Column: Everybody needs a rabbi
What happens when we die? (My question) Why spend so much time speculating on the unknowable when instead you could be doing what’s right, he replied. Indeed.
Austin rabbi ventures on his own to reach a broader audience
Saturday, August 15, 2009
In the late 1960s, before I was born and before my parents left Gary, Ind., for western Massachusetts, my family had a rabbi. That might seem strange because my family isn’t Jewish. They were your standard Irish Catholics for that time and place. My dad worked in the steel mills. My mother stayed home with the five kids. They all went to Mass on Sundays. But for a time, part of their daily routine included visits with the neighborhood rabbi.
Rabbi August brought candy bars for the kids, a copy of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” for my mother and advice for my parents on family matters.
It didn’t matter that they weren’t Jewish. Rabbi August saw a family who could benefit from the wisdom of his religious tradition.
I suppose that’s why longtime Austin rabbi Kerry Baker’s new venture — offering his rabbinic guidance to the world — makes sense to me.
Baker, 58, the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Halev, left that synagogue this summer because he felt drawn to share his religion with a wider audience. His new Web site is cleverly titled everybodyneedsarabbi.com.
Just why does everybody need a rabbi? According to Baker, Judaism has much to say about the common struggles we face, whether it’s marriage trouble or an ethical dilemma or a desire to live a better life. To that end, Baker will be teaching, counseling and writing on a variety of topics.
Jews, he said, are called to be a light to the world, and they live that out admirably when it comes to social action — speaking out against injustice or performing mitzvot, or good deeds, for people in need. But often, he noted, perhaps because they don’t proselytize, Jews miss the opportunity to share their religious beliefs.
“Judaism is a 3,500-year-old global tradition with spiritual resources,” Baker said.
And here’s a revolutionary thought, Baker suggested while sipping a café Americano at Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery: It’s not just for Jews.
If Jews are called to tikkun olam, or repair the world, and Judaism can help people live better, Baker wondered, shouldn’t a rabbi try to share those resources with as many people who seek them?
This work fits naturally with Baker’s commitment to interfaith dialogue. For years, he has collaborated with other faith leaders not only to find common ground but to have difficult conversations about the discord between Jews and Muslims, for example, or the problematic passages in various holy books that provide fuel for extremists.
It’s not exactly conventional for a rabbi to go freelance like this, but Baker said taking risks also suits his personality.
“Looking at the arc of my career, every 10 years on the average I jump off the ledge,” he said. “This is in some ways in character for me.”
In addition to the Web site, Baker is writing two books. He’ll also have an advice column showing how folks can apply Jewish ethics to contemporary problems. There’s even a Torah yoga class in the works.
All of this, he says, helps him reassess what it means to be a rabbi and challenges him to come up with a broader definition so that he can live out that call to be a light to the world.
It’s not just the practical, everyday stuff that Baker will address. He knows people grapple with heavy-duty existential questions and doubts and fears about their own religious views. I’ll admit I spend a fair amount of time on such hand-wringing, so I asked Baker how he would handle the question that preoccupies most of us: What happens when we die?
Not surprisingly, he countered with a better question: How would the answer to that change one’s moral responsibility today?
“What is the point of this speculation?” he continued. “Since the answer is unknowable, how is it better to spend your time — speculating on the answer or doing what’s right?”
As he writes on his Web site, “Judaism teaches that spiritual truth is not only what you believe but how you live. Judaism proposes that together God and we can imbue even the simplest acts of daily life with deep significance. Judaism means to facilitate the incorporation of the divine in every human act and thought.”
That’s the beauty of Judaism. And if you’re lucky enough to have a Rabbi August or a Rabbi Baker in your life, you might already know this. For others — people who see Judaism as insular and inaccessible — Baker’s new venture will shed light on a rich, vibrant spirituality and wisdom tradition.
“It’s a huge, unknown territory for people,” Baker said. Then he grinned and added, “which is why everybody needs a rabbi.”