When I told my grandfather this summer that I wanted to become a rabbi, I expected he’d be excited about it. I wondered which of my relatives he’d call first to kvell about how proud he was that I wanted to devote my life to the continuity of our people. But right when I said the words, he turned to me cantankerously and said, “What are you? Nuts?” Hardly the delight I was expecting. He’s since come around, but just last week at Thanksgiving dinner, my aunt earnestly asked me, “Why don’t you want to do something more…fun? Like law, maybe, or real estate?” I guess that’s what passes for fun in some circles.
In the past few months since I’ve made the decision to pursue rabbinical school, I’ve heard a wide range of responses to it. Though most of my relatives, friends and acquaintances are for the idea, a substantial number are not. Some people seem to think it’s a joke or a waste of my potential, as if the rabbinate were some frivolous pursuit. Others suggest that I’m limiting myself exclusively to a small group of people or to the study of ancient, irrelevant texts.
Many more don’t know how to respond at all. Religion can be a tremendously uncomfortable subject, particularly between two individuals of different faiths. For those steeped in the language of tolerance and multiculturalism, it’s sometimes awkward to discuss religion without stepping on anyone’s toes. And a huge proportion of people, particularly in our generation, don’t have any use for spirituality whatsoever— or they can’t find meaning in an organized faith. For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure of how I personally connect to God or if I connect at all. That’s at least part of why I’m going to rabbinical school.
In high school, many of my friends weren’t religious, but the few who were felt that people judged them for being devout Christians. They said most of our friends excused my interest in religion since being Jewish carried with it a sort of mystique, but looked at them as if they were crazy and retrograde. In some ways, I’m beginning to understand how they must have felt. Religion often feels like something of the past. Not many people talk about becoming clergymen and women in the 21st century, and indeed it can sound a little crazy. Even the word “clergy” sounds old fashioned. And “rabbi” sounds old country.
But the judgment I’ve perceived is not just because I plan on becoming a man of the cloth.
The reality is, if I said I was planning to go to law school that would carry its own set of baggage and stereotypes. From certain people I could expect rolling eyes, comments about slim job prospects or maybe some snide remark about lawyers. Take the business school senior who, when asked about her plans for next year, says: “Well, I got a job with Goldman, but I’m only gonna stay for a few years before I do my own thing.” Or the education major who feels compelled to constantly joke about how he’s not in it for the money. Or more poignant still, take the unnamed University senior who hasn’t the foggiest idea of what he intends to do next year and says he plans to travel or take time off.
It’s a common chorus, particularly for those of us in our last year at the University. Judgment abounds as we publicly ponder our futures, and from time to time, the voices around us become voices inside our heads. This job won’t be lucrative enough. That career might seem too self-serving. This choice won’t get me where I should be in 10 years. It sounds a lot like choosing a college. And just like college, our careers will only be exciting or meaningful if we make them that way. Fortunately, as future University alumni, we have that luxury.
While the judgment I face may be about my faith as much as it’s about my career choice, fundamentally, both forms are judgments on my beliefs and ideals. As we try to figure out what steps to take next, it would probably behoove us all to figure out what we actually believe before we take the leap. We need to block out all the other voices and ask ourselves: Do we live to work or work to live? And what is the point of living, anyway?
Maybe you’ll never answer those questions, or at least not right now. But it’s worth taking a study break to ask them.
Matthew Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.