Tonight, I was moved.

Let me explain.

Leat and I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion at a local shul on the topic of “Building an Engaging Rabbinate”. Being a semikha student, this is just the type of thing I go for, and Leat and I made our way there after shabbat. On the panel sat three local rabbis – Rabbi Daniel Roselaar, Rabbi Alan Kimche, and Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence. A fourth rabbi, Rabbi David Stav – former frontrunner for the chief rabbinate of Israel and head of the organisation Tzohar – was visiting from Israel and sat on the panel as well.

With such a big topic to cover, I was intrigued to see what each of the rabbis would have to say. They came from seemingly disparate backgrounds – the National Religious community in Israel, the Yeshiva world, the intellectual halls of Yeshivat Har Etzion – and I was sure that there would be differing answers the questions posed to them by their moderator, Rabbi Lawrence.

Instead, we sat through two hours of inspiring, rousing, emotional conversation. We were treated to an insight into the rabbinic mind, and into rabbinic life – what issues rabbis deal with, what challenges they face and which they see as most pressing, and even how they view the very role of a rabbi. In two hours, almost without exception, a word was not wasted.

The panel opened with a discussion about the rabbinate and its changing nature. What use is a rabbi, one of the panelists asked, in a world as open and advanced as ours today? One panelist expressed the problem thus: in a community where I am not the most gifted speaker, nor the most qualified academic, nor perhaps the most learned individual, where sitting in my pews are giants of men, professors of Talmud and other disciplines, celebrated orators and educators, what can I, as a rabbi, give? Further, asked the panelist, in a world where the answer to any question is but a click away, why ask a rabbi? As the mic was passed around, the panelists echoed this concern, some qualifying the remarks of previous rabbi, others endorsing them. At the end of the topic, the rabbis all emerged with a homogenous response. The role of the rabbi, among being a teacher, a scholar, an orator, and a counsellor, is to be a role model, an inspiration, a guiding light. The rabbi should be a person to whom people can point to and say, this is how we want to live our life. As one of the panelists put it so eloquently, “The rabbi must inspire each of his congregants to grow into their Jewish potential”. Rabbis today exist to inspire, to impassion, to infuse.

The conversation moved swiftly on to the very nature of observance and its interface with the modern world. How do rabbis deal with the changing nature of the family unit, of sexuality, of women’s issues? What is the philosophy behind observing the Torah in a modern context?

The panelists’ answers to these questions, and the others they were asked, are deep and involved, and deserve more discussion than is possible here. What was consistent however, throughout all the panelists’ responses, was the depth with which they care about these issues, and the depth with which they care about their congregants. What emerged, more than any other message from the evening, was that Torah does not exist in a vacuum. Torah is not divorced from the people who keep it, living in an ivory tower. Instead, Torah is only relevant in light of the people who keep it, who struggle with it, who yearn to understand its mysteries and its secrets.

The rabbi is one who must know his congregants, who must care about them. The rabbi is one who must be in his community, part of it, not aloof. A rabbi must be able to understand the context of a person’s life, his or her struggles, and be able to identify deeply with them.

At one point, one of the panelists spoke about the dilemma of inviting a non-religious family to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah in the shul. He explained – on the one hand, inviting the family will almost certainly result in hillul shabbat, the desecration of the Sabbath, whilst on the other turning them away will only serve to drive them further away from authentic Torah. The rabbi then looked at the people who had gathered to hear him, and said to us: “You need to be honest, both with yourself and with your congregants. You don’t want them to come because they’ll drive to shul? Fine! Tell them so. Don’t hide it. Understand the ramifications of your actions. And then ask yourself two questions: What would I say if it was my grandson? What will I say when, after 120 years, I arrive in heaven and God says to me, “What did you do to save my children? How did you help them?” “What will you answer,” the rabbi asked, “that you were afraid that exposing your children to another kind of Jew would lead them astray, so you turned away a whole family?!”

The message is timeless, but at times is forgotten. All that we have in this world are our relationships to other people. Our families, our friends, our congregants. Each one of us has our own story, our own context, our own meaning. A rabbi’s job is to identify with, feel for, and understand his congregants, to be a leading light to his followers, with love, whilst ultimately staying true to the Torah and the God which ultimately inform Jewish life. It’s no easy feat, but I’m confident that the rabbis who spoke to us tonight are trying.