Jerome M. Epstein

Rabbis: Should they reflect the ideal or merely represent what exists?

When I received my rabbinic ordination in 1970 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was awarded a diploma signed by the faculty which charged me to spread the teachings and values of the Torah and to promulgate God’s spirit amongst the Jewish community. Nowadays, as some rabbinical schools seek to revise their curricula and standards, it appears that the holy mission of spreading Torah and God’s message has been subverted.

Rabbis are first and foremost expected to be master teachers of Torah and rabbinic literature. For them to be most effective, their students must be able to trust that congregational rabbis believe their own words. They must witness rabbis living the values that they teach. For example, inmarriage is clearly a positive Jewish value. Although many Jews do not adhere to that value–just as many Jews do not adhere to the values of making Shabbat a special day or eating according to the rules of Kashrut, we must not deny that the values exist, and we must attempt to inspire Jews towards those observances. To that end, I am struck by recent comments by those rabbinical training institutions which seek to ordain rabbis who are partnered with non-Jews, stating that ordaining intermarried rabbis is a positive value and that the rabbi who is intermarried will be more representative of the population within their congregations. There are those such as Keren McGinity, an interfaith specialist for the USCJ, who claim that the Jewish world would benefit from more rabbis who are intermarried. How can a rabbi who lives with a non-Jewish spouse be an effective exemplar for creating a one-religion Jewish family? Do we really want rabbis who reflect who we are, rather than who our tradition wants us to be?

Today’s rabbi has many tasks to perform—but the most important one is to be a living exemplar of the Torah. That requires that rabbinic leadership, at times, should reject what people do and, rather, inspire them to live the values of our historic heritage. Where will young Jews learn the value of inmarriage, if the rabbi does not teach it? Where will teenagers learn the ideal of creating a one-religion family, if the rabbi is not able to model it? Where will the young adult come to appreciate the importance of seeking a Jewish spouse, if the rabbinic model has rejected that value?

Rabbis, like the prophets of the past, should represent the ideal, rather than reflect what exists within the society. That is an awesome burden to bear. So it was for Jeremiah and Isaiah 2500 years ago. To be a rabbi today is a commitment to proclaim the values of God’s Torah—even to people who do not want to hear the message and chastise us for delivering it. Jeremiah was castigated and thrown into prison for telling people what they did not want to hear. Yet, he continued to proclaim the message because it was not merely his message! It was also God’s message.

The Jewish world has, for the most part, accepted intermarriage as the norm. Yet, the ideal of marriage presumes the creation of Jewish families. To achieve that, Jewish leaders—both rabbinic and lay— must be willing to go against the norm in order to uphold a centuries-old message, and teach by word and example the important value of Jews marrying Jews.

About the Author
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1970 and holds Doctorate in Education from Temple University. He served as CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for 23 years before his retirement. He served as the President of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry NACOEJ. He is married with 3 children and 5 grandchildren.