This past week, The Jewish Daily Forward published an article entitled, “Online Ordained Rabbis Grab Pulpits.” This article profiles several synagogues who, in this difficult economic climate, have chosen to hire rabbis who were ordained by online, non-traditional seminaries which very few are familiar with and whose qualifications for ordination differ quite significantly from those of established rabbinical schools throughout the United States.
The article cites the economy as the overarching factor driving these decisions, but also notes that for these synagogues and others who are taking or considering taking this path, the depth of the rabbi’s learning is not as important to them as it perhaps once may have been.
As a lay person, albeit one who has contemplated entering the rabbinate, I find this to be quite troubling. Although I wholeheartedly support expanding the access to traditional smichah for individuals who are unable to relocate to attend rabbinical school, coupled with hands-on training in synagogue administration, pastoral skills and the like, I am unsettled by the seeming ease with which these shuls are hiring rabbis whose credentials are questionable at best. Indeed, the article explicitly notes that the heads of these “quick-route seminaries” state that their graduates are not necessarily prepared to engage in pulpit work.
I believe that the underlying economic issues that the article addresses are of critical import and ought to be explored more deeply. However, I am more troubled by the seeming nonchalance with which the rabbi’s depth of knowledge of the Mesorah (tradition) is viewed. As someone who enjoys and is deeply committed to Jewish learning, I want and very much value rabbis with whom I can learn Talmud, or delve into the weekly Torah portion beyond the pshat or simple level, or even learn some Jewish mystical or Chasidic works.
Further, it is important to me to know that there is someone I can turn to in my community when I have questions regarding Jewish law or practice. Having the ability to learn Torah with rabbis and others is a tremendous privilege and blessing and enables me to feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for my Judaism. Saying that we just don’t have Talmud questions, in my view, removes the possibility or even the ability for people to engage with the foundational texts of our tradition if they have no resource to begin doing so.
We are heirs to a tremendously rich tradition of text, and at the heart of this, I believe, is the question of the relevance of our tradition in our modern lives. I believe that our tradition is intensely relevant, and that it is our great responsibility and privilege to grapple with our texts, lay people and rabbis alike. In a time in which opportunities for Jewish learning and spiritual growth are proliferating, I want to see more and more Jews feel empowered enough to truly take hold of Torah.
If we begin devaluing learning in our rabbis in favor of less costly candidates, where will that leave us as a community? We should be empowering individuals to create communities of learning and practice, whatever that means for any given community.
The learning and personal preparation that goes into ordination is immense. As someone who has had the privilege of studying with and befriending numerous rabbis and rabbinical students, as well as cantors and cantorial students, I got a much better and broader perspective on this issue. Many do not realize that beyond mastering the Mesorah, rabbis and cantors have to have mastery of numerous other practical skills in the areas of educational pedagogy, pastoral care, officiating lifecycle events and many more.
How can we properly deduce that a given candidate has this grounding if the requirements for ordination do not match those of traditional seminaries? Just as we thoroughly vet our doctors, lawyers, and others, we should be ensuring standards for our clergy, which, as the article notes, was one of the impetuses behind founding the major rabbinical schools in the United States.
It is very important to note that there are rabbis and cantors who receive ordination privately from respected teachers and institutions, and I think that the ability for people to do this is a very good thing and is not in the same category as what is discussed in this piece.
I am curious to know whether or not this is an issue in other faith communities? In the age of I-everything, in an age in which one can find online congregations which attempt to be full-service, are clergy who are ordained online just an extension of this, or is this something that we really need to think through more intentionally?