Aryeh Ben David
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Rabbis and root canal

Those with no formal training in spiritual leadership and personal growth shouldn’t be doling out advice on such matters

I studied in rabbinical school in Israel for five years to become a rabbi – but no one ever comes up to me and asks me to do their root canal work! Why is that?

I studied as an adult in yeshiva for 10 years – but no one ever asks me to fill their cavity. Why is that?

Maybe it’s because I never studied those things and have no idea how to do them.

Well, you know what else I never studied in order to become a rabbi?

  • I never studied human development.
  • I never studied how a person grows spiritually.
  • I never studied how about a person improves their interpersonal qualities.
  • I never studied marriage counseling or theories about raising children.

I did study the laws of kashrut, the laws of keeping Shabbat, and the laws of family purity.

Ask me about those things – and maybe I’ll know enough to answer, or where to look for an answer.

But why, dear Lord, do people keep asking me (and rabbis) about things we never studied?

Actually, the problem is not so much the people asking, as we rabbis thinking that we know how to answer. Why should a rabbi who studied the laws of Shabbat know how to counsel couples with problems in communication or vulnerability? Why should a rabbi who studied the laws of kashrut know how to raise children with creativity and self-esteem? Why should a rabbi who spent years focusing on legal minutiae know how to listen and care about someone’s personal suffering? When on earth was he trained to do this? I certainly never was.

Does the title “rabbi” have some magical quality that confers on its receiver new insights and wisdom that he never thought about before? And if someone should offer the well-worn cliché, “But everything is in Torah!,” my response would simply be, “Fine, then let me fill your cavity.”

There are two problems here:

  1. The public has a gross misunderstanding of what becoming a rabbi entails. Perhaps it stems from a childish desire to believe that someone has the answers. Perhaps it is simply an entrenched community habit that people are afraid to break.
  2. The rabbis have a gross misunderstanding of what they are trained to do. Exhibiting an audacious lack of humility, rabbis believe they have the wherewithal to respond to questions well beyond their formal training.

I am embarrassed to admit that, while I studied a lot of Talmud, I was never forced or even encouraged to synthesize and conceptualize my learning. I never wrote a paper to help cohere my thoughts or learning. To become a rabbi I did not have to read a single book on marriage, human relations, child-raising, or spiritual growth.

My deep hope is that one day we will stop training rabbis how to become religious leaders in seventeenth century Europe and give them the tools to become authentic spiritual leaders today.

Learning to become a rabbi today focuses primarily on the “externals,” as in mastering Jewish Law. But we need more than Jewish lawyers – we need souls with inner awareness and depth who can also focus on the “internals.” This is the clear message and yearning so present in the Jewish community today.

A rabbinic program today needs to raise this awareness and directly address the issues of personal and spiritual growth. When I ask rabbis how this can be done, they often they often respond with classic camp-like activities, saying: “Yes, we should sing more niggunim, we should tell more Chassidic stories, we should have night hikes.” Personal and spiritual growth cannot be relegated to clichés like this.

I would offer some out-of-the-box suggestions to help begin the conversation about what religious leaders need to become authentic spiritual leaders in today’s world. And while these suggestions are certainly not enough to cultivate expertise, they may be enough to create the awareness in rabbis that they (we) need to grow in these fields. A rabbinic training program should include:

For spiritual awareness and growth:

  • Formalized time for personal reflection and journaling
  • Studying great works of poetry, art, and drama that enrich the soul
  • A series of meetings with a spiritual leader

For personal awareness and growth:

  • Reading great works of fiction that focus on personal character development
  • Therapy sessions for the potential rabbi
  • Meetings with professionals in mental health and wellness fields

Plus a weekly partner to discuss individual personal and spiritual growth. Of course each course should conclude with written papers summarizing each subject studied and the rabbi’s personal connection to the subject.

Today we need rabbis who know more than halakhic content. We need spiritual leaders who can help provide inner well-being, compassion, and deep wisdom. Fortunately, some rabbinic programs are already moving in this direction. But in the more traditional world – and certainly in Israel – there is little awareness of the need.

The time has come. I need a rabbi who can do some deep root canal work on my soul.

About the Author
Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2008. Ayeka educates rabbis, teachers, and professionals to bring Jewish wisdom from our minds to our hearts to our souls and into our lives. He recently published: The Secret of Love - A Glimpse into the Mystical Wisdom of Rav Kook. He lives in Efrat with his wife, Sandra.