Message to My Son Upon Becoming a Rabbi

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Remarks by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach at Machon Lehoraah, The South African Institute of Rabbinical Studies in Pretoria, upon the graduation and Rabbinic ordination of his son, Mendy, and the members of his class, where he was asked to speak as a representative of the parents.


Boteach is an uncommon name and, to my knowledge, I am the only person in the world who carries it with the prefix Rabbi. I have become so accustomed to turning around when people say, “Rabbi Boteach” that it’s an impulsive reflex.

So last Thursday when my wife said, excitedly, “Hi, Rabbi Boteach!,” I turned around only to see she was speaking on the phone and was not addressing me. The Rabbi Boteach she spoke to was our eldest son, Mendy, sitting behind me today, who had just completed his final test for ordination at this seminary. We were in the midst of traveling here to participate in the celebration.

So I stand before you now, diminished, rendered less significant, as my uniqueness has been compromised and my identity diluted. There is a newer, more vibrant, more polished Rabbi Boteach. But the truth is, of course, that our foremost legacy in life is transmitting our values to our children, and there can be no greater compliment to a father who is a Rabbi when his son embraces the same track.

There are two paths open to a Rabbi: to be a scholar or to be a leader. A scholar is a repository of information. A leader is a fountain of conviction. It’s best, of course, to be both. Indeed, proper grounding in knowledge should lead to core convictions. Yeshiva, meaning study, should lead to amida, conviction. But there is no question that of the two, leadership is what is demanded of a Rabbi. This week’s Torah reading begins with the words, “Atem nitzovim hayom,” you are all standing here today. Standing, not sitting. Leading, not just studying.

The defining characteristic of a leader is moral courage, the capacity to do the right whatever the consequences. A preparedness to be hated while you stand up for your beliefs. To forego popularity in favor of principle.

The first biographical detail of the greatest Jewish prophet, Moses – whose only title, incidentally, was “Rabbi” – was that he was possessed of ferocious moral courage. Witnessing the beating of a Jew by an Egyptian, he gave up his high standing among the Egyptian aristocracy in order to defend the persecuted and right injustice.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a world-class scholar who authored more than 200 books. But he is remembered primarily as the leader who refused to allow the Jewish people to be lost in a tidal wave of assimilation and inspired his students with the courage to move from the comfort of Jewish communities like New York and build Jewish life in places like Pretoria.

The Jewish people are in need of leadership. Here in South Africa there is a mainstream movement accusing the Jewish state of apartheid, while the truth is that the Jews, like native Africans, were the indigenous people of their land but were likewise colonized by a European power, the Romans, who oppressed and exiled them. Will you be the ones to say so, or will you duck controversy and allow Israel to be slowly delegitimized? Assimilation is slowly eroding Jewish continuity. Will you stand up for Jewish uniqueness and call upon young Jews to embrace their heritage, or will you allow Jewish distinctiveness to be lost in a melting pot of ill-defined multiculturalism?

Being a Rabbi is no longer in fashion in the Jewish community. Time was when the Jewish people’s best and brightest aspired to the profession. Today, of course, most would prefer the title hedge fund manager or internet entrepreneur. But our society is not suffering a diminishment of materialism but rather an impoverishment of values. Rabbinic leadership is essential. And each of you will be called upon to embody values that will inspire those in your community to follow you.

As a Rabbi I have discovered that the foremost challenge to my idealism came from giving and giving and not necessarily feeling that my contribution was appreciated. We all want to feel impactful. We all would like to leave an impression on the people we are influencing and feel that they offer us, at the very least, their lasting friendship in return. That will not always happen.

And in moments like those the one thing that will keep you going is being true to your principles, namely, to never be guilty of not showing appreciation to those who contribute to your lives. While you cannot control another’s reaction, you can control your own actions.

You should begin today by acknowledging the outstanding head of your institute, Rabbi Levi Wineberg, the deputy head, Rabbi Aaron Grinshtein, and the Rabbi of Pretoria, Gideon Fox, for making it possible for all of you to study in this capitol city and become Rabbis, and the Jewish community of Pretoria for taking you into their hearts.

May you go forth today and become great lights to your families, this seminary, the Jewish people, and the world.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America’ will be publishing “Kosher Lust” this October. Follow his twitter feed on his visit to Africa @Rabbismuley.


About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.