Author Archives: Michael Kress

Michael Kress

About Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of

The Changing Face of the Rabbinate

The second half of the 20th century saw more change in social mores and roles than the world had seen in centuries. Together with the unprecedented affluence of post-war America and the choices and opportunities that came with it, few established institutions and social systems emerged from the period unchanged. The rabbinate is no exception. No Jewish denomination Judaism has seen the rabbinate emerge totally unscathed from the social transformations of late 20th-century America. 

Women Rabbis

Though the question of women in the rabbinate was formally raised in the Reform movement as early as 1922, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s, as feminism spread and growing numbers of women sought education and careers outside of the home, that the idea took flight.

When the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College opened in 1968, it became the first seminary to admit women. In 1972, however, the Reform movement became the first to actually ordain a woman, Sally Preisand. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was ordained as the first female Reconstructionist rabbi two years later. In the Conservative movement, where allegiance to traditional notions of halakhah (Jewish law) remained stronger, the issue proved more contentious. In the late 1970s the Jewish Theological Seminary discussed, studied, and ultimately decided to postpone a decision on women rabbis.

In 1983, the question was raised again, and this time Conservative leaders voted in favor of ordaining women. The decision proved so controversial that some rabbis left the movement and founded an alternative seminary and communal organization, the Union for Traditional Judaism. Nevertheless, 18 women entered JTS in 1984, and in 1985, Amy Eilberg became the first woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi.

The Orthodox movement remains the only major denomination with a male-only rabbinate. The question of Orthodox women in the rabbinate, however, is not entirely moot. With Orthodox girls in many communities receiving a Judaic education on par with their male counterparts, and Orthodox women pursuing advanced degrees and careers in everything from medicine to academia, some Orthodox rabbis and leaders have called for women to be ordained as rabbis as well, including the Los Angeles-based rabbi Yosef Kanefsky and the well-known Orthodox feminist author Blu Greenberg.

The New Rabbi

If there’s any constant in Jewish life, aside from Torah itself, it may seem to be the role of the rabbi. Spiritual leaders in a lineage stretching back to the earliest days of Judaism as we know it, rabbis have always been the teachers and scholars who instill in Jews knowledge and commitment and ensure the continuity of Judaism itself. A long beard, a head buried in a book or peering out from the bima, he–for, throughout history, they were only men–is the face of Judaism, the embodiment of Torah and love of God.

A job description that never changes, right?

Not so fast.

A Juggling Act

It’s true that these traditional responsibilities remain at the heart of a rabbi’s job, but as with so much these days, the life of a rabbi has become a complicated juggling act. He or she–since all but the Orthodox movement ordain women today–must also play the role of politician, marketing expert, administrator, fundraiser, salesperson, and financial-management guru, as well as personal spiritual guide, therapist, and interfaith ambassador.

Even the traditional clerical roles–teaching and preaching–have grown more complex. "Paternalistic," "lone-rangers," and "hierarchical" are some of the words scholars today use to describe the way rabbis worked under the former model of religious leadership.

These days, however, unquestioned authority does not pass muster. A growing number of American Jews no longer see traditions, organizations, institutions, or even highly certified leaders as inherent sources of authority. They refuse to be bound by categories of the past–such as denominational labels–and instead seek their own personal spiritual paths, drawing from whatever and wherever they find inspiration.

And while these trends are especially true in the non-Orthodox denominations–Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist–even some of the most traditionalist, cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are affected by them in some, albeit less blatant, ways.

The Spiritual Marketplace

Part of the individual focus of religion is the blurring of traditional denominational lines and boundaries. Conservative and Reform synagogues may both have instruments on Shabbat, while Reform services are employing more Hebrew than in the past.

Moreover, an increasing number of synagogues and minyanim are cropping up that intentionally shun denominational membership. Even among the ultra-Orthodox, where allegiance to tradition and fidelity to rabbinic leadership is the highest, modern life has affected the rabbinate, in part thanks to the Internet, which has opened every rabbi’s decisions or proclamations to be dissected, discussed, and opposed far beyond the cloistered walls of his own community.

Some have referred to this new reality as the "religious marketplace," where individuals go "shopping" for the faith or denomination that fits them best–or, more likely, the various pieces of different faiths or denominations that they then cobble together into their own individualized religious practice, often with little regard for the traditions or denominations in which they were raised.

In this "consumerist" model, rabbis must be able to lead their congregants along a highly individualized spiritual path, guiding them without being too heavy-handed, leading congregants to their own conclusions about belief and practice while keeping them in the fold.

At the same time, many Jews’ reduced sense of obligation, especially among the non-Orthodox, means that rabbis are often competing with kids’ extracurricular activities, stressed-out parents’ relaxation time, and any number of other pursuits that eat away at Americans’ shrinking amount of down time. And rabbis must do this while also handling the day-to-day demands of congregations, which continue to function as spiritual homes, community centers, schools, and safety nets.

Transforming Seminary

To prepare rabbis for this changed world, rabbinical seminaries across the denominational spectrum are stressing as never before the role of rabbi as professional. Today’s rabbinical students are taking classes in nonprofit management and professional development. They are focusing on the personal spiritual journey through meetings with mentors and internships in hospitals and other pastoral care settings, and engaging in interfaith dialogue with their counterparts at Christian and other seminaries. And in a major departure from past rabbinic training, these students are learning how to lead a new, more member-centered congregational community.

In the past, rabbinical schools were places for serious Jewish learning, where students focused on mastering texts rather than how to fill the rabbi’s role. And while traditional learning may retain its central place in seminaries, rabbinical schools today stress like never before the practical aspects of being a rabbi, including delivering sermons or divrei Torah, often aided at least in part by acting or public-speaking coaches; pastoral counseling, for which trained clinicians are tapped; and financial and organizational management, drawing on teachers from the business world.

This change is more obvious in the non-Orthodox seminaries, but it is evident even at some Orthodox schools, where text learning retains its centrality even as these new roles are emphasized.

As a result, today’s rabbis are accomplishing more and more in their communities through lay people’s involvement and empowerment–shared learning and spiritual experiences rather than top-down rabbinic authority. More shuls are looking to lay leaders for decision making, offering small-group services that cater to different needs in the community, or even restructuring their sanctuaries to reduce the divide between rabbi and congregation.

The Upside

The loss of rabbinic authority and emphasis on personal spirituality may make the job harder, but it also means that congregants care–deeply–and are highly engaged in religious learning and serious about their practice. This reduces the divide that may have existed between rabbi and congregant in the past, when rabbis often felt they were leading a passive congregation not looking for personal transformation.

And while the Internet may open up every sermon and rabbinic decision to dissection and dissent, it also means that any rabbi can find followers and influence people around the globe to an unprecedented degree, by posting sermons, divrei Torah, holding classes, or otherwise engaging in rabbinic activities online. Interestingly, Orthodox rabbis, such as those affiliated with outreach-centered groups like Chabad and Aish HaTorah, have been most adept at capitalizing on the opportunities opened up by the Internet.

The Jewish community has also seen a newfound emphasis on education in recent years, opening up new professional opportunities for rabbis to reach people in ways other than from the synagogue pulpit. Day schools are proliferating, congregations are hiring informal educators and family educators, and even communal or social-action organizations–like the disaster-relief group American Jewish World Service–are running educational programs often staffed by rabbis.

The challenges, however, remain great. The potential for burn-out is massive, as rabbis work harder to retain congregants’ interest and lead them in highly individualized paths, while also, in many cases, running day-to-day operations for the synagogue, playing a role in budgeting and fund-raising, leading and/or teaching in the Hebrew School, and, of course, maintaining traditional roles of counselor and lifecycle-ceremony officiant.

But perhaps the greatest challenge to today’s rabbi is the emphasis on individual choice at the heart of the spiritual marketplace model. Empowering each individual congregant, the rabbi runs the risk of becoming a mere cheerleader and empowerment coach–the polar opposite of the previous, hierarchical model of the rabbinate.

The balance, of course, is to be found in the middle, where the best of rabbis lead congregants on their individual spiritual paths while skillfully setting the tone and guiding them in a specific direction. It’s a tight-rope act, but one that few rabbis today can escape.

The Modern Noahide Movement

Meet Jim Long. A documentary filmmaker with striking blue eyes, Long recites blessings in Hebrew before eating, peppers his conversation with Hebrew phrases–a "b’ezrat Hashem" (with God’s help) here, a "baruch Hashem" (praise God) there–and keeps a household that is, to the untrained eye, traditionally Orthodox. Only Long is not actually Jewish, nor does he have any plans to convert.

Instead, Long and his wife Carol are part of a small but growing movement known as the Noahides, or B’nei Noah–the Children of Noah. It’s a life based on, or starting from, the so-called Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noah, the Seven Commandments for the Children of Noah. Derived from the Book of Genesis and elucidated in the Talmud and other traditional texts, the laws are, according to Jewish tradition, incumbent on all humanity. Though sometimes phrased and ordered differently, the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noah are: (1) Do not worship false gods; (2) Do not murder; (3) Do not steal; (4) Do not be sexually immoral; (5) Do not eat a limb removed from a live animal; (6) Do not blaspheme; (7) Set up a court system.

To Noahides, these seven laws are but a starting point, the foundation on which they’ve built a lifestyle of obligations and voluntary observances. The result is a life every bit as rigorous and all-encompassing as Orthodox Judaism, which guides and structures all aspects of their existence. While others drawn so intensely to Judaism would likely convert, these non-Jews have chosen to remain outside the fold, believing that life as a Noahide is an end in itself, a way to be partners–if not quite equals to the Chosen People–in the divine plan for the world.

Unbeknownst to most Jews, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Noahides, and most, like the Longs, are former Christians who’ve turned their backs on the faith. This is not the first time the world has seen a community of "Righteous Gentiles" who center their beliefs around Judaism, but Long and his fellow Noahides represent the first modern attempt to take that 2000-year-old body of theoretic writings and bring it to life as a worldwide movement. And for that, they can largely thank the vision of one 20th-century Jewish thinker: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe.

The Chabad Factor

Schneerson’s teachings about the messiah (mashiach or moshiach) are well known: He believed that taking steps to hasten the arrival of the messiah is every Jew’s most significant duty. And to the Rebbe, bringing the messiah meant not just living a life of Jewish observance, but also bringing all Jews to tradition as well.

Spreading the Noahide laws to non-Jews was part and parcel of that same dream. The messiah would come when Jew and non-Jew alike do God’s will; for the latter group, that means following the Noahide laws. Though these ideas were long a part of Schneerson’s teachings, it was only toward the end of his life that he began urging his followers to go out and actively spread Noahide beliefs to non-Jews as an antidote to society’s moral degeneracy.

The contemporary Noahide movement began to take shape during Schneerson’s lifetime, but its major growth has taken place in the years since his death. This has been fueled largely by the Internet, a powerful tool for a movement comprised mostly of single individuals and families practicing alone or in very small groups around the globe.

Jewish Views on Non-Jews

Though the Jewish vision for the idealized, messianic future does not call for a world full of Jewish converts, Jewish law has plenty to say about what it expects of non-Jews, namely a righteous life guided by the Seven Mitzvot B’nei Noah. In classic Talmudic fashion, once the rabbis examined, explored, extrapolated, and otherwise developed the Sheva Mitzvot, the "seven" laws were much more than just seven. Applying the single commandment against sexual immorality, for example, the rabbis found it to include numerous particular prohibitions against incest, adultery, and other specific practices.

But are these rules a Jewish version of natural law–a set of universal moral imperatives that people are assumed to intuit on their own–or are they something that Jews must actively go out and bring to the world?

According to the great medieval Jewish philosopher and legal authority Moses Maimonides, teaching non-Jews to follow the Noahide laws is incumbent on all Jews, a commandment in and of itself. However, most rabbinic authorities rejected Maimonides’ view, and the dominant halakhic (Jewish law) attitude had been that Jews are not required to spread Noahide teachings to non-Jews.

And that’s where things stood in Jewish law for centuries–until an aging Hasidic rebbe turned that on its head. "Every Jew has the obligation to ensure that all the peoples of the world observe the Seven Noahide Laws," Rabbi Schneerson said, according to "An integral component of the Jew’s task is to see to it that all peoples, not just Jews, acknowledge God as creator and ruler of the world."

It is a view that remains controversial. "If Jews are telling Gentiles what to do, it’s a form of imperialism," says David Novak, a University of Toronto theologian. To him, the Seven Mitzvot are a set of rules that Judaism prescribes for non-Jews while assuming any civil society or moral individual will reach these conclusions on their own, without prodding. The Noahide laws, in his eyes, are valuable as a moral foundation that allows Jews to get involved and speak out on issues of public morality, a universal ethical code with which to engage larger societal issues–and are not a religion around which non-Jews are expected to structure their daily lives.

Creating a Lifestyle

Despite the passion of committed Noahides, embracing seven laws of basic morality does not a lifestyle make. In some key ways, the Noahide movement is defined more by what it’s not than what it is: Not Jewish, not Christian, without a central organization, and with no clear consensus even on what the faith entails. Even the laws themselves–six out of the seven–are prohibitions. There’s little or no active spiritual life, no prescribed ritual and liturgical life for Noahides. There is, to borrow a phrase, "no there there."

For many committed Noahides, that’s the biggest challenge the movement faces. Once they’ve given up their prior religious lives, immersed themselves in Jewish learning, perhaps even succeeded in hooking up with a local Jewish community, many Noahides speak of a lingering hole, the lack of an active and defined spiritual and ritual life.

To fill the void–to transform this notion of Noahide law from a formless set of vague moral guidelines to a spiritually fulfilling lifestyle–Noahides have taken on themselves a host of what are known as "positive commandments," the rituals and religious activities that infuse traditional Jews’ lives with structure, meaning, and spiritual foundation. These are not an inherent part of the Seven Mitzvot, but rather are voluntary observances to give their lives added spiritual meaning.

As a result, a committed Noahide lives a life of intense study of Jewish texts, not only on the Seven Laws themselves but also on all other aspects of a Jewish lifestyle, to discern which rituals a non-Jew may and may not perform. Theirs also is a life of prayer, which usually includes reading Psalms, composing original prayers, and reciting traditional Jewish liturgy, altered to remove or adapt all mentions of commandedness and chosenness, to make clear that it is only Jews, and not the Noahides, to whom those concepts apply.

Some hang a mezuzah on their doors, others don’t feel it’s appropriate. Ditto with tzitzit, the fringed undergarment worn by traditionally observant men. Shabbat looms large in the life of any traditional Jew, but all Noahides agree that they should not observe the Sabbath in the same strict way as Jews. Some focus on study and prayer, but don’t avoid forbidden activities, like using electrical devices. Others observe Shabbat–at least occasionally–more parallel to the Orthodox way, but still make sure to do at least one activity over the course of the day that would be forbidden for Jews to do. Some will step outside and light a match, others will flip on a light switch, and others will write a check.

Many people are working to give structure and clarity to Noahide life. In other words, to give the movement its "there." Chabad and other rabbis, together with Noahides, are creating a Noahide siddur (prayer book) to standardize prayers, and a liturgy of lifecycle rituals, such as funerals and baby-naming ceremonies. Also in the works is a Noahide Shulhan Arukh, a comprehensive book of law pertaining to non-Jews, which will spell out specifically how Noahides should live, which mitzvot are acceptable for them, and which aren’t. There are also numerous Noahide organizations popping up, aimed at uniting Noahides, providing support, and spreading their teachings.

The Conversion Question

So why don’t Noahides just take that last step and convert? Nearly all Noahides have grappled with the conversion question, sometimes for years and sometimes without definitive conclusion.

For many, the emotional pull of their previous life remains strong. It’s a part of who they are. For others, finding the resources and assistance to convert was difficult, and this seemed like a more feasible long-term path.

For nearly all, there is a sense of calling and belonging in being a Noahide. "Israel was chosen to be a nation of kings and priests and a light unto the nations. We decided, if everybody converted, who would Israel have to be priests to?" Pam Rogers, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, Noahide, says.

This notion of a world in which there are the leaders and the led–the priests and the ministered-to–looms large in Noahide consciousness, offering assurance that there is a place for them, as non-Jews, in God’s plan for the world. Many Noahides believe they can have a bigger impact on the world as non-Jews following Torah than as Jewish converts.

Ultimately, it is a deep sense of mission that drives Noahides, a strong belief that their chosen lifestyle, no longer Christian but not quite Jewish, can help bring healing to a broken world.

Orthodox Judaism Today

When Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman became the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, the public suddenly turned its attention on Orthodox Judaism, with pundits and journalists explaining the dos and don’ts of Shabbat and dietary laws. But Lieberman himself eschewed the label “Orthodox” in favor of the less denominational “observant,” and many within the Orthodox community disliked the fact that Lieberman became, in the world’s eyes, the example of the Orthodox life.

Lieberman, in many ways, represents an Orthodox Judaism of decades past, one which integrated more seamlessly than today’s Orthodoxy with mainstream, secular society. Orthodox Jews since the 1970s have grown greatly in numbers, self-confidence, and public profile; at the same time, they have shifted to the right socially and religiously, refusing to make what they see as the compromises that their parents’ and grandparents’ generations made to fit into American society.

orthodox judaism todayThe outward signs might be subtle but they are not insignificant–the fact that Lieberman doesn’t wear a yarmulke and that he sometimes votes in the Senate on Shabbat, even if he does walk home afterward. It is less likely that tomorrow’s Orthodox politician will do likewise, a tension that came to the fore when Lieberman was criticized by some Jews during the campaign for drinking water during the Tisha B’Av fast.


The Orthodox world often divides into two major categories, generally referred to as haredi (or sometimes, ultra-Orthodox) and centrist, or modern, Orthodox. But in recent years, the line between haredi and Orthodox has blurred. Many Modern Orthodox Jews are increasingly stringent in their adherence to Jewish law and express a growing sense of alienation from the larger, secular culture. Some scholars have even referred to the trend as the “haredization” of Orthodoxy, and some believe that Modern Orthodoxy is essentially dead.

Orthodoxy today is more strictly observant and better educated than at any point since before the destruction of Eastern European Jewry during the Holocaust. Children in Orthodox families are maintaining and increasing their allegiance to traditional Judaism and increasing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews are finding themselves attracted to Orthodoxy.

Jewish-Christian Relations

The latter half of the 20th century saw a wholesale re-evaluation of the Christian attitude toward Jews and Judaism, revolutionizing relations between the two religions. Brought on by the horrors of the Holocaust and the embrace of pluralism and diversity as positive values, Christian theologians have repudiated or reinterpreted age-old beliefs that led to anti-Jewish violence throughout the centuries.

While differences between the two faith communities still exist, for the first time in history Jews today have a reasonable expectation that these differences will be addressed  through interfaith dialogue rather than the violence of the past.

The state of Jewish-Christian relations varies from group to group, but some general trends do emerge from examining the ways that Jews and Christians interact today:

– The Holocaust profoundly affected the ways that Christians from across the theological spectrum think about and interact with Jews. After World War II, Christians were forced to confront their religion’s role in helping make possible the demonization of Jews to such a great degree that slaughtering Jews en-masse could take place. Anti-Jewish theology, which had for two millennia pervaded Christian thought, has been largely eliminated, such as the belief that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus (known as deicide). In addition, the role of Christian rescuers–people whose faith led them to risk their lives by hiding or otherwise saving Jews–provides a meaningful link between Jews and Christians. However, the role of Christians and Christianity in perpetuating the Holocaust remains a point of contention between the two religions.

– Israel–specifically, different Christian groups’ stances toward the Jewish state and its policies–is a major factor in interfaith relations. This is straining old friendships between Jews and liberal Christians while drawing Jews closer to conservative Christians with whom they have historically been at odds.

School Vouchers: A Jewish Perspective

The following article is reprinted with permission from

Paul and Dottie Burstein never really considered sending their children to a Jewish parochial school. Active in their synagogue and its educational programs, they were happy with the public schools near their home in suburban Boston.


But when their daughter Rachel, then a ninth ­grader, saw an ad for an all‑day Jewish high school, she was immediately interested‑-and after hearing the headmaster’s pitch, so were her parents.

jewish school vouchersIn September 1997, Rachel transferred to the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, leaving behind, Dottie Burstein said, “some very good opportunities in a school with a relatively high reputation.” The selling point for the Bursteins was that the school, not affiliated with any Jewish movement, teaches its students to respect each other’s religious beliefs.

Now Jewish leaders are hoping for more‑-many more-‑Rachel Bursteins.

From synagogue luncheons to rabbinic conferences, conversations among American Jews have focused for decades on the future of Judaism in the United States, a country where unprecedented acceptance and limitless choices have wooed many Jews away from their heritage. Over the past few years, those conversations have zeroed in on strong Jewish education as the key to the survival of the Jewish religion.

And when Jewish leaders today speak of religious education, more often than not they are referring to Jewish “day schools” like the Boston high school, where students spend half the day learning Bible and Jewish law and the remainder of the day studying reading and arithmetic.

Day school attendance is on the rise, according to statistics gathered by the New York-based AVI CHAI Foundation, which seems to indicate ­the message is beginning to catch on, even if not overwhelmingly so.

Meanwhile, some Jewish leaders are heading in a surprising direction for the typically liberal American Jewish community: they are trumpeting government‑funded school vouchers-­‑the darling of conservative policy groups-‑as the best way to ensure that all Jewish children will become Jewish adults.