led him to believe that something very different was needed to keep Conservative Judaism vibrant in America: worship led by laypeople who received training within the community to do this, and worship that included text study and discussion. He tells the story of how, with wonder, he first learned that students were coming up with insightful comments and interpretations of Torah text – on their own, rather than based on their reading of traditional interpreters of the text. The essay also describes the evolution of the Worship and Study congregation at Harvard, where women’s roles were equal to those of men as early as 1965.

This unfinished draft that follows, dated October 1995, has been lightly edited by Jane Myers.


What I Learned as a Rabbi

American Jewish students: A problem I encountered

My first job after graduating from the Seminary in 1957 was at the University of Iowa, where I served as director of Hillel and interim Professor of Jewish studies. In this dual capacity I met many Jews from Iowa. Some of them lived in small communities that were too small to support a Jewish school or rabbi, and they were served by part-time rabbis, who visited their community two Shabbats a month.  Jews who lived in small communities were also worried about interdating because the pool of young Jews was small.  I was impressed by the seriousness of these people and their concerns but had no solution to their problem.  One thing was clear: the rabbi’s part-time service, though costly, was only a holding operation, like giving a needy relative a periodic handout.

Delving into the problem further at Harvard

The next fall I was already at Harvard Hillel, where I faced an entirely different situation.  I do not remember thinking much, if at all, about Iowa.  Then one day, while listening to music, it suddenly occurred to me that the problem of Jews in the small towns of Iowa was not so much the decline in numbers but the decline in knowledge of the tradition and the skills that would make it possible for a group of Jews, even a small one, to conduct their religious life without the assistance of a rabbi.

I had grown up in Poland among Hassidim and worshiped in a shtibl, a Hassidic prayer room, with approximately forty Jews.  These people knew the prayers from reviewing the parashah (Torah portion for the week) with its cantillations every week.  They also knew how to read the Torah.  Thus they could be counted on to lead services or read Torah on short notice.  Every shtibl also had several talmidey hakhamim, men versed in Talmud, Midrash, and codes of Jewish law, who could answer questions regarding the service and synagogue observance or teach Talmud and Midrash, and so we got along without a rabbi. It was the absence of this basic knowledge among Jews in the small towns of Iowa, or for that matter, in all of the small towns in America, that constituted the problem.

The solution that occurred to me was rather simple.  There were all sorts of summer institutes. Why not establish one to train people in synagogue skills? Members of small congregations from all over America and Canada would spend months in intensive study of Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, laws governing services, and the cycle of our holidays.  The money that congregations are spending on part-time rabbis could be used to pay for the cost of sending a member to the institute and reimbursing him for the time away from the job.  On returning to the congregation, that person would serve as its leader for one year.  Each year a different member of the congregation would attend, and after several years, the graduates of the institute would raise the level of Jewish knowledge in the congregation and serve as an inspiration to their fellow congregants.  Another benefit of such an institute would be the creation of a national alumni network of institute graduates that would meet every three years during winter vacation, as well as a monthly newsletter to inspire continued learning and public service.

Though the idea appealed to me, I was in no position to do anything about it.  I had just become immersed in my job at Harvard Hillel and the challenge was formidable.  Twenty-five percent of Harvard’s fifteen thousand students were supposedly Jewish, and the percentage of Jews on the faculty was even higher.  But only seventy showed up for the Conservative and Orthodox Fright night services; at that time, we did not have a Reform service.  Considering that about one thousand people came to our High Holiday services, the one and a half percent who showed up on Friday night was depressingly low.  Where were these people on Friday nights?

I had already lived in America for twelve years, but I still couldn’t get used to the idea that the practice of Judaism could be reduced to several days in the year.  The fact that “out there” were thousands of the “best and brightest” gave me no pause.  I knew what Judaism had to offer and I felt that there must be ways to convey this effectively to a larger number of people at Harvard and Radcliffe.  This became an all-consuming challenge.  In these circumstances I had no time to worry about Jews in small towns of America.

The first item on my agenda was to meet as many students as possible.  Most of them had been Bar-Mitzah’d, and some had even attended services with their parents after Bar-Mitzvah, but for a variety of reasons they did not celebrate Judaism while they were at the university.  Shabbat fell on the weekend when students unwound from the strenuous efforts of the week. It was a time for relaxing, dating, movies, and socializing, and it was not easy to leave all this fun and relaxation and go off to Shabbat services.  Some students also felt that to become part of the larger Harvard community, they had to downplay their affiliation with a particular community and tradition.  What they failed to see was that many of the Protestant or Catholic classmates attended Sunday church services regularly; they obviously did not feel that they had to shed their religious affiliation to be eligible for the fellowship in the Harvard community.  Perhaps the impressive church in the midst of the Harvard Yard, its bells ringing the hour of every class, conveyed the message to Jews that they were guests at a Christian institution and should behave accordingly.  At that time there were a number of Jews at Harvard who concealed their Jewishness; they were the Marranos, the crypto Jews, of Modern America.

The drive for integration vs. religious self-preservation

Already then, in the late fifties, it was clear to me that for a large number of Jewish students, concluding some who came from Orthodox homes, the urge toward integration had become stronger than the desire for cultural and religious self-preservation.  From my conversations with some of them, I got the impression that neither their home nor the synagogue had equipped them with the knowledge of Judaism and the emotional attachment to its tradition and practices that would help them in the confrontation with the entrenched Christian culture of the universities.  They could resist a directly missionary assault, but the genteel matter-of-fact university situation was confusing and led many to pass, to soft-pedal their Jewishness.  Some even began to resent it as a handicap.  The university brought to the surface their ambivalence of being Jews in a Christian society.  To understand the situation I was facing, my quest led beyond the university back to the Jewish community.

Redefining “layman” and “rabbi”: Creating a new organization for religious life

The young people I was meeting at Harvard were the children and grandchildren of immigrants. One way to understand their behavior was to view it as the emergent Jewish culture in America and conclude sadly that freedom and social acceptance inevitably lead to assimilation. This seemed to have been the case in Europe, though it was never clear how much was assimilation and how much was due to secularization that affected all Europeans, including Jews. But America of the late fifties and early sixties was culturally a much more dynamic society than it was before the Second World War. There were signs that hegemony of the melting pot was waning. It was a time when Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, writing on Jewish themes, received National Book Awards and became best sellers. It seemed that Jews were becoming bolder about who they were. But the organized Jewish community, especially the synagogue, was not yet cognizant of these emerging developments. Synagogue membership was on the rise, and new, sumptuous Temples, testifying to a new Jewish affluence, were rising in cities, and particularly in suburbia.

These signs of a new vitality encouraged me to think that we were at the beginning of a new phase in American Jewish life, pregnant with new possibilities. It was to be expected that with the decline of immigration, the melting pot would run its course, and the children of immigrants, having achieved economic security, would rediscover their ethnicity. Jews would then have many allies in their effort to preserve their heritage.

The synagogue was still operating on premises that were established at the beginning of the century, when mass migration from Eastern Europe brought to America a large number of poor but enterprising Jews.  Having left behind the compact community of Poland, Rumania, and Russia, where most of them had lived in materials poverty but spiritual wealth, the immigrants found the challenge and lure of opportunity in America irresistible. Even those who were determined to continue to lead a religious life in America reduced the amount of time they would henceforth spend on it. Initially they were in a race for daily sustenance; later the race intensified from the desire for economic surety. Finally, having spent a major part of their time and energy on the acquisition of material welfare, they found it difficult to return to the ways they had abandoned. At the same time, melting pot pressures further weakened the immigrants’ attachment to their tradition. Together these factors were instrumental in changing the character of Judaism and the role of the rabbi in America. The rabbi, who in Europe was distinguished from other Jews only by greater knowledge, piety, and ethics, became here the professional Jew. He was expected to preserve what the congregants had abandoned: to live by the precepts of Judaism and study Torah.

The new circumstances also changed his function. Instead of being a moreh hora’ah, settling disputes according to Jewish law, and a teacher, the rabbi in America became a priestly figure, performing the so-called life-cycle rituals for the people, which in Europe they had performed themselves. The rabbi also became a preacher, a social worker, the representative of his congregation before the organized Jewish community and the gentile world—activities that reduced the amount of time to study Torah.

Once Jews ceased to study Torah, the common ground for the rabbi’s sermons disappeared. He now was in the strange situation of elucidating the unknown, of answering questions no one had asked. His rabbinic education became, by and large, irrelevant to this function. Since the sermon was viewed by his congregants as a major part of the rabbi’s job, he had no choice but to address his congregants on topics that mattered to them. That is how the sermon that used to be an occasion of congregational Torah study became a performance, with flashy topics and titillating political subjects. The vibrant religious life of Europe that was informed by learning was replaced by a piety feeding on nostalgia. One of the by-products of these changes was the professionalization of Jewish learning in America. The lullabies that mothers sang telling their children that “Toire is di beste schoire,” Torah is the best merchandise, ceased and were replaced by their hopes for the material success of their children.

The problem created by the professionalization of Jewish learning and the laxness in religious observance affected most acutely the Conservative movement. Initially the movement’s aim was to keep the first of Judaism burning while the community was establishing itself in its new home. But the twin forces of the melting pot and economic security continued to erode traditional Jewish learning and religious practice, creating a wide gulf between the rabbinate and the congregants. The rabbis continued to affirm the authority of halakhah, whereas in reality only the rabbi was expected to live by it. There always was a tension between the rabbi and the community he served. In traditional times, that tension was tempered by the rule of halakhah, the common bond between the rabbi and congregants. When the congregants rejected the authority of halakhah, the bond weakened, and the rabbi became the captive of the congregation that paid his salary.

Children, who were born into this truncated form of Judaism, took it for granted that Judaism without learning and without much observance defined Conservative Judaism. As they saw it, there is a division of labor: rabbis, by definition, study Torah and practice Judaism, whereas laymen do their share by supporting the synagogue, attending High Holiday services, observing Hanukah and the Passover seder, and showing up periodically for Shabbat and holiday services. Jewish learning was reduced to preparation for Bar Mitzvah, and what once was a preparation for lifelong study and practice became an end in itself, a rite of passage that is completed upon its performance. This sort of Judaism without real obligation lacked the depth to command the commitment of intelligent and searching young Jews, and many of them became spiritually homeless. Some turned to far-Eastern religions, while others joined the various cults that became popular in America during the late sixties and early seventies. These were some of the student that I encountered at Harvard.

The sad thing about the professionalization of Judaism was that it marginalized the individual Jews. In the shtibl of my childhood, there was no intermediary, everyone stood in a direct relation to the tradition and participated in the service, whereas here the rabbi and cantor, having become the professionals, dominate the service. Instead of the vibrant prayers of the shtibl, there is a hush in the modern synagogue, broken periodically by rhythmic responsive readings. The congregation is an audience for the performance of the rabbi and cantor, the elevated bima, a stage from which the rabbi “conducts” the service, giving directions to the congregants as if they were strangers to it. Regrettably, the fact is that most Jews have become strangers to their own tradition. The irony of this anomalous situation is that the ignorance of the congregants enhances the rabbi’s authority and his power.

Thus, both the rabbi and his congregants were caught in the web of socio-economic forces and cultural circumstances. The division into “layman” and “clergyman” roles prevalent in American Christianity became entrenched in Jewish life, and nothing short of radical change would lead us out of this cul-de-sac. Something had to happen outside the synagogue that would begin the process of return to the Judaism as it was developed by the sages of the Talmud after the destruction of the Temple. Their achievement was to shift the focus from Temple to Torah, from priestly ritual on behalf of the people to a religion in which each individual approaches God directly. That was how the home became a sanctuary, the table an altar, the meal, a sacrifice, and the host, a priest. This sort of Judaism, freed from dependence on a particular locality or particular personnel, had both the strength and suppleness to thrive wherever in the world a group of Jews settled. This shift in focus is encapsulated in the law about what constitutes a minyan, or quorum, the minimum community for public worship. It requires the presence of ten Jews. Nine priests or sages don’t make a quorum but ten ignorant Jews do.

My thinking about the new organization of religious life began with the layman, with a desire to restore to each Jew the dignity of an equal among equals in religious life. The respect that tradition accorded to the rabbi was based on his being a talmid hakham, a teacher and a public official.

Founding an egalitarian congregation, focused on lay-led Torah study, at Harvard

In the autumn of 1965, after the High Holidays, I examined again the situation at Harvard Hillel. When I came to Harvard, there was only one Shabbat morning service. We followed the Orthodox ritual but there was no mehitzah, separation, between men and women. The seating arrangement was that men sat in the front of the room and the women in the back.  That service, counting about fifty people, was attended by Orthodox and Conservative worshipers. It was early in the feminist movement, and it seemed that there really was no need to divide the community that was small to begin with. I had discussed the possibility of a conservative Shabbat morning service with the students who attended on Friday night and they showed no interest. What led me to contemplate a separate Conservative service was my feeling that there was something anomalous about the situation. The largest contingent of Jewish students came from Conservative homes. On High Holidays they were the largest congregation, but they had no service on Shabbat. Surely, I felt, there must be some people who would attend a Conservative service on Saturday morning. At least I felt that I ought to try, and I put a notice in the Crimson, Harvard’s student paper, announcing a Conservative service for the coming Shabbat morning.

We met at Phillips Brooks House, the university’s social service center. Only a handful of people showed up, just less than ten. At that meeting we decided to be egalitarian, that men and women would have equal status and roles in the congregation. This made us the first fully egalitarian Conservative congregation in the country, I believe. For a while attendance hovered around ten, which reduced the amount of time we spent on the prayers and increased the amount of time we spent studying the parasha. To engage the students, I raised questions about the text. Some of their answers were acute and insightful. I remember asking one of them, “Where did you read this interpretation?” and he said, “It just occurred to me.” A startling answer for a person like me, who was raised in Eastern Europe with the notion that in the interpretation of the Biblical text, all wisdom resided with the rabbis of the Talmud, Midrash, or with the great medieval commentators. The students were not burdened by such preconception. They approached the text of the Bible uninhibited, the way they approached other important text. I was delighted by their fresh, clear, and incisive reading.

These experiences brought to life the words of the Talmudic sage, Rabi Hanina, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most from my students” (Ta’anit 7a). More than that, they led me to encourage members of the Minyan to prepare a summary of the parashah with some remarks of their own, and to lead the discussion that ensued. Here I came upon a reluctance that was rooted in the layman-clergy division. They were ready to tackle any text but the Bible, the special provenance of the rabbi. I persisted, arguing that studying the Bible was no different from studying any other text. All that was required was sharing insights. Eventually some overcame their reluctance, setting an example for others. Soon we were listening to the d’var Torah, the analysis and interpretations of Torah, by laymen.

In a relatively short time, a core of excellent Torah teachers emerged who found their way to all the classical commentaries available in English. A favored reference work was Nechamah Leibowitz’s Studies on the Torah. With time, their knowledge and self-confidence increased. And instead of listening, week in and week out, t the rabbi, we heard many voices and opinions and we became a congregation of teachers and students or Torah. Learning from each other also developed an appreciation and respect for differing viewpoints. The Talmudic question, “Mai ka mashma lan?”, what is the text trying to tell us, often turned our Torah study session into a serious encounter between the Biblical text and contemporary concerns in which neither was slighted. Having overcome their reluctance, I had to face the difficulty of abdicating the focal post of the pulpit. I had to restrain myself from answering questions and from “improving” on what others said. It was a thrilling experience to learn from people who only several years ago did not know an aleph from a bet.

What we did with Torah study, we also did with the services. Initially, I led the services, as people learned they took over this function also. We became a self-sufficient congregation with members teaching Torah and leading services.

Several years ago, Moshe Davis visited Harvard, and he said to me, “I hear that are doing good things here,” and I was pleased to respond, “It’s not so much what I do as what I let others do.”

Having watched the development of our congregation, I observed that two important things were happening when a person delivered the d’var Torah and led the discussion on the parashah: One, was becoming familiar with the text of the Torah and the commentaries; the other, equally important, was the empowerment and confirmation they got from appearing before the congregation as its teacher. It was an experience of being at the center of what the congregation was about.

Fortunately, what we did was not unique. We may have been the first, but several years later, in 1968, Art Green, at present professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism at Brandeis University, founded the Havurat Shalom community in Somerville. Most of its founding members continue to play an important role in American Jewish life. There are not hundreds of havurot where laymen study Torah and conduct services. There are also many groups that meet in private homes to study classical Jewish texts with or without a rabbi. What characterized the havurot, the study group, as well as our congregation, is people assuming responsibility for their religious life and education. Their interest in studying the Jewish tradition goes beyond intellectual curiosity; it is a personal, existential search for self-understanding and self-definition as Jews.

This grassroots movement is not limited to havurot. It exists also in established congregations, particularly where sensitive rabbis have recognized the interest and encouraged the formation of such groups. This awakening could potentially reverse the baneful effects of the professionalization of Judaism. The Conservative and Reform movements could do much more to hep people claim what was given to them long ago. The Art Scroll series is an example of what can be done. This impressive book publishing project sponsored by the ultra-orthodox Agudah is a challenge to us that could become an indictment. To date the Art Scroll series has translated into English and published 400 volumes of traditional Jewish books. If the Agudah, whose membership generally does not need English to pray or read traditional sources, have produced so impressive a library in English, what should the Conservative and Reform movements have done?

There never was a time when all Jews were learned in Torah, but there was a time, not so long ago, when all Jews valued the study of Torah and hoped that their children would be learned. That was the time when mothers sang lullabies to their children about “Toire” being the “beste schoire,” the best merchandise.

The Talmud tells us that, “At first when the Torah was forgotten in Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and established it. It was again forgotten, and Hillel came up from Babylon and re-established it” (T.b. Succah 20a). In our time, also, the Torah was forgotten, and it will take massive efforts to re-establish it.

Perhaps we are witnessing the beginnings of a process that will reestablish the Torah that twill revitalize Jewish life in America. It is not that I particularly value intellectuality, but to bridge the hiatus created over an extended period of neglect, we need to return to the sources. The Talmud reports a discussion between Rabbi Akivah, Rabbi Tarfon, and the sages in the academy. The question that they were debating was what comes first, the study of Torah or practice. In the end they agreed “Talmud gadol – shehatulmud mevi lidei ma’aseh,” that the study of Torah is preeminent because it leads to practice. The real significance of this debates derives from the fact that these sages were among the leaders that launched the enterprise of Rabbinic Judaism that rested on the concept of mitzvah as a personal obligation. The question they were debating was: What would be the best way for Rabbinic Judaism to take hold and thrive. Their answer was the study of Torah, the source of Rabbinic Judaism, would give it the needed depth, vitality, and continuity, and they were right. This is particularly relevant in our time, after a break in continuity, people who are returning to the tradition need to know not only what they ought to do, but also the whys and wherefores of it, and that means a return to the sources.

The traditional heder, with all its shortcomings, raised generations of Jewish literates. Between the ages of 5 and 13, children learned the basic texts of the Jewish tradition: the Siddur, the Torah with the commentary of Rashi, and the beginnings of Talmud. Equipped with this knowledge, one could pursue independent studies. Some of these children became great scholars and rabbis, and some became artisans and merchants who studied Torah all their lives when time permitted. My father, z”l, of blessed memory, was a busy merchant, but he used every moment of his free time to study Torah. On weekdays after a long day’s work, he would fall asleep over his favored commentary on the Torah. On Shabbat he studied the Midrash of the Sidra. Sometimes he would invite me to join him in the study of Talmud. This he did in addition to reading the daily press and serving as councilman of our city.

Was their attachment to talmud torah strictly a matter of performing a mitzvah? I do not think so. Was it a quest for knowledge that led them to give the few hours of rest in the week to the study of Torah? I doubt it. What was it that motivated these people to do something that most modern religious Jews seem not to have much interest in pursuing? One simple answer is that this was their world. In recent years, continuing education has become an important part of programs offered at American universities. The concept of continuing education is biblical. When Moses addressed his successor Joshua, he told him, “Let not this book of the Torah cease from your lips; recite it day and night.” This advice was brought into our daily prayers. At the evening service, we declare that the Torah and its laws are “our life and our endurance, and we will meditate on them day and night.”

[Here the essay draft ends.]




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