Advising Independence

There is a paradox to being a Humanistic rabbi. On one hand, we are heirs to a legacy of Jewish learning, wisdom and authority. As such, people rely on us for guidance and advice, insisting on referring to us using our titles. On the other hand, our philosophy of Humanistic Judaism encourages each person to direct their own life, to define their own values, to create their own sense of meaning and purpose. At our best, Humanistic rabbis are authorities without being authoritarian, which can be a challenging line to straddle. The balance can be even more complicated when we try to guide people to find their own directions.

When I applied for my first full rabbinic position at age 25, I was asked how could I help people deal with the challenges of life given my age. It was a fair question: I was unmarried with no children, my parents were all alive and fully independent, I had never bought a house or even my own new car. I was not even ordained – that would happen the next year! How could I possibly counsel couples getting married, parents grappling with children and money and adult life, adult children dealing with aging parents, or anyone facing the pain of loss and grief? I offered two answers: “I’m getting older as fast as I can,” and “One of my most important jobs when helping people is just to listen – to be a caring ear and shoulder and embrace, to offer support and encouragement. If I can find parallels in my own experience or what I have learned about life through reading and listening, that can be helpful. In the big picture, though, my job is not to tell them what to do; it is to help them figure out their options so they can choose for themselves.”

Twenty years after my ordination in 2001 (see ordination address below), I certainly have much more of my own life experience to draw on, with my own teenage children, bought and sold houses, mourning a parent and making it through 19 years and counting of my own marriage with our own unique challenges and triumphs. And twenty years of rabbinic work also provides a wealth of insight into the human condition. Rabbi years, with all of our contact with death and loss and marriage and life, are a bit like dog years, worth multiple years of ordinary human life. If nothing else, gray hair and a beard add a bit of gravitas if that is what people are looking for.

With all that, I still see my job as pastoral counselor the same way as I did at that job interview – to listen, to support, to encourage, to uplift, and most important to empower. It is your life, not mine, and telling you bluntly what I would do will not help you steer your own ship. If I can provide a new perspective to understand the challenge, motivation to face it, and encouragement on your chosen path, then I have met my goals on your way to meeting yours.


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to Advising Independence

  1. Elyse Pivnick says:

    A fine report after 20 years. I admire your work as a rabbi.

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