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Free Range Rabbi

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In the weeks before I was ordained as a rabbi, my husband Peter asked: "What will you say when people ask you what kind of a rabbi you are?"

What did he mean what kind? What was I supposed to say?

So I told him: "A rabbi who works wonders and miracles."

"People don't always understand your humor," he said. "You should have something real you can say," he told me.

I recalled reading to my daughters: "'Real isn't how you are made,'" said the Skin Horse to the Velveteen rabbit. "'It's a thing that happens to you. ... It doesn't happen all at once ... You become. It takes a long time.'"

The 15-year-long process of becoming a rabbi in a radical feminist context had mattered so much and had been so complex. As for the product, I needed more time.

"People will ask," Peter insisted. "Don't be a smarty pants. They will ask if you are Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, or Renewal."

I'm uncomfortable in all of them. Isn't that what everyone thinks these days, that denominations are beside the point?

"No one will ask," I told Peter.

At services the next day a friend asked me what kind of rabbi I would be. I asked her, "What do you mean by 'what kind of rabbi?'"

"You know," and she gave me the same choices Peter had given me, and then one more: pulpit rabbi.

Joel Salatin's Polyface farm is not far away from here. When people talk glowingly about his chickens and eggs, they always intone, "Local, organic, free range." That was it! A free range rabbi. Freedom from the constraints of all the old definitions of what rabbis are and can do. Full of possibility.

My friend thought I was kidding. Was I?

That night, I Googled "free range rabbi" to see if it was taken. My browser asked, "Do you mean, 'Free range rabbit?'" No, I didn't -- but I could see this wouldn't quite work.

At the library, I spied a book called "Rabbis: The Many Faces of Judaism: 100 Unexpected Photographs of Rabbis with Essays in Their Own Words."

I flipped through. There were important rabbis, chief rabbis, but also all kinds of rabbis. There was a surfing rabbi, a comedian rabbi, a recording artist rabbi, Israeli tour guide, a rabbi in a fireman suit, in camouflage and in the military; a detective, a first responder, bomb squad rabbi, an FBI rabbi who did karate (I knew him back when he was calling himself the wilderness rabbi. Actually he had just friended me on Facebook and now he is the restless soul rabbi and he's into publishing). There was a yogi rabbi and a one with a drum, the kind who invites people to stand in a circle, hold hands and breathe.

There was a Jerusalem rabbi with a long white beard -- he was the tzitzit (ritual fringes) tying rabbi. In the morning, he, prayed, ate, studied, sat in his shop and tied for two hours, just as his father did before him. He had lunch, a good nap and came back for just two hours more, tying, selling. Not much selling, because there weren't so many customers any more. I felt drawn to him: like many of my colleagues at the University of Virginia who teach in the humanities and see our class sizes dwindling, his lot sounded familiar.

Nothing I saw really fit. But at least I was doing what rabbis do: they look around, to see what Jews are actually doing.

I ran into Kelly at the library. "It's not enough to be a rabbi," I told her, "You have to declare what kind of a rabbi you are. " Kelly saw that pushing against the available constraints was getting me all worked up. She said, "Just be a good rabbi." I thought of Glinda, the good witch of the north who protects the munchkins. I could be the good rabbi of the south. The Jews are also a small people. But I am not really southern, and all rabbis are supposed to be good.

I shared my dilemma with my friend Deborah as we took a walk. I might not need a definition just yet, but others did, and it mattered to them. I was beginning to understand: To dismiss their question was to dismiss them; it closed a door. A rabbi shouldn't close doors. Deborah told me, "You will be MY rabbi." I could be Deborah's rabbi. I cannot tell you how honored I was by this possibility. And now I finally had an answer to give.

Deborah is a philosopher, so she was already working out a syllogism: "If you are my rabbi, then I am your ... your what? Not your congregant; rabbis with congregants have buildings and more than one member. Your Jew? Your flock? Ah! You are my rabbi, and I am your people. You are the rabbi of the people of your life..."

I could literally sit under my fig tree on Saint Anne's road, put out an extra chair and wait for Deborah to walk up the lawn, and I would be her good rabbi.

A few weeks went by and I was finally ordained. When I was a rabbi of not even one full day, I was having glass of wine with colleagues at an academic conference. They asked, "What will you do now that you're a rabbi?" They presumed correctly that I would keep my day job; many rabbis of the past did too. There was Rashi managing a vineyard and Maimonides, a practicing physician.

I thought of Glinda, the good witch telling Dorothy that she had the resources to complete her journey, she had them all along. In the novel, they are not ruby red slippers. "'Your silver shoes,' said Glinda, 'will carry you over the desert...If you had known their power you could have gone back ... (the) very first day.'"

Ah, but what Dorothy learned along the way. Now that I was a rabbi, I would do what I had done all along as a teacher and guide in rituals. I would "uphold and interpret the sacred traditions of the Jewish people." And now I had a document that declared that I did this as a sage and teacher, a rabbi. I didn't need to learn to surf or join the FBI.

"Yeah," one colleague said, "my wife became a rabbi, and she does a world of good. Do good." The other added, "Now that you're a rabbi, people will tell you secrets. They want you to hold their secrets." I made note of this. In the weeks following, I was asked to preside at Jewish weddings, interfaith weddings, to consult with a new Jewish think tank, and to confer a Jewish blessing at our community's MLK interfaith ceremony. Rabbi Tom Gutherz of my congregation had told me that this would happen, that people would tell me what they needed me to be for them. I should pay attention. I am trying to do that.

As I grow into being a rabbi, as my community designs me, I hope I will be worthy of the honored title; I hope I will spread to spread the light of my tradition wherever I went in the world. This was my grandfather's charge to all his family: our job, beyond our day job, our holy job, was to shed light according to our talents.

Inspired by the upcoming holiday of Purim and the Book of Esther that is read that day, I thought of this wish for myself, for anyone who is in the process of designing themselves and being designed:

May we all be privileged to design ourselves into vessels that shed light, joy, happiness, and honor in our days.