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.
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?
When I was in rabbinical school in the mid to late 1990s the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical School, did not knowingly admit or ordain gay or lesbian rabbis. I say “knowingly” because there were some students in the closet. Being a supporter of gay ordination, I did everything I could to try to move the process forward.
I will never forget the day that myself and another student met with the then Chancellor Ismar Schorsch. The two of us began to passionately speak about the Jewish values which informed our belief that gays and lesbians should be ordained. After only a few sentences had left our mouths, the Chancellor interrupted and said, “Let me stop you there. Gays and Lesbians will not be ordained at JTS while I am still Chancellor. It is not going to happen.” Then, he escorted us out of his office.
The experience left me a little shaken and very sad. I could not believe that he would not even listen to us. He had no interest in even discussing the topic. None! I hated that I was attending a school which did not uphold one of my core values. The Bible tells us time and again “Welcome the strangers in your midst because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” I hold the value of welcoming, inclusivity and acceptance as one of the highest Jewish values. As a Jew growing up in Austin, Texas, I often felt like a stranger. As a woman studying to be a rabbi, I often felt like a stranger. I think most people feel like a stranger at some point in their lives. In my mind a Judaism that is not open, welcoming and accepting is not a Judaism that I want to practice.
Chancellor Schorsch retired in 2006. One year later, The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) voted to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. I was thrilled and excited by this change. Aaron Weininger, a Rabbi Without Borders Student Fellow, became the first openly gay student admitted to The Seminary. And last year Rachel Isaacs became the first out lesbian to be ordained by JTS. (She transferred in to JTS and graduated a year ahead of Aaron who will be ordained this May.)
While I celebrated this progress, I heard from rabbinical school students that The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel, the Conservative Movements Rabbinical School in Israel would not admit gay students. This posed a problem since all JTS students are required to spend a year studying at The Schechter Institute as part of their rabbinical school training. The gay and lesbian students were again being made to feel like strangers, unwelcome in the Movement and Institutions they wanted to study in. Gay and lesbian JTS students had to find somewhere else to study for their year in Israel. To my mind, this was an unacceptable situation. I lamented the fact that while admitting gay student JTS did not seem to be capable of thinking through all of the various needs of these students and could not find ways to support them.
Then, just last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Schechter Institute board voted to admit gay and lesbian students. The significance of this decision coming in Holocaust Remembrance Day cannot be understated. Both Jews and homosexuals were singled out by Hitler to be exterminated. Jews wore a yellow star while homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle. Gay Jews were of course twice cursed. I would like to think that the vote of the Schechter board, coming on the day it did, was an acknowledgement that past discrimination against homosexual students was wrong. I would like to think that Jews, gays, women, and other minorities are all in the same boat. We must look out for one another, support one another, and advance each other’s goals. To do any less would be an abdication of our responsibility as Jews.
While this decision is momentous, I know that the fight for full acceptance of gay rabbis is not over. Many synagogues will not hire a gay rabbi and some other rabbis will not accept gay rabbis as equal colleagues. Women rabbis still face this issue and JTS began ordaining women over twenty five years ago!
I strongly believe that the Conservative Movement needs to stand behind each and every rabbi they ordain. The Movement has a responsibility to these rabbis to support them in their job searches and career growth. Lay leaders and Jewish professionals across the country need to have conversations about diversity and acceptance. If we cannot practice this in our own intuitions how are we to promote acceptance of difference, particularly religious difference, with a clear conscience. How can we fight against anti Semitism the world over if we do not accept the minorities within our own communities?
“Never Forget!” is said each and every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We must remember those who died due to discrimination and prejudice and we must make sure that we ourselves do not employ discriminatory practices. Each one of us was created in the image of God. We are all holy beings no matter the color of our skin, our gender, or who we love. God loves each one of us and we need to love ourselves.
Yashar Koach (Right on!) to the Schechter Institute for making this decision. Let’s continue to support each individual who wants to study, teach and lead the Jewish people.