Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Joy of Engineeringhood

Thursday July 4, 2013

The Joy of Engineeringhood

For a big part of my professional life, whenever I was asked the mundane, inquisitive and particularly American (and offensive in some cultures) question of “What do you do?” my typical answer was “engineer”.

This was usually the safest answer for a career that has spanned multiple industries, roles and disciplines, most of which had little if anything to do with “engineering”. The truly curious would then prod and ask what type of engineer, to which I answered “Mechanical”. Most were satisfied with the more descriptive answer. Others, still not satisfied, prodded further. If I was feeling particularly extroverted, I would explain what I might have been doing or working on at the time, whether it was pushing a new constitution for Israel, opening a café, developing a new wind turbine, running a nanotechnology startup, trading commodity futures or any of the many sundry things I’ve been involved in. Otherwise, I would go with “consultant” which was vague enough to cover periods of unemployment, periods where I wasn’t sure myself what I was doing, and everything in between.

However, now I have arrived to a country that truly appreciates engineers. Let’s start by explaining that for some reason, I have encountered a very high percentage of engineers in the Jewish community here. There is something in both the training and thought patterns of engineers that makes it much easier for one to communicate with the other. To commit the sin of overgeneralization, there is a certain practical, scientific, problem-solving way of looking at the world. We can do without all of the fluffy introductions, side-tracking, philosophical inanities and other distractions of human interaction and get straight to the point. Engineers can say to each other in two sentences what others can take two hours to debate – and accomplish much more.

Of course, I am highly biased, but nonetheless have always loved bottom-line, get-to-the-point discussions with fellow engineers, where we reach understanding and move forward with whatever subject requires our attention.

The second difference here is that “Engineer” is a title of distinction akin to “Doctor” and is used formally in the beginning of people’s names. “Attorney”, “Accountant” and other professions receive similar distinction. Therefore, my formal title here is Rabbi Engineer Ben-Tzion Spitz. And it has proven to be a great boon. Most people seem thrilled by the idea of a “Rabbi Engineer”, never having met such a combination before. It has immediately raised the standard of the office and people now come to me with plumbing questions, amongst all the other classic Rabbi queries.

It is wonderful that a word that is so connected to a person’s sense of self-identity should receive such instinctive positive feedback. It is truly a joy to be in a country and a culture where the answer “I’m an engineer” is held in such honor and where one can easily find others who understand, value, appreciate and can interact easily with an “engineer”, as opposed to it being an almost meaningless answer to people merely seeking to slake their mild curiosity and then move on with little comprehension of what an engineer is.

To highlight this “coming out of the woods” feeling, I’ll share a story from many moons ago. I was close to graduating from Yeshiva University. The yeshiva part had decided to launch a program to provide advanced Talmudic and Jewish law learning material and a framework for people pursuing further professional academic work. There was a strong showing of medical students and an equally strong showing of law students at the inaugural meeting. I was the lone engineer. The responsible Rabbi went into great detail as to all of the medical ethics issues that the future doctors would cover. He gushed over the plethora of legal material the future lawyers could chomp on. I politely raised my hand and explained that I was studying engineering. The Rabbi looked at me in incomprehension, as if I had spoken some alien word, as if I had fallen from another planet. He then curtly explained that there is nothing in the Talmud for engineers and that they had no program or even thoughts of a program for someone with my choice of profession. More than twenty years later, after having browsed through the Babylonian Talmud at least once, I still take special pleasure every time I realize how abysmally wrong he was. Perhaps one day I’ll organize such an academic program, though there are multiple organizations that are successfully bringing engineering skills to issues of Jewish law and multiple institutions in Israel where engineers and Jewish law coexist quite productively.

Ironically, and what brought this whole topic to mind, this morning I had a doctor’s appointment in a local hospital (a positive experience to recount another time) and the doctor asked me what I did. I paused for a fraction of a second and then, for the first time in my life, answered simply: “Rabbi”

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