יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות.
–Joshua ben Prachya said: “Make a teacher for yourself, get yourself a companion, and judge every human being on the side of merit.” (Mishna Avot, 1:6)
כל המלמד בן חברו תורה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו ילדו.
–One who teaches another’s child Torah is regarded by the tradition as one who gave birth to the child. (bSanhedrin 198b)
It has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben ‘Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? — He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn. (bBer 62a)
The ritual of עשיית רב acknowledges that it is not solely in the study of Judaism’s sacred literature that a person might be in need of a Rav. Especially when we are undergoing radical changes in our lives we often find ourselves with questions about matters both simple and profound that we would ordinarily be too embarrassed or self-conscious to ask. Most people implicitly understand this fact about adolescents, and there are many people who naturally find themselves stepping forward to occupy the place of mentor in a young person’s life, but it is easy to forget that adults too go through such formative periods of change, and are sometimes in need of someone to whom they can say, “It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.”
This is a ritual for individuals going through an intensely emotional transitional experience in their lives, one that will profoundly transform their sense of identity and the way they relate to others. Its inspiration comes from careful consideration of my own experiences going through gender transition. It seems that a lot of our life cycle rituals are too focused on marking a transition as a point in time and not focused enough on ensuring that the individual undergoing transition has access to the kind of support structure they need to grow into the new roles they are undertaking in life. This ritual therefore serves as a way for a person going through such a process to designate a mentor or mentors to help guide them through their transition, watch out for them, and help them learn some of what they need to know to comfortably grow into their new identity.
Before the ritual the person for whom the ritual is being performed (henceforward “the subject’ or “talmid”) should work with their rabbi or spiritual advisor to find a suitable mentor or mentors willing to help them through their time of transition. Mentors should a.) have life experience appropriate to advising their talmid on matters relevant to their transition, b.) be generally mature and emotionally stable c.) have a personal connection with the talmid and a willingness to be available as a support and a mentor.
The first part of the ritual should take place someplace relatively private. A rabbi’s study or a synagogue meeting room is ideal. The rabbi should welcome the talmid and the mentor and invite them to sit down. Everyone should take some time to talk about the nature of the changes in the talmid’s life, what she is excited about and what she is anxious about, and what she hopes to learn from the mentor. When everyone is comfortable, the rabbi opens as follows:
Rabbi: In Pirkei Avot, it is written: עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות. “Make a teacher for yourself, get yourself a companion, and judge every human being on the side of merit.” (Talmid), as you enter into a new period in your life, with new challenges to be met and roles to be filled, you have chosen to heed the advice of Joshua ben Prachya by seeking out (Mentor) as a mentor, to learn from her Torah and benefit from her experience. In the traditions of our people, the relationship between teacher and student is very deep and significant. In the Talmud is recorded a saying that one who teaches another’s child Torah is regarded by the tradition as one who gave birth to the child. (Mentor), by entering into this relationship you are agreeing to help (Talmid) know what she needs to know in order to fulfil her new role in life, to bring her into the community of her peers, to support her as she steps forward to meet the challenges of her developing identity and to respect the boundaries between you. Do you understand? [Space for affirmation] (Talmid), by entering into this relationship you are agreeing to receive instruction from (Mentor), to show kavod for her Torah, to benefit from her experience and to respect the boundaries between you. Do you understand? [Space for affirmation]
If either of you feel the need to define any further aspects of this relationship in order to ensure the mutual trust and security required for learning, now is the time to discuss them.
[Space for discussion]
As for myself, I stand in witness of this relationship of teacher and student, and promise to support you both in your new roles to the best of my ability. I now invite you each to affirm your new relationship to one another in language drawn from our tradition:
כי לקח טוב נתתי לכם, תורתי אל-תעזבו
“For I give you good instruction–do not forsake my teaching.” (Prov. 4:2)
תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך / צריכה
“This is Torah, and I must learn.” (bBer 62a)
The second (optional) part of the ritual would involve the talmid receiving an aliyah in order to publicly affirm the new role she is stepping into, ideally with the mentor present to introduce the talmid to the congregation. This part of the ritual should of course be omitted in the event that the transition in question is of a personal nature or would cause undue embarrassment.
Finally, some thought ought to be given to marking an end to the mentor/talmid relationship. At some point in every transition the most intense period has passed and the individual has more or less adjusted to their new place in life and their community. The talmid and mentor should seriously consider marking this occasion with a siyyum of some kind, for example by jointly sponsoring a kiddush to honor the distance the talmid has come in their personal development.