As Rabbi Mark Mahler fields questions about his coming change in career status, he’s reminded of an old saying:
“You should retire when the congregation is asking, ‘why?’ rather than ‘when?’”
Regarding the latter, his retirement as senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills in Mt. Lebanon is effective July 1. He has held the position since 1985, with his 33 years longer than any other active rabbi in the Pittsburgh area has served his or her synagogue.
“For me, I’ve felt that I have maintained my abilities. But neither did I want to reach a point that my abilities would be perceptibly ebbing away,” he explained. “That said, knowing me, I would be the first one to sense that.”
At age 71 as of March 20, Mahler continues to be as active as ever at Temple Emanuel. For instance, he continues to participate in or lead the music at every Friday night service, included playing guitar for the synagogue’s Kol Emanuel Band.
Congregation members will remember his Music With the Mahlers, the trio he had with his son Moshe and daughter-in-law, Lacey, for about a dozen years.
“I composed much of the music that we would do,” the Rabbi said, noting that one song in particular, based on Psalm 133, really has caught on at Temple Emanuel with the lyrics: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together in unity.”
One of Mahler’s passions is the study and teaching of the vast library of Jewish sacred texts and wisdom literature. He is working on a book that updates the Halacha, which represents the practical application of the 613 commandments that can be derived from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.
He explained how that functions:
“Three times in the Torah, it says, ‘You shall not seethe,’ meaning cook, ‘a kid,’ a baby goat, ‘in its mother’s milk.’ So what the Halacha has done is interpret that over the generations so that Jewish dietary laws of keeping kosher separate eating milk and meat.
“That’s an example of how a commandment in the Torah is taken and interpreted, and made practical over the course of the centuries of Jewish history,” Mahler said. “Judaism is alive, and as such, it evolves.”
He actually started writing the book in 1996, “and I quickly wrote 100,000 words” before the departure of an associate rabbi led to him devoting a greater abundance of time to Temple Emanuel matters. When Rabbi Jessica Locketz joined the staff as director of education, Mahler was able to pursue his writing more thoroughly.
“I took another crack at the book, telling myself: You’re going to have to edit. You’re going to have to cut that,” he said. “And I found myself writing another 20,000 words.”
Yes, as the multitude of volumes on the bookshelves of his office will attest, the subject of Jewish law is quite extensive.
Mahler joined Temple Emanuel in 1980, two years after his ordination at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. At that time, he and his wife, Alice, moved to Mt. Lebanon and have lived there since, and they plan to continue to do so after his retirement.
An interim rabbi will lead the congregation starting in July, and a search committee is tasked with finding a new senior rabbi.
“There have been moments inherent to a relationship between a rabbi and a congregation that have tension,” Mahler said. “But I don’t think those moments define my rabbinate at Temple Emanuel.
“The congregation and I have been through thick and thin together, and when I say, ‘thick and thin,’ I don’t mean political issues,” he continued. “As a rabbi, I am immersed in some of the saddest and happiest moments of people’s lives. And that has been the basis of my relationship with the congregation.”