The Forward Falls Behind…Again

Last week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced a policy change, stating that they would no longer refuse admission to qualified rabbinical students who were married to or in long-term domestic relationships with individuals who are not Jewish. (Here’s the press release.) RRC was characterized as the first such institution to make a decision like this; I suppose this is true, since IISHJ, where I am a student, has never had a policy precluding admission of rabbinical students married to or in relationships with non-Jewish partners. So we’ll call RRC the first to rescind the prior, exclusivist policy.

This week, The Forward has run an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, decrying RRC’s decision. Over in Humanistic Judaism World, we’ve had our fun poking at RRC for thinking itself first, and now at The Forward for getting bent out of shape. But I think it’s a good time to 1) blog again, and 2) actually address some of Eisner’s arguments, since Conservative and Reform clergy have started to make statements in support of Eisner’s missive. (Warning: logical fallacies are laid bare ahead. Also, if you think intermarriage is bad, you’re really not going to like what I have to say.)

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I’ve discussed before my thinking about rabbinical education: too expensive, and sometimes too removed from the needs of a community and ordinary Jews.

In the “Orthodox” world, too, there appears to be some interesting recognition of this problem, and there are attempts to address it. has one such thing, a Mastery in Halakhah and Semicha program, which focuses on the halakhic issues that surround day-to-day challenges of Orthodox Jewish life from a halakhic perspective: kashrut, Shabbat, niddah, etc., even some discussion of the basics of financial laws in halakhah.

I’m not endorsing the courses (or, for that matter); I haven’t taken any of them, and have no plans to do so. (I’m busy enough as it is, and it’s not as though I’m an ideological fellow traveler.) But it’s an interesting program by all appearances, can end with some form of semicha (it’s called “Orach Chaim” semicha), and is (until the semicha year) co-educational.

So, in its way, I think this is an encouraging thing–assuming rigor (and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be, under the circumstances), it may be an interesting model for training rabbis going forward.

I recognize that in the liberal Jewish world, we’re a bit more credential-minded, in a way; we look for accredited college educations, academically rigorous graduate degrees, etc., along with ordination. But it may be time–particularly given the needs of Jewish communities still reeling from the effects of reduced membership and financial contribution after the 2008 financial crisis–to consider something different.

Because make no mistake: communities are already moving in that direction.

Member Poaching Item 1: Rabbinical Roles

So, here’s the first post in the promised series. (I’ve always wanted to say “First Post!” So here it is. 🙂 )

Some months back, I read an article in The Forward titled Online-Ordained Rabbis Grab Pulpits, that discussed non-traditional alternatives for obtaining rabbinical ordination. I had previously considered rabbinical school shortly after graduating college, but didn’t follow through on it for a variety of reasons.

Traditional rabbinical education, as the article in The Forward lays out, is very expensive: four years of college, plus between four and six years of full-time academic + pastoral care education, frequently amounting to at least a master’s degree-level graduate education and then some. As one of the rabbis in the article describes it, he has a $100,000 wall of diplomas.

And wow, is that a problem. Why?

The article that gave rise to this series (see Series alert: member poaching and pay-as-you-go synagogues) details the response of a Long Island Jewish community structure to start-up synagogues, at least one of which has a part-time rabbinical model. That allows for lower dues and pay-as-you-go “services.” That’s a threat to many established Jewish organizations.

It seems to me that it shouldn’t be, if the organizations have the best interests of their constituents–individual Jews–at heart. Not everyone wants or will be well-served by the traditional, $2000-or-so-per-year membership model, and many are driven away by that model. But the model sustains and justifies the long, expensive version of rabbinical education, because the education isn’t affordable for many students unless the salaries at the end are great enough to pay the student loan bills.

It seems to me, and probably many others, that one of the ways to pull apart the dependency of the institutions is to reduce the cost of creating Jewish clergy who, for better or worse in the modern world, are rabbis.

And we can probably do a lot to reduce the cost of the education if we recognize what “rabbi” means for those outside the world of “Orthodox” Judaism.

Certainly, a rabbi is a teacher in most Jewish contexts, traditional or otherwise. And in congregational and other settings (chaplaincy, educational, and likely even administrative), a rabbi is an advisor. But for those who are not “Orthodox,” a rabbi is rarely a halakhic advisor, and is certainly not a halakhic advisor on the level that “Orthodox” Jews require.

So why require the same training? Yet that level of training is often what traditional denominational programs (even Reform seminaries) create, or come very close to. Certainly we need rabbis trained in traditional texts to some degree and in the breadth of Jewish history and thought; but do we need poskim? I’m not sure.

And thinking about the history of rabbis, I’m not sure the part-time model with a less expensive education is actually completely outside the mainstream. Full-time Jewish clergy are a modern, Western invention, and the educational institutions for rabbis match that model. Perhaps it shouldn’t anymore–or perhaps we should at least recognize distinctions.

It’s in this context that the occurrences on Long Island most concern me. The response of the broader Jewish community to the start-up synagogues fails to recognize that we may need more models, and more ways of getting there, to sustain the Jewish community and create environments that don’t only make available, but make attractive, retaining Jewish identity in the ways each Jew is most comfortable doing so.

The Jewish Week’s story about a specific community’s reaction to new models may show that we’ve got a long way to go if communal organizations attempt to stand against those new models; and that’s the tail wagging the dog.