The Observant Life: Two New Rabbis React

RABBI CATHARINE CLARK and RABBI JEREMY FINE react to The Observant Life

by Rabbi Catherine Clark and Rabbi Jeremy Fine

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Rabbi Catherine Clark:

Study is greater [than action], for it brings one to action.” In his section on Torah study in The Observant Life, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond quotes Kiddushin 40b as one explanation of Torah li-sh’mah, studying Torah for its own sake. In this understanding of Torah li-sh’mah, we study to increase observance of mitzvot. As I embark on my journey as rabbi in a new community, regular Torah study will add to my life as an observant Jew and spiritual leader. The more I know about the mitzvot, the more empowered I am to fulfill them and lead my congregation in observing them.

But, as Rabbi Diamond points out, greater observance is not the only value to Torah li-sh’mah. Study also connects us to God and is a source of joy. Since ordination, I’ve been studying VaYikra Rabbah, the fifth century midrash on Leviticus, with my study partner. Each time we learn together is a delight. Each chapter of VaYikra Rabbah contains precious insight into the nature of God and the divine-human relationship. Each chapter also says something – whether about the matriarchs or how to ask a favor – that brings a smile to my face.

Of course I want to continue the divine inspiration, intellectual stimulation and human connection that Torah study brings to my life. As a new rabbi, however, I know my schedule will be full. Two inquiries also addressed by Rabbi Diamond suggest a solution. He asks, “How much Torah study?” The answer – make Torah study keva, at a fixed time. My weekly calendar will block off time for study. He also asks, “What is Torah?” For me, Torah includes what I’ll learn from my congregants. Their lived experiences – as Jews, Canadians, parents, children, business owners, nurses, teachers, and learners – are Torah, Torah I can’t wait to learn.

Rabbi Jeremy Fine:

Rabbi Craig Scheff, in his chapter, Synagogue Life, writes, “The synagogue is expected in theory to be guided by the values and laws of the Torah both in planning its day-to-day affairs and in seeking to attain its long-term goals.” I believe Rabbi Scheff ‘s comment is not just true of a synagogue but also of its members. Our job as rabbis is to become guides who enable those Torah values and laws to become practical. This is conducted in two ways. The first is through our teaching and preaching. It is our words of Torah taught in classes, spoken from the bimah, and given during hospital visits, that will guide the day-to-day life of our constituents. But it is our public adherence to these laws and values that ideally will result in a renewed long-term commitment to observance from our communities.

The observance of a rabbi is not only to live a life for oneself but to live as an example for others. If we, as rabbis, do not live Torah-driven lives then we can never expect our communities to do the same. Our observance needs to be something that we confidently feel is the correct way a Jew should be living. Our actions in public spheres are supposed to provide, even on a small scale, a realistic path for others to walk.

I think one of the beauties of Rabbi Scheff’s chapter is that there is no one correct way of accomplishing observance. Each city, community and individual brings about different challenges and obstacles. By witnessing the example set by the rabbi each individual understands that through optimal observance he or she has a greater potential to reach God.

Rabbi Catharine Clark was ordained in May by the Jewish Theological Seminary where she received the Cyrus Adler Prize. She is the rabbi at Or Shalom in London, Ontario. Rabbi Jeremy Fine was ordained in May by the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the assistant rabbi at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota.