May 21, 2008
A transdenominational leader for a borderless world
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Even God may not know what to make of Gottlieb’s eclectic teaching.
“We had to leave the Garden of Eden because there was a disharmony as a result of eating from the Tree—a new consciousness, a new duality occurred,” Gottlieb said.
It is a sunny California morning and the tall, lanky dean, wearing a sky-blue button-down shirt that matches his startling blue eyes, is teaching a class called “Psychospirituality.” Eight students sit in rectangular formation in this third-floor classroom, located in the UCLA Hillel Building in Westwood, where 65 students attend the rabbinical, cantorial and chaplaincy program three days a week, Sunday through Tuesday, many of them from as far away as the Bay Area and Arizona.
“This is a blessing, this eviction from the garden,” Gottlieb continues. “We struggle from these opposites—this brings forth creativity,” he says. Although “many of us yearn to go back to the garden,” i.e., to a safe place without challenges, “you have to sever your attachments to ego in this world.”
Gottlieb’s lecture jumps from the text (Moses leaving Pharoah’s house) to a Chasidic parable (about Rav Nachman) to psychology (“the volitional affirmation of the obligatory”) to spirituality (“Many people would rather suffer in this world than risk the unknown, which might contain more suffering”), to mythology (“the heroic journey means giving up the secure place”). Along the way, students interject, question and comment, leading to an aside about denominationalism and a practical application to the day’s teaching.
“How do you take the God within yourself and say, ‘I am loving?’ Crisis can bring that,” Gottlieb explains. “That’s what this story is about. He was not connected to [his feminine] side, then realized through suffering how to love and be more conscious.”
Gottlieb is one of many teachers to blend psychology, spirituality and social work into his Torah teachings.
“Let’s meditate on the meaning of the bracha,” Rabbi Mordechai Finley says about the blessings of the “Shema” prayer. Finley, professor of Jewish thought and former provost and president of AJR-CA, sits among his students in this same small study.
After analyzing the “Shema”—and why the Reform movement might have mistakenly taken out some of the blessings—Finley concludes, “God is beyond language.” He encourages these future Jewish leaders (many classes contain combinations of rabbinical, chaplaincy and cantorial students) to move people beyond language to spirituality, using words of Torah.
“Even in fellowship [things] can go bad if you don’t have the language of Torah to mediate interaction,” he says.
Finley, who has been teaching at the school since its inception, is the leader of Ohr HaTorah, his own transdenominational synagogue. A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform movement’s graduate school, Finley and his wife, Meirav, founded the synagogue in 1994 after investigating all the movements and finding “we weren’t a good match for any of them,” he said.
They liked the Reconstructionist approach to Jewish law, but not their conception of a personal God. They were too traditional for Reform, not traditional enough for Conservative, and besides, Finley loved teaching chasidut.
“I don’t think people are consciously transdenominational,” Finley said in an interview, noting that if they like the clergy and the congregation and they find the synagogue’s program meaningful, they’ll join. “If the local synagogue fits those criteria and it’s Reform, they won’t not join because they are post-denominational.”
Finley loves the “intentional post-denominational” atmosphere at AJR-CA. “It’s a great thing for an academy—for faculty and students.”
Not everyone is taken with the idea of postdenominational rabbinic schools, however, particularly those who want to see the furtherance of the denominations.
“There are benefits that are available when one is affiliated with a movement, given the structure of American Jewish life,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, which trains rabbis, cantors, chaplains and Jewish educators. Ellenson said that when Jewish leaders affiliate with a movement, they “become a part of the larger fabric of the entire movement,” and they contribute to “the vitality of the Jewish community.”
There certainly is strength in numbers, and a graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU, or the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania may have resources and connections that a transdenominationally ordained rabbi may not.
While a transdenominational ordinee will be suited to finding a job outside the pulpit, such as a Hillel educator or teacher, finding a pulpit job at synagogues affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements might be challenging. (Orthodox synagogues only hire rabbis from Orthodox rabbinic schools.) “That’s not what we found,” Gottlieb said in an interview.
In the Deep South, for example, 34 percent of the 336 congregation (excluding Florida) do not have rabbis, a 2002 study by the Institute for Southern Jewish Life found.
“There’s a shortage of professionals—there are so many congregations that don’t have rabbis,” Gottlieb said.
Some of those congregations might have begun as lay led, or don’t have enough funds to affiliate with a movement, or may have people with varying beliefs.
“They don’t want to worship ideologies, they want to be doing what they want to do.” Gottlieb said.
That’s exactly how many AJR-CA students feel. Robert Bonem, who will be ordained next week with a thesis in “Steps Toward Dance as a Jewish Spiritual Practice,” researching the history of dance in Judaism, is going to continue his work as a Jewish educator at various schools and working as a life coach.
“I see advantages in each of the movements—I think they each have good things about them,” he said. “It’s hard for me to say even for myself, ‘One movement is the right one.’”