I’m officially sort of a rabbi now (in a way)

I sort of became a rabbi this afternoon… while pushing my son on a swing in Golders Hill Park.

The faculty of Leo Baeck College has a three-way machloket (dispute) about the precise moment at which fifth-year students become real grown-up rabbis. One school of thought says it happens at our actual ordination ceremony, which will be on Sunday 3 July. Another says it happens when our ordination certificates are signed, which will happen a few days before that.

And some say it happens when Leo Baeck’s board of examiners makes the formal decision to ordain us – and that decision was taken at a meeting this afternoon. Hooray! Palwin no 11 all round: I was officially told: ”You may now use the title Rabbi, even before ordination.” At least according to one camp…

Pre-ordination Leo Baeck students tend not to speculate about the correct answer to this conundrum, and instead self-identify as an “Erev Rav”, which is a sort of pun.

In the meantime:

There’s a rather niche tradition for rabbis to choose an object as a crest. The Talmud tells us that Rav would draw a fish on offishal documents (see what I did there?) instead of signing his name; Rabbi Chanina would draw a date palm; and Rava bar-Rav Huna would draw a small sailing boat.

This sort of rabbinic semi-heraldry is mildly interesting in and of itself. Rashbam suggests that its basis is as simple as the fact that Rav liked to eat fish and Rabbi Chanina liked to eat dates. But later commentators invest it with a deeper meaning. The Maharshal (who one of my teachers once described as “someone who said what he thought and didn’t care who disagreed – a bit like Gabriel”), writing in the 16th century, argues that, actually, Rav would always by the best possible fish as a way of honouring Shabbat, and he chose as his rabbinic crest the item he used to beautify a mitzvah. In the 18th century, the Ya’avetz thinks that the date palm was a poetic reference to Psalm 92:13: “the righteous shall flourish like the date-palm”.

So what about me?

I’m a sucker for largely-abandoned traditions, and I’m a little bit of a flag/ heraldry nerd too. So I set myself thinking about what I should nominate as my symbol.

Ultimately, I’ve chosen an ox goad.

For those of you who haven’t seen an ox goad in real life (as if!), it’s a wooden stick with a sharp metal point on one end – used to encourage oxen to do their job – and, at least in Mishnaic times, a hoe or blade on the other end to remove tough roots and other obstacles.

What does this have to do with me?

Well, firstly, one of the words the rabbis use for an ox goad is קַנְטָר – kantar. It bears a striking resemblance to my surname.

But, moreover, just like in English, the object lends its Aramaic name to a verb, לְקִנְטֵר. And, just like in English, that verb l’kinteir means ‘to goad’. To chide. To vex. To be a contrarian or to make oneself disagreeable.

Now, you might be thinking, “That sums you up pretty well young man, but why would you want to draw attention to that side of your personality?”

And my answer is: look how the verb is used by the rabbis. It’s used for Mordechai in his steadfast, deeply principled refusal to comply with Haman’s demands for a bow. That, the midrash says, was an example of him קִנְטֵר-ing a corrupt and idolatrous regime. It’s used for the prophet Micah chastising an unscrupulous Israelite people (likewise Isaiah, Kohelet, Amos and Jeremiah). It’s used for Princess Michael resisting her aggressive father. It’s used for Rabbi Yochanan ben-Nuri, who rebuked his friend Rabbi Akiva and was praised for doing so. It’s even used for God sarcastically needling members of a sinful society.

In one particularly fascinating midrash, Rabbi Yehudah bar-Shimon argues that true prophets use creative prayer as a way of קִנְטֵר-ing God for God’s cosmic unfairness and irascibility.

There’s nothing wrong with קִנְטֵר-ing.

Even on a more mundane level, the Mishnah refers to an implement called a קַנְטָר שֶׁל בַּנַּאי, a kantar shel banai, literally translated as a builder’s pointy-stick-thing-that-they-use-to-pull-down-walls-with. Crucially, though, this demolition tool is for the use of builders. The act of building something new includes the act of scraping away anything unhelpful that was there before.

As I prepare to begin work at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, I remember my teacher Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah’s book Trouble-making Judaism. Rabbi Elli persuasively outlines how modern Judaism should be “creative, irreverent, engaged and crossing of boundaries”.

Inspired by her writings and seeking to emulate her example, I am adopting the ox goad as my rabbinic crest, this depiction having been produced by the talented Carys Tait:

Peace out and keep on goadin’!

3 comments

  1. Mazel tov! Wonderful news. And lovely story around the crest – I do love a good homage to a mostly-desuete tradition.

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