Today’s interview kicks off a four-week series on vocation. Over the next four Thursdays, Diane Millis, interviewer from the Lives Explored video project, will sit down with leaders from various faith traditions to discuss the concept of calling as explored in Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016). In this first installment, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi, discusses vocation through the lens of Jewish thought and describes her own journey to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a peacemaker.
What is the concept of calling in Jewish thought?
If you were to ask the Jew on the street, that person would probably say, “We don’t have that concept. That’s a Christian concept.” It’s true that Jewish tradition has not developed a sense of calling in the same way as the Christian tradition. The strongest sense of how God calls and commands the Jewish people is as a collective. The strongest sense of how God calls and commands the Jewish people is as a collective: to the Israelites in biblical times and then onward through history. The way we are to discern what God wants of us is through God’s communication to the whole Jewish people through the Torah. So to that extent it would be correct to say that Jewish tradition doesn’t have a notion of individual calling.
But when you start looking more deeply you see that, while in the formal sense prophecy ended with the biblical prophets, the tradition makes it clear that people are still listening, watching, and attuning themselves to the divine. They are engaged in a regular process of purifying the heart and mind in order to be open and ready to receive—to live into divine revelation that’s already been given collectively, to answer the question “How am I supposed to be true to that revelation?” and in some cases to be open to a particular direction that God may give.
You have to look more closely to find the individual sense of mission or calling in the Jewish texts, but it is there. One example from the Hasidic mystical tradition is the concept of shlichut, which means agency or mission, from the word “to send.” The language of sending in the book of Isaiah says to God, “Here I am. Send me.” So this language speaks to each person having a particular shlichut of something that they’re sent toward.
How have you discerned your shlichut over the course of your life, through the different callings within your larger calling to your rabbinate?
As I look back now over 30 years, I’m aware that there have been three interconnected periods, all related to listening—even though I never set out deciding that I wanted to create a rabbinate based on the practice of listening.
After my initial call to the rabbinate, the call into chaplaincy happened. I didn’t yet have a conscious practice of listening for God’s voice in my life, but when a job appeared in a synchronistic way, it got my attention. I said, “It’s pretty obvious that that’s the job that I’m supposed to take,” which is secular language for talking about calling. That led to over ten years of working in chaplaincy, hospice work, and the Jewish healing movement.
At a certain point I started to feel signs of burnout. By then I already had a spiritual practice of paying attention and attending to what was moving inside. I realized there was a quiet calling to step back, give my soul a rest, and see what would happen next. Spiritual direction showed up, which led me into another ten years—this time focused on helping to introduce the practice of spiritual direction into the Jewish community.
When I was directing a program to train Jews to offer spiritual direction, my husband and I went to visit my stepson who was spending a year in Israel as his gap year between high school and college. We went to Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace), a town located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that was created in 1976 by a Roman Catholic priest (who had been born Jewish) as an experiment in coexistence. Its purpose was to explore the reality of Jews and Arabs living in community together. Within the town was a renowned institution called the Neve Shalom, the School for Peace, which had an international reputation as a scholarly center doing high level conflict resolution work and training with reference to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Their signature program was a three-day dialogue coexistence program for high school juniors.
The day that my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Neve Shalom—call it synchronistic, call it divinely-led—happened to be the first day that a group of teenagers had arrived, and we got to watch through a one-way mirror. I had a powerful physical experience of being riveted to the floor and not wanting to leave that place. After we left, I realized this was the content of the revelation that I had received: “Roll up your sleeves, and make yourself of service for the cause of peace.”
That revelation has led me into work in interfaith dialogue around contentious and polarized issues within the Jewish community, as well as into work on behalf of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers on the grass roots level. Now I’m involved in the Pardes Rodef Shalom (Pursuer of Peace) Communities Program. This program invites synagogues to think about what pursuing peace means, in terms of how they build community with each other in the face of differences and inevitable conflicts that arise when people are creating lives together.
By then I had prepared myself to be able to listen for God’s direction in a more explicit way, and I experienced that as an explicit call from God. At first I felt nervous talking about this calling with some Jewish audiences, imagining that some Jews would find it peculiar. But it was clear that the way to live out this call was to pursue it with authenticity, and I’ve tried to do that.
For more from Amy, watch her Lives Explored story and the companion videos for the new book from the Interfaith Perspectives on Vocation seminar, Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016).