As part of Metro Pulse’s ongoing discussions with local religious leaders, “Questions of Faith,” we present Knoxville’s newest rabbi, Matt Michaels.
Name: Matt Michaels
Title: Rabbi, Temple Beth-El
Thoughts on Faith: “If [a] faith system doesn’t dictate how you live your life, then it doesn’t serve it’s purpose.”
How does a Jewish rabbi come up with his sermons? Rabbi Matt Michaels once found his on a Christian church’s marquee.
“I saw on the marquee, ‘The religion that ain’t no good on Sunday ain’t no good on Monday,’” he says. Michaels figured that was the title of the pastor’s sermon that week, and really liked that idea. He called the next Monday to see how it had gone and was shocked to find out the church secretary was in charge of putting aphorisms on the marquee—and that they had nothing to do with the pastor’s sermons at all.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s a golden thing! That’s going to be my sermon title for next Friday night!’” Michaels says.
And that’s the rabbi’s main idea: Religion and faith isn’t something that you experience once a week—it’s a way of life.
“If that faith system doesn’t dictate how you live your life, then it doesn’t serve its purpose,” he says.
Michaels has recently taken over the post of rabbi at Temple Beth-El after spending the past 20 years in Texas. He’s still in the get-to-know-you phase of his involvement at Beth-El, he says. He’s only been here for three weeks. But after leading large Jewish communities in the Houston area, the small-town feel is a change of pace.
“Your involvement is more appreciated and your absence is more apparent. So you’re missed,” he says. “In [large communities] nobody calls you if you don’t come to a service for a couple weeks or if you don’t come to an event. If you want to be invisible, you can be invisible. Here, if you don’t come for a couple weeks, someone calls and says, ‘Is everything okay? I didn’t see you last week at services.’ People aren’t taken for granted.”
Michaels grew up in Los Angeles as an active member in a Jewish community. His mother was an executive director of a synagogue, so he knew about the nitty gritty day-to-day duties involved in running the show. Originally, Michaels planned on going into law when he started school at UCLA. But around his junior year of college—when you start making serious decisions about your next steps in life, he says—Michaels realized he could do something for a living that brought him joy.
“I had always wanted to go into law,” he says, “[But] I thought about what it was that really got me going. I’d been working all through high school and college in the Jewish community—part time things. Youth leader, youth director, camp counselor, that sort of thing”
When he realized he could be doing something he really loved professionally, he applied to Hebrew Union College. While in school, he got some experience at the pulpit that steered him away from his original intent of working with camps, and more toward leading a congregation. He says he derived the most joy in being part of people’s spiritual journeys.
“As a rabbi, my role is to help [people] move from their point A to their point B. It’s their journey, and I’m there to facilitate that,” he says. “It’s being part of people’s lives at significant moments for them.”
His first sermon at Beth-El was about the multiple ways people come to Judaism.
“For some people, worship is what attracts them, and that’s their entrance. For others, it’s adult education, and others it’s through their children and religious education. Others, it’s through community involvement—that’s how their Judaism is expressed. Or through the social aspects,” he says. Michaels compares spiritual journeys into Judaism to entering the physical building of Beth-El.
“There’s more than one way in,” Michaels says. “Whatever your starting point, it’s fine with me. My goal overall is to build on those starting points.”
Michaels is no stranger to living in small or predominantly Christian cities like Knoxville, and isn’t afraid to address differences in beliefs.
“Everybody doesn’t do everything the same way, and that’s okay!” he says. “The fact that the vast majority of people in Knoxville are not Jewish is not a new concept. Jews have generally been a minority in a community. But they’ve been a creative force and a contributing force in a community. That should always be the case. My goal is a matter of people treating other people with respect and with a sense of dignity regardless.”
As people become more mobile in the world and interact more often with others who hold different beliefs, Michaels says there’s a greater need for understanding among different faiths. In the past, he has spoken with Christian groups about different traditions in both faiths, including head coverings in religious services. Christians, he notes, remove hats out of respect when they go to church, while Jews—and Muslims—put hats and head coverings on as a sign of respect.
“So here you have two opposite actions for exactly the same reason,” Michaels says. “Different doesn’t mean better or worse, or right or wrong. Different simply means not the same. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
But the message Michaels wants to send to the community about his faith is not one based on differences; it’s based on commonality.
“Judaism is more than just a religion, it’s more than just a culture. It’s a way of life. It’s an approach to daily living, and this is true in any faith system... It’s how you determine the values and ethics by which you live your live. Judaism offers a road map for how that’s done.”