What Makes a Rabbi a Rabbi? Can a Rabbi Be Ordained Online?

What makes a rabbi a rabbi?
The number of years of study?
The ability to lead a congregation in prayer?
The ability to counsel individuals at times of crisis? To bury a loved one? To perform weddings?

This is a serious question I face each year as the applications for the Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship program start to come in. (They are due this year on Friday, May 10th. Click here for more information.) Each year I get more and more inquiries from rabbis who have been ordained on line or from other non-traditional rabbinical seminaries. I am not even sure what counts as “non-traditional” any more. Most would say that the “traditional” rabbinical seminaries are those that train rabbis for a particular denomination in Judaism: Hebrew Union College (Reform), The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly (Reconstructionism) and Yeshiva University (Orthodox.) Yet, there are now a growing number of smaller seminaries. Hebrew College in Boston, The Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and California (which are separate institutions) ordain rabbis. So too does Aleph, the rabbinical school of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and a new Conservative Rabbinical School at The American Jewish University. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Maharat are training men and women respectively to lead the more liberal end of Orthodoxy. All of these schools have set curricula and require several years of study before conferring ordination. Does this make all of these schools kosher?

In typical rabbinic fashion, you will find some people who say yes, and some people who will say no. For the purpose of admitting rabbis into Rabbis Without Borders, they all count as “accepted” rabbinic programs.

A rabbi studying The Talmud

A rabbi studying The Talmud

Yet, each year I hear of new programs. Some require as little as a once a week on line study group for one year before ordaining people as rabbis. My gut twists at this. I spent SIX years studying to be ordained. I had to pass tests in Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, Jewish History, Philosophy and Theology. It was not an easy road. In addition, I had to complete internships, learn how to officiate at life cycle events, and master pastoral counseling.

And yet, I have witnessed rabbis who have passed the same tests as I have fail in the real world of the rabbinate, doing harm to others in the process. Could some one less knowledgeable actually be a better rabbi? Do rabbis today in twenty first century America need all this knowledge when we have Rabbi Google? Is one year of study enough? What really makes a rabbi a rabbi?

I posed these very questions to the Rabbis Without Borders selection committee and to this year’s cohort of Rabbi Without Borders Fellows. We had lively conversations. Different ideas were offered as to what made a “legitimate” rabbi. But each time an argument was made for a “standard” to be upheld for a rabbi, a counter argument could be found.

A rabbi can be a scholar, a pastoral presence, a skilled worship leader, and a community organizer. Does one skill take precedence over the others? Is there a base line needed for all of them? And how are these skills acquired?

For centuries rabbi have spent years in study before being ordained. Over this period of time, standards for ordination have changed, and different Jewish communities have conferred the tile of rabbi on different types of people. What are our standards for today? Is there even standards we can agree on?

I don’t have an answer. For the time being this is an open question here at Rabbis Without Borders. We thrive on pluralism, representing a diversity of opinions and ordaining institutions. Maybe we don’t need to answer the question, since in a few years institutions and courses of study which seem fringe now will be normative.

But the question keeps coming up when I meet with groups of rabbis. It echos in my own head.  I am curious. What makes a rabbi a rabbi?

Posted on May 6, 2013

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