In my second year of rabbinical school I had the opportunity to attend a three day inter-seminarians retreat in California. There were men and women in attendance studying to be rabbis, priests, ministers, pastors, and imams. We conducted services for and with each other, we studied together, we ate together, and in the wee hours of the night, when the formal programming was completed, we talked together. One of those conversations I remember particularly well. It was with a group of young men who were studying for the Catholic priesthood. I was with two other students studying for the rabbinate. They (the Catholics) wanted to know from us (the Jews) how we had been ‘called’ to the rabbinate.
It took us a bit of time to unpack what they meant, which was that they each felt ‘called’ to the priesthood through some kind of religious/mystical vision or experience they had had. In one case, a young man had been lying in bed on his back when a cross appeared above him, floating in the air. Looking back, I remember that the conversation was a frustrating one. The Jews could not understand what the Catholics were talking about. Frankly, it all sounded a bit like mumbo-jumbo to us. But at the same time the Catholics found it inconceivable that we were studying to be religious leaders and had not had a life changing experience that pointed us in that direction.
Over time my stance on the sharp distinction between the soon to be priests and rabbis has softened a great deal. I have the fortune to be spending the week studying at the Rabbinic Training Institute (fondly called ‘rabbi’s camp’ by participants) this week, a fabulous 5 day retreat for Conservative rabbis from around the country. In class this morning we were discussing the Book of Leviticus, surely every rabbi’s bane in terms of sermonic material. Our teacher argued that the (or at least a) primary concern of Leviticus is finding a way to make God immanent in the world. The sacrificial cult described in the text is set up to prepare individuals and their community for the arrival of God’s actual presence. Is the sacrifice properly prepared? Is the community in the appropriate state of ritual purity to engage in the required rituals? Is the individual? If so God’s presence may break into the human sphere and we have something that Carl Sagan called ‘contact.’
The question came up in class: are we, as humans, ‘called’ to seek God’s immanent presence, to work in some way to create space for God to come into our world? I would argue that we are. The call comes most often from the mystery that we sense in the world around us. We can medically and biologically describe what happens when a baby is born, but the mystery and majesty of that moment call to us, and God’s presence is felt. We might say much the same about the sunrise, the stars in the sky, the soft rain of summer, the deep sharing with another we love. In these moments we are called, perhaps not to the clergy, but to a holier life, and a deeper understanding of what makes us human, and of what makes the Divine.