Non Ministrari sed Ministrare: From Wellesley to the Rabbinate

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Rabbi Heather Miller has published an article at the Wellesley College community magazine, explaining her work as a rabbi and a community leader.

The official Wellesley College motto is Non Ministrari sed Ministrare: Not to be served, but to serve.  As a Wellesley College alumna and rabbi (Jewish religious leader) responding to the needs of the community I serve, I did the following in the past month alone:

  • officiated at a wedding, funeral and baby naming,
  • led an interfaith service against violence against women,
  • spoke with my congressperson about immigration reform in solidarity with several local grassroots organizations,
  • visited with and learned from one of the first women to edit a prayerbook for gender neutrality,
  • led and preached during weekly Shabbat (sabbath) services,
  • planned a holiday play that fused the themes of the book of Esther with modern pop songs,
  • and presided on a beit din (rabbinical court) for someone who wished to convert.

All of this activity is both sacred and profoundly satisfying.  The position of rabbi in the Jewish community is a respected post rooted in a covenant of trust and intentionality, thoughtful ethical action, and appreciation for the Jewish people.

The Rabbi of the modern world needs to have two feet firmly rooted in vastly different periods– one in the deep textual treasure trove of historic Jewish tradition, and one in the contemporary world.  In this way, the rabbi can determine what teachings, customs and practices best convey the Jewish values and how to translate them to a congregation of the contemporary period.  Or, as 18th century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn described, one of the main tasks of the rabbis of the modern world is to separate the husk of tradition from the kernel of eternal Jewish truths.

What gives someone the authority to be this kind of shaper of culture?
Rabbinical school.

The graduate program that future rabbis attend is called rabbinical school.  I attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)– an institution that considers itself 1/3 graduate school, 1/3 rabbinical seminary and 1/3 technical training school.  Attending a program like this gives a person, after approximately 5 years of training, the authority to be the kind of shaper of future Jewish life known as a rabbi.

So, what happens in those magical 5 years?

Rabbinical students gain appreciation for, and facility with, the scope of the Jewish textual tradition.  They become proficient in Hebrew and Aramaic- the languages of the majority of ancient Jewish texts. They gain an understanding of the breadth of the textual tradition (with classes in various textual genres) by wrestling with it– pouring over the texts with study partners, asking probing questions, and learning what insight various commentators have provided over the centuries.  Students gain an appreciation for the depth of rabbinic thought as they learn the tools and methods of how to delve deeply into various foci of their choice.

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