“…I think that hazing is a natural part of defining any group. And I don’t know why. But there’s not a profession or a career or a group out there that, on some level, doesn’t have some ritual in which the new member is either tormented, or tortured, or beaten, or humiliated.”
That’s This American Life’s contributing editor Jack Hitt, speaking on the opening of the episode: “First Day.” In listening to this episode, one of my favorites by the way, I think about how we are never truly taught about what first days will be like. We are never told, outright, you’re going to make mistakes, not just the mistakes because you don’t know what you’re doing quite yet, but the mistakes of trying to fit in too soon, trying to pretend you know more than you do, trying to bite off too much to impress those around you, trying to do things before you understand the culture. No one tells you that you’re going to step on landmines, 100% you will step on them. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are at a job, or in life, you’re going to step on a landmine or two, and it’s going to shake you to your core, and completely derail your confidence, and your goals.
In the rabbinate, when a young rabbi gets advice from an experienced rabbi, they might as well be speaking Chinese. The young rabbi cannot possibly understand what the experienced rabbi is trying to tell them, not having to do anything with smarts or intellect. An experienced rabbi can say something like, “don’t let that get to you,” and don’t get me wrong, they mean well. But the young rabbi hasn’t experienced 20-30 years of nonsense to be able to internalize that kind of statement. Rather, it will get to the young rabbi, the same way it got to the experienced rabbi 20-30 years ago.
Experienced rabbis, because they are experienced, have thicker skins, have seen the worst of the worst, and can then judge their interactions based upon a scale that they have built. When they attempt too impart this “wisdom” upon the young rabbi, it is impossible to transfer. Imagine Michael Jordan telling a new basketball teammate, “do what I do.” Well sure, that’s a nice idea Michael, but that’s not the way to coach, it’s not the way to teach, and it’s impossible to follow those instructions. Even if you know the fundamentals of the game, even if you’ve studied and watched videos, and stayed up late thinking about it, you haven’t experienced it yet.
This is an important truth to impart upon young rabbis, or new members of any position, but it must be done correctly. Far too often in our line of work, or in others as well, the experienced worker tells the young worker, “you’re too young to understand this;” “a more experienced person would’ve handled this differently.”
This method of speaking to someone, this misguided attempt to teach is the worst kind of hazing one can experience, short of pranks pulled at their desks. It rips into the heart of the young individual, pulling out their vulnerabilities, their self-consciousness, their insecurities and steps all over them. Is it true? Maybe. But isn’t there a better way to convey that? And isn’t there a chance you might be wrong?
The worst part about this act of hazing, is that a young rabbi cannot convince the experienced rabbi that they are hazing. The experienced rabbi shakes their head, and says, “rookies.” How proud they must be to have experienced the hazing 20 years earlier and survived, and now, like the first time an army sergeant gets to step on the shoes of a private, takes great pleasure in watching them in pain, watching them on their backs trying to get up like a turtle or beetle.
We’ve all experienced it. We all see this particular aspect of life paid forward: the hazing, the humiliation, the torture, the condescension, the feelings of superiority, the calling them arrogant and stupid, and reminding them how small they truly are.
I guess I just expected more in a field which positions itself so close to God.