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Rabbinic Education in the Twenty-First Century

Joshua Ladon: My rabbinical training has been characterized by collaboration, creativity, and independent exploration

Given the recent spate of articles regarding the deficiencies of young American rabbis, I thought that the occasion of my chag hasmicha might be an appropriate time to reflect on what it has meant to be educated toward a career in the rabbinate at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The uniqueness of my rabbinical training has been characterized by collaboration, creativity, and independent exploration.
I was one of two students ordained this year by the Shalom Hartman Institute in a program called Rav Mehanekh, whose explicit goals were to create master rabbi-educators. With each course, we met with our instructors and discussed the goals of the overall program, the goals of that particular class, and the best ways for us to learn specific material. We were entrusted with a tremendous amount of responsibility for our own education. In addition, our program was an intentional deviation from the rabbinical training of the Rabbanut, which follows a model exclusively based on mastery of specific legal material, as well as a critique of the programs found in many progressive Jewish institutions, which are based on the experience of the academy. Drawing on the yeshiva model (havruta, beit midrash) and the Oxford University model (tutorial), our teachers reinvigorated the original conception of rav from the world of chazal (the world of the rabbis), training us towards the role of master teacher.
Throughout the experience, one of our instructors, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi , consistently reminded us that all of these goals and all of this learning would not make us a rabbi, but that our communities, our students, would be the ones to teach us the most about how to live up to the honored title. With this in mind, I would like to offer four ikkarim, four foundational characteristics, that I have been educated towards that can serve as a jumping off point for discussion about rabbinical education in the 21st century.
The rabbi should approach the world through a spiritual/religious orientation.
When we speak of rabbis who have worked tirelessly in the rabbinate we often articulate that experience as a life lived in the service of the Jewish people. As a professor of mine, who also happens to be a rabbi, said to me, "You don’t have to like all Jews but to be a rabbi, you have to love all Jews." There is a caveat to working for the Jewish people, in that it should ultimately bring Jews to live a life in service of the Divine.
The rabbi should strive towards enabling Jews to fulfill the mitzvot of bein adam l’adam and bein adam l’makom (between one person towards another as well as between humans and God). This role of Divine service has become of greater importance in a modern world where expressions of Jewish identity are intertwined with and transcend religious, cultural, and national boundaries. While Mordechai Kaplan’s ideas of Judaism as civilization have been acculturated into mainstream Jewish thinking, Judaism does have a unique religious heritage, and it is the role of the rabbi to advocate for that spiritual dimension. There are many ways to act in the interest of the Jewish people, but the rabbi offers a uniquely religious voice. It is because of this orientation that statements regarding what rabbis should say or do, be it advocate for particular visions of social justice or express certain political ideologies, fall short as educational objectives.
As a civilization, one may connect to one’s Jewish roots by participating in a Jewish service project, advocating on behalf of AIPAC or J Street, even acting in a Neil Simon production. But the religious orientation wants one’s expression of Jewish identity to organically grow out of one’s desire to serve the Omnipresent. As a religious educator, I want my students to see the Holocaust, Israel advocacy, and tikkun olam through a Jewish lens, not their Judaism through the lens of a particular phenomenon. I think this is what was so attractive to me about the “Hartman” model, which aims to engage values through Jewish texts. When it works, one is able to wrestle with a number of authentically Jewish responses to such big ideas as democracy, human dignity, and civil responsibility, just to name a few. In a world where Jewish identity expresses itself in a myriad of different forms, be they cultural, national, linguistic, or religious, the rabbi best serves the Jewish people by encouraging and enabling the Jewish people to serve the Divine.
The rabbi’s job is to enable our holy texts to speak and to be heard.
I am borrowing here an often repeated statement by my teacher Dr. Elie Holzer, who, in his pedagogic theory seminars, stressed that we were to consider the multiple contexts of a text. In my reading of a text, I must delay my desire for immediate relevancy and strive to understand what the writer might have been trying to say, how the variety of commentators have read this particular text, how this text functions in its modern context, and what background or bias I bring with me to the text. Distilling the thought of philosophers Paul Ricouer and Hans Gaddamer into one line, we were told, “get your students to let the texts speak!”
In a world filled with information, where proof texts can be thrown back and forth at one another ad nauseam, the process of gleaning the text for meaning, letting the tradition unfold, is a project more important than just understanding old pieces of parchment. The way we engage a text is a paradigm for how we view the other. To be able to consider the multiple possibilities in a text is practice in being able to consider the multiple viewpoints of another human being. When one recognizes the complexity of a two dimensional text, one starts to consider the depth and complexity of our three-dimensional encounters with other human beings.
While many Jewish educators would like to claim that to be a literate Jew is to know a certain amount of Rashi’s or certain number of pages of Talmud, a process-oriented approach to text learning sees the experience of the learner, the possibility for transformation and embodied learning, as the desired outcome. I want to make the text audible and create learners with the capacity to engage knowledge respectfully, knowing the prejudice they bring to their reading and not shying away from their prejudice but freely acknowledging it so that they may connect with their tradition and their community.
The rabbi should be concerned with reviving the Jewish discussion.
Our challenge is not to answer questions but to evoke and invite questions whose answers cannot live up to the inquiry. Each time my havruta, Rabbi Feivel Strauss, and I sat down with a new instructor we talked to them about the goals of the program, our desired learning outcomes, and the process of getting to that place. During these conversations, we returned to a story of David Hartman ‘s that each of us had heard independently.
David has often shared his experience of entering into the pulpit, an eager young firebrand, who had spent years of rabbinical training learning legal codes. When he got to his congregation though, his congregants never asked him any questions. He realized that his job as rabbi would not be to answer questions but to ask difficult questions and even more so, to get his community to engage with him in the urgent exploration of those topics that are difficult, nuanced, and ultimately unknowable. It makes sense that he wrote: “The crucial issue of our age is not how to revive the authority of halakha but how to revive the Jewish discussion,” echoing the concerns of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, 40 years earlier wrote: “The moment we stop paying attention to our ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and it goes into crisis. Our primary task is to rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer.” I obviously could not say this better, but I can ask, what does it look like to educate towards this goal? We must cultivate a commitment to intellectual curiosity and a sense of the sacred.
The fourth goal was suggested by my talented and beautiful wife, Yael, who supported me throughout my studies. When she suggested this goal, I chuckled, saying that I could not really suggest it with a straight face and certainly not suggest unless it came from someone else’s mouth. That is the goal of humility. As it is written in Proverbs, “Pride goes before ruin, arrogance, before failure. Better to be humble and among the lowly than to share spoils with the proud.” I don’t think I can expound greatly on this goal other than to say that for the past eight years I have sat at the feet of Torah giants who have provided me with great mentorship in this realm.
The opportunity as a rabbi to enter people’s lives in moments of great joy and great pain, to teach, to listen, to challenge, and to learn, is one that should not be taken lightly or for granted. The lives of Jews around the world are varied and complex. As the Jewish people continue to grow and prosper it is my hope that rabbinic education will continue to develop so that rabbis may embrace the challenges of am yisrael with compassion, respect, and sensitivity to the numerous contexts in which Jews play out their Judaism.
Rabbi Joshua Ladon received smicha from the Shalom Hartman Institute in 2011. He is now teaching Talmud and Jewish thought at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, CA. This essay is adapted from his speech at the graduation ceremony for the Institute’s Melamdim program in June 2011.

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