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From Mormon Roots to the Rabbinate: One Rabbi’s Unusual Journey

From Mormon Roots to the Rabbinate: One Rabbi’s Unusual Journey

A Conversation with Ten Minutes of Torah Commentator Rabbi Benjamin H. Spratt

Rabbi Spratt and others working with a bar mitzvah student at the lecturn on the bimah

Rabbi Benjamin Spratt serves as senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, where he is also rabbi-in-residence of its school. Currently, he is the commentator for the Book of Leviticus in Reform Voices of Torah, part of the Ten Minutes of Torah series, which explores all facets of Jewish life and to which readers can subscribe. I asked Rabbi Spratt to tell us about his unusual Jewish journey and to share some of his insights into the third book of the Bible. Growing up in Salt Lake City, UT, what were some of your early Jewish experiences?

Rabbi Spratt: After my mother left home for college, her parents made aliyah to Israel and became Orthodox. When they learned that my mother had fallen in love with and decided to marry a Mormon, they disowned her.

Though I was raised in the Jewish religion, I had no real contact with the Jewish side of my family for the first chunk of my life. We received a tremendous embrace from the Mormon side, but I always had this sense that we were outsiders.

My father converted to Judaism when I was about 10, and two years later my parents flew me to Israel to meet my grandparents. I spent the entire summer there going to different camps and studying with my grandfather. I got to experience davening (praying) three times a day. Being in a country alive with the vitality and vibrancy of Judaism was deeply impactful. I went back to Israel five more times and for three months I studied in a yeshiva in Efrat in the West Bank.

By that time we were living Eugene, OR, where my parents supported my decision to live an Orthodox life, including my wearing a black hat and black suit. As time went on, I realized that the landscape of Judaism was far more complex than it had been portrayed in yeshiva and that Jewish law was not static, but an ongoing discourse flowing forward in time. I decided to pursue my own path in Judaism.

When did you decide to become a rabbi?

Having always been a science geek, while in college I began to imagine life as a biochemist. But working inside of laboratories mostly alone, I felt this pull to be with people and eventually decided to become a rabbinic student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.

In your first commentary on Leviticus, why did you choose to focus on the need for more silence in our lives?

Silence is a powerful component of life that is absent in today’s wired world. Take away our sensory distractions and discomfort descends. In silence we are forced to hear the things we so often drown out: the cries of the soul, the existential solitude, the questions of person, place, and purpose.

We need to find ways of stilling the many voices, beyond and within ourselves, and distill the delicate seeds of insight that cannot be cultivated in chaos.

How do you try to still the sensory distractions of your own life?

I allocate time every morning for meditation to make me aware that I can come back to center and to help bring to the surface some of the subtler inner realities that I would otherwise ignore. I also sit with a poem or two and focus on the spaces between the words. It’s a nice reminder that maybe the most important thing I can do is to create some space for the silence.

In one commentary, you reflect on the Temple priests cleaning up the ash pile of the burnt offerings. What does this action teach us about leadership?

A leader willing to clean up the messy leftovers has not lost sight of the realities that underpin his or her leadership. Such a leader is not disconnected from the mundane details of people’s daily lives. I think humility, rather than arrogance, in a leader is an expression of authentic confidence. Leading with vulnerability allows for more honesty, openness, and integrity.

You write, “The highest holiness is that of connectedness.” What is holy about the collective?

As one who once felt like an outsider, I have come to see belonging and connectedness as the highest holiness. It happens only when we believe that we have blessing to offer to others and are able to accept the blessings from others.

What are the attributes of an effective Jewish leader today?

An effective leader is endowed with a heart courageous enough to cultivate compassion; the vulnerability to believe that reaching, falling, and rising anew is the only path to growth; and a fervent faith that we strive toward a better day.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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