Dr. Rabbi Brian Read Wrong

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Those of us ordained as rabbis by HUC-JIR in May of 1998 received an email on February 3, 2023. The email was to tell us that the seminary would send a more detailed email by February 10 with details of the 25-year ceremony, to be held on May 4, 2023, in which the college would be granting us honorary doctorates in divinity.

Was it a bit silly that the email on February 3 told us most of the details of the email they would send on February 10?
Yes.

But bureaucracy happens.
It’s not trauma.

And it reminds me of the joke—“A Jewish telegram: Start worrying; details to follow.

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The only thing is I didn’t get the February 3rd email.

I received a different email.

I got an email from the school’s new director of alumni engagement introducing himself and telling me that he would like to talk.

Five years of rabbinical school taught me that “I’d like to talk” isn’t good news.

His email is a bit ominous: “… in the process of consideration for the honorary degree, I wanted to learn more about you and your work since leaving the college.”

I’m getting vetted?

I’m getting vetted!

I ask some of my colleagues if they got this email.

Just me, it seems.

Really?  I’m not going to make the cut of those awarded an honorary doctorate on what grounds? How are they going to put it? Will they even need to explain their thinking?

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You might imagine at a certain point I’d be so used to Jews telling me that what I’m doing isn’t Jewish enough that I wouldn’t care.

I haven’t.

It still hurts.

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I put on my most affable demeanor for the zoom chat.

I thank the man working remotely from Minnesota, telling him that in a sense, this conversation is a dream come true: “I always thought it was odd to just receive an honorary doctorate for a quarter century of life, as opposed to receiving it based on my works. Our talk gives me the chance to earn it.”

I believe it while I’m saying it. That’s enough.

The conversation is pleasant-ish. My animosity does slip out when I tell him how I found it odd working at a brick and mortar synagogue, hired as an expert by the board of directors who then told me what I was supposed to do.

I don’t know if he sees this as a veiled jab at the school’s board of governance asking him to vet me.

In an awkward retreat, I say, “I don’t know your familiarity with the founding principles of the Reform movement. The way I see it, I’m championing liberal Judaism’s most central message—empowering adults to have autonomy over their spiritualigious lives.”

We talk about my seven years after ordination spent teaching high school math, the newsletter, the books I’ve published, and the services I run on Saturdays.

He asks, “How many Jews, would you say, attend your gatherings?”

“Josh, I don’t count,” comes out of my mouth, followed by, “It’s not like my colleagues have signs outside their services JEWS ONLY. And I prefer to call my gatherings services.”

He acknowledges, “My question might have been poorly stated.”

Yeah. Might have been.

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A few days pass. It’s late Friday afternoon. I knead 11 cups of flour, water, oil, and eggs into what will become nine mini challah loaves I will distribute to neighbors for the sabbath.

I pour myself a tall White Russian and, in succession, call my friend Hera and my friend Suzanne.

Both are intimately familiar with the school and my work.

Each champions me, letting me know the good company being slighted by the college.

My french horn teacher and my friend Betsy stop by, and we break into a loaf of fresh, hot egg bread and some PNW IPA.

By dinner time, I’m almost loose enough to be alright with the slight.

Knowing that the alcohol will lead me to snore loudly, I opt to sleep in the guest bedroom.

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Saturday morning, when I wake to do the last of the preparations of the Saturday Service—the one that Jews and others attend—I regret the amount I’d consumed.

A walk with the dog and a delicious smoothie later and I’ve mapped out what I think will be a nice flow to the service.

It goes well.

I introduce Yerkes-Dodson law—that the relationship between enjoyment and stress is a bell curve—too easy, not fun—challenging, most fun—too challenging, not fun.

The group and I talk about it, and I introduce a categorical outlier to the curve: compassion and spiritualigious growth—challenging, not very fun.

Loving people right isn’t always easy, and it’s hardly ever fun.

The service goes well until 8:40, and I’m not certain where to lead the group.

I take a few seconds to scan the faces of those in attendance.

“Folk, I’m going to preach to the choir, for a bit. Not that you need to hear a message. It’s more that I need some support.”

And I tell them about the school’s investigation into me as part of “the process of consideration for the honorary degree.”

As one might suspect, they are very supportive.

“What you are doing is meaningful.” “The school is threatened and you ought to take it as a compliment.” “I’ll  buy you the velvet stripes to attach to your robes.”

It’s delicious balm for my soul.

Until Carol states, “I think you are interpreting it that way—you are reading into their email to you.”

She persists that I should look at their email again and see if in fact they were telling me what I am doing isn’t Jewish enough or I was imagining it.

“Couldn’t be,” I say as I look for the offending correspondence while running the last minutes of the service.

And then I read it.

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“Oh, fuck me,” I exclaim to the group. “I was wrong. I completely read into what they wrote. It was unconscious. They were, it looks like, just trying to learn what I’ve been doing. No judgment.”

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If you want to watch the moment of my realization, click here.

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I’m humbled.

I read something that just wasn’t there into what they wrote.

Maybe that’s what they were thinking, but I don’t know that!

It’s a mistake.

No shame.

Mistakes happen.

But I do call Hera and Suzanne in my attempts to undo the damage that my mistake caused.

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How often dare I think this happens?  

That I misread the intention of someone else’s words.

<gulp>

Or that I am misunderstood by someone else?

<gulp>

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Looks like I’m going to NY to pick up my honorary doctorate in May.

And, no, I’m not asking anyone to call me “doctor.”

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With love,
Rabbi Brian

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