Caleb, Joshua, and the Changing Rabbinate

The twelve spies whom Moses sends ahead of the Israelites after they have left Egypt to scout out the Promised Land give a glowing report of the land’s bounty, a rich land, indeed, זבת חלב ודבש – flowing with milk and honey. And yet, only two spies, Caleb and Joshua, suggest that the Israelites are truly up to the task of conquering and possessing it. These two voices of hope are drowned out by the other ten. The people of the land are too strong, the rest of the spies say: Amalekites, Amorites, even giants. Whatever Moses may say, whatever God may say, the Israelites refuse to go forward. נתנו ראש ונשובה מצרימה, they say. “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”

This story represents a pivotal moment in our cultural memory as Jews. Who can forget the famous image of the two spies bearing an enormous cluster of grapes on a pole, to demonstrate the richness and agricultural promise of Eretz Yisrael? And who can forget the irony of this image, the disappointment of that promise, delayed for forty years on account of the pessimism and hopelessness of the majority?

In May I completed my third year of rabbinical studies at HUC-JIR. Looking back to the beginning, when I first scouted out the land that lay before me, I can recognize now that I was among the unjustified cynics in my class. As someone who wasn’t raised in a Jewish home, who didn’t grow up in NFTY or BBYO, or go to URJ camps during the summer, I thought I had a clearer, more objective point of view, and I made up my mind pretty quickly about what we were going to be doing in our classes and activities. We were desperately trying to learn the text skills and basics of traditional Jewish practice which our Orthodox and Conservative counterparts had already mastered in their high school and college years. We were singing camp songs, banging on tables, and steeping ourselves in a fun, feel-good, “relatable” Judaism which we would one day share with our congregants. And we were all “movement kids,” by birth or by an accident of fate, who were just doing the next, natural thing that passionate, young Reform Jews did after college: go to school to become professionals in “B’nei Mitzvah factories;” waiting around, cooling our heels, and “trusting the process” without being transformed, uplifted, or substantially improved by it.

Of course, I had no idea how wrong I was at the time. And the illusion wasn’t all dispelled at once. The first glimmer came about halfway through my year in Israel when one of my Conservative colleagues asked why we wanted to be, in his words, “lesser rabbis.” It was less than a week later that I found myself sharing a striking piece of biblical interpretation that he, three years into his program, had never heard before, something I learned during orientation week at my “lesser,” Reform seminary.

This kind of professional rivalry gave me something to be defensive about, but it also gave me something to be proud of. I started to realize just how badly we needed the camaraderie, the grueling grammar lessons, and the translation practice. Before the year was over, my classmates and I were writing short essays in Hebrew, comparing our favorite Yehudah Amichai poems, and winning arguments with Israelis about which lane was the ten-items-or-less lane at the supermarket. (Okay, maybe that last one was just me.)

Since returning to the United States and studying in Cincinnati, I have continued to grow, to learn, and to develop as a person, as a Jew, and as a rabbi. I’ve even started to “trust the process” a little bit. Over the last three years, the program has exposed me to a remarkable variety of synagogues, shtiebels, and Jewish educational institutions. I’ve served as student rabbi and educator at two small-town congregations, led services for Jewish campers, and had the bittersweet task of conducting my first funeral for a beloved congregant and friend. In every single one of these experiences, I was keenly aware of the professors, the lessons—sometimes even the exact lines in my notes—that helped me acquire the skills I needed to succeed. My time at HUC-JIR has also shown me that I wasn’t just wrong about whether we could conquer the Promised Land; I was also wrong about what was out there. The “B’nai Mitzvah Factory” status quo was not nearly as ubiquitous as I imagined, and it was not something that everyone either ignored or accepted, nor was congregational life even the expected future for every rabbi, cantor, or educator.

This past year, I was among a growing number of students who participated in fellowships made possible by a grant from the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. My work at the Mayerson JCC taught me a great deal about my local Jewish community, its resources, and the relationships that exist between its various institutions. It provided me and my colleagues with an opportunity to experience rhythms of work, life, and Jewish engagement in environments as diverse as Rockwern Academy, a day school; the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue, located on the campus of a Catholic university; and Cedar Village Retirement Community, all in addition to a number of placements with local synagogues and religious school programs.

But perhaps the greatest benefit which programs like the TJF Fellowship have conferred is a chance to think about what Rabbi Dr. Jan Katzew, the director of the program, calls “the changing nature of the rabbinate in the twenty-first century.” We have begun in earnest to redefine the word “rabbi” not as indicating what we do, but rather how we do it. We see rabbis as leaders and teachers who lead and teach wherever they are—day schools, universities, summer camps, JCCs, and synagogues. Our graduates become pulpit rabbis, Hillel directors, hospital chaplains, and school principals, and none of these is a “Plan B” career path.

The landscape of Jewish life is changing considerably from what it was two or three decades ago. These changes have provided the impetus and the freedom for every rabbinical student to really ponder the question, “What do I want my rabbinate to look like?” In the course of answering that question, we choose our elective courses, we spend time learning and working with non-Jewish graduate students, we preach, we teach, we pray, and we participate in internships and fellowships.

The Torah returns to a discussion of the spies in the first chapter of Deuteronomy. Here, Moses reminds the Israelites about what happened that fateful day when they listened to the spies’ negative report and ignored the encouraging words of Caleb and Joshua. That generation, including Moses, would not cross over to the Promised Land. Indeed, the last book of the Torah concludes in anticipation of crossing the Jordan. The Promised Land, painfully near, but just out of reach. Or as Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it, המשיח שבא… הוא משיח השקר “The messiah who comes… is a false messiah.” We wait, unfulfilled. But for every Leibowitz, we have a Herzl, telling us, אם תרצו, אין זו אגדה “If you will it, it is no dream.” For every Moses, delivering his farewell address on the edge of the Promised Land, we have a Joshua, crossing the Jordan and leading the people to their new home.

Lest we forget, the Israelites who begged and pleaded to preserve the status quo and return to Egypt, the Israelites who didn’t know how to be free or how to wrest their destiny from the hands of giants, they made their choice. The task fell to the next generation. But in the end, the optimists Caleb and Joshua were vindicated. The future can seem like a scary place. And we can dig in our heels if we choose. But turning back, choosing not to go there, isn’t really an option. When we look over the horizon and we see new geopolitical developments, social media outlets, and changes in our synagogue dues systems, it can be hard to tell exactly what it is we’re looking at. Is it a giant, or is it an enormous cluster of grapes? Is it a fortified city, or is it a grove of lush palm trees?

When I began my career as a rabbinical student, it was not without some degree of trepidation. My cynicism about the future of the Reform rabbinate was a convenient cover for my real fears, fears about myself. Would my Hebrew ever be good enough? Would I learn how to sing, chant Torah, or speak intelligibly about the Bible or about Jewish ritual? Would I ever be taken seriously as a Jewish leader, or even as a “real” Jew, without an Ashkenazic background? In time, these concerns would be replaced by new ones, but every challenge I have encountered, every struggle I have faced, has shaped my path and who I am as I walk that path. What distinguishes Caleb and Joshua from the other spies isn’t simply a keener vision or an ability to distinguish which sights they see represent challenges and which represent opportunities. It is rather an ambitious faith: a stubborn, persistent belief that every opportunity is a challenge, and every challenge, an opportunity. Every opportunity is a challenge to avail ourselves of new developments to the fullest extent possible with the resources and knowledge at our disposal. Every challenge is an opportunity to overcome our obstacles, to move forward, and to learn from the experience. It is this ambitious faith that makes deserts bloom. It is this ambitious faith that transforms wastelands into lands flowing with milk and honey. May we all be blessed with it.

Noah Ferro

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *