Photo Credit: Harvey Rachlin
Harvey Rachlin

A rabbi can be one of the most important connections a Jewish person has between the physical and spiritual worlds.

A rabbi who fosters a real love of Judaism, who offers perspicacious insights for a more meaningful existence, who comports himself righteously, and who has a warm and welcoming demeanor can play a central role in the religious life of his congregation, be a rock to others, and help guide the local Jewish community.

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So what attributes do you look for in a rabbi?

Having moved around quite a bit through the years and been a member of sundry shuls, I’ve come to know numerous rabbis – some who have had a strong impact on me, and others who left me feeling less than overwhelmed.

I’ve learned that though pulpit rabbis all have basic roles, they can be as diverse in their calling as they are in their personalities.

Likewise, we react to rabbis in ways that are intrinsic to us as individuals, based on our upbringing, personality, family, religious and secular education, religious and secular life, expectations, needs, and other factors.

I like to think I’ve learned what’s important to me in terms of this pivotal figure in Jewish religious life. I’ve encapsulated my personal feelings into ten qualities I look for in a pulpit rabbi.

  1. A rabbi should have a wealth of Jewish knowledge

This really should be a given but, alas, is not always the case.

There is much a rabbi needs to know as a religious leader; put another way, a rabbi is expected to know everything about all things Jewish.

Rabbis should be able to discourse on a wide range of subjects within the realm of Torah and Jewish life – the myriad commentaries, the Hebrew language, Jewish history, holidays, customs, traditions, and politics.

Congregants can be quite savvy and possess voracious intellectual appetites for Jewish topics, and my experience is that they expect their rabbis to enlighten them with a scholarly command of subject matter and breadth of Jewish knowledge.

  1. A rabbi should be a teacher

As the word “rabbi” literally means teacher, it is only natural to expect a rabbi to be a skillful communicator of Jewish knowledge and affairs. He should be able to adroitly interpret and relate scripture readings to make them relevant to congregants’ lives. He should be a compelling conveyor of whatever subject matter he is teaching. He should be able to lucidly and comprehensively answer congregants’ queries.

Some rabbis are natural-born teachers, and when a rabbi avidly embraces his role as moreh with enthusiasm, and relates information and opinions with alacrity and zeal, congregants will react positively to him and eagerly imbibe the fruits of knowledge he has to offer.

  1. A rabbi should inspire

Leading a congregation should be synonymous with inspiring faith and a deeper connection to Judaism. Indeed, congregants come to shul wishing to be energized, wanting their fervor for Judaism to reach new heights. A rabbi serves to encourage his flock’s commitment to Judaism and to cultivate learning, religious practice, and belief.

From sermons to classes to formal speeches, I’ve seen dry and I’ve seen passionate, and it is obviously the latter that rivets the listener. When the rabbi is excited or emotional about a topic, the listener feels it. Sermons should be interesting and inspiring, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing gifted rabbis take boring topics and make them seem like they are of earth-shattering importance.

The key to making subject matter come alive is in the delivery: emotion, intonation, pitch, volume, rhythm, expression, gestures, enthusiasm, articulation, personality. When the rabbi deftly blends these ingredients into a dynamic mixture he may be able to engage, if not shake up, his listeners, leading them to an even fuller, richer Jewish life.

  1. A rabbi should be sincerely religious

A rabbi who is merely a practitioner of ritual can inspire derision and disillusionment among the very people he is charged with leading. A rabbi should be a paradigm for proper religious conduct but, sad to say, there are rabbis whose observance stems from habit and rote rather than deep inner conviction, and rabbis whose moral and ethical behavior gives the lie to the image they work so hard to project.

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Harvey Rachlin, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is an award-winning author of thirteen books including “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” which was adapted for the long-running History Channel series “History’s Lost and Found.” He is also a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.