Retooling Rabbis

rabbi-under-beis-midrash-sign2For the next several weeks, I’ll be writing about a new topic: rabbis. In keeping with the Tools for Shuls motif, I’m thinking of calling the chapter based on this series of posts Retooling Rabbis. Please read my posts with full awareness that some of my best friends are rabbis, (and that I realized my adolescent dream of becoming one in 1984!)  The tone that I’m striving for in my posts is to be lovingly critical about the rabbinate, for the rabbinate (or ministry for that matter) is one of those vocations where heeding the words of the ancient Jewish sage, Hillel (born before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E.,) is a very wise idea. He said, don’t judge people until you’ve been in their situation (Avot 2:5.) Having been in that situation in different iterations, I hope that I will put enough love in the critique—and enough critique in the love.

Here’s where I really need your input. Imagine that you are the dean of a rabbinical school. You have the opportunity to modify the rabbinical school curriculum. Assuming that the fundamentals of the curriculum are sound and that subjects like Jewish history, Hebrew language and Jewish law will continue to be the foundation of your curriculum. What other topics do you believe are critical for contemporary rabbis to learn today—and think outside of the box (or book!)?

If you are a rabbi, draw upon your current experience and stage: what additional subjects you wish you had been exposed to before you completed school? Where did you feel some of the larger gaps in your curriculum? If you are a member of the synagogue reading this blog, give us your view from the pew, committee or board room. From your vantage point, what do you perceive to be missing from rabbinic education?

This is a discussion which really does require multiple views so I hope that even if you don’t regularly comment, you’ll chime in.

Thanks,

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Photo from flickr.com lev_cap

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17 Responses

  1. Jordan Goodman says:

    Shalom Rav,

    Though I’ve written much of this elsewhere on this blog as well as on the main Star Synagogue blog, it remains pertinent to the question posed by Rabbi Herring.

    Most Jews have voted with their feet that the synagogue and/or Judaism is/are irrelevant. Synagogues need to deliver a Judaism which is relevant, practical, challenging and life application oriented, showing that Judaism actually speaks to life as it is lived and experienced in the 21rst century, ie., teach and talk about what Judaism has to say about our physical, financial, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being.

    As Pastor Rick Warren Saddleback Church as well as the author of “A Purpose Driven Life,” has said: “clergy need to “say something on Sunday that people can use on Monday.” Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman who wrote “Rethinking Synagogues” calls this: sermons that emphasize where “Torah meets life.”

    So….. “on one foot” rabbi’s (and I‘ve heard many from the pews over the years) need to become/be made more aware that the content of their bimah teaching always be about answering the question, “why think/do Jewish?”

    As well, Rabbi’s need to understand and learn that a synagogue (at its best) is not only a “K’hillah K’dosha,” but a business as well and needs to be treated and led like one in order to meet the challenges of our times effectively. Books like “Good to Great,” and the subsequent monograph/sequel “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” by Jim Collins are wonderful resources that are readily applicable to synagogue life. I’ll also recommend “The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization,” by Peter Drucker with Jim Collins Philip Kotler, James Kouzes and others. Be sure to get the one that just came out last year. On the church side of the aisle, “Courageous Leadership” by Bill Hybels is a wonderful book by the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in So. Barrington, IL (a suburb of Chicago).

    If rabbis were trained in and actually practiced the skills outlined above, synagogues might be able to persuade more Jews to re-enter their doors for reasons beyond lifecycle fixes and an occasional perceived need for a worship service.

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan

  2. Daniel Alter says:

    The assumption in the above posting is that the fundamentals of the curriculum are sound. I am not convinced. If one assumes that Rabbis, above all else, are to be teachers, then they need to be experts in torah, tanach, jewish law, talmud etc. (which includes intimate knowledge of various dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic) I think there are too many Rabbis today who are not well enough equipped in their mastery of these subjects.
    The reason this issue is relevant is that any time we add materials or topics to the rabbinical school curriculum, that time will inevitably cut into time that could be used for other topics.
    If we aspire to train our Rabbis to become excellent CEOs, pastors, communal leaders, COOs, CFOs, social workers etc etc, all in four years of rabbinical school, then my concern is “Torah Mah Tehey aleha”? (Slight exageration here, but hopefuly the point is being made.)

  3. Jordan Goodman says:

    Shalom Daniel,

    You wrote: “The assumption in the above posting is that the fundamentals of the curriculum are sound. I am not convinced.”

    Are you talking about Rabbi Herring’s post or my reply? You continued:

    “If one assumes that Rabbis, above all else, are to be teachers,”

    Agreed. you continued:

    “then they need to be experts in torah, tanach, jewish law, talmud etc. (which includes intimate knowledge of various dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic)”

    Agreed. You continued:

    “….If we aspire to train our Rabbis to become excellent CEOs, pastors, communal leaders, COOs, CFOs, social workers etc etc, all in four years of rabbinical school,”

    If leadership and the business of the synagogue are not taught at rabbinic schools
    then those who aspire to be congregational rabbis will not be prepared to meet the challenges that await them in the real world outside of the walls of academia.
    Torah has much to say about leadership and the business side of the synagogue
    and it’s quite sad that there are few if any resources available that present an integrated, text oriented approach to this very important subject. On the other hand, the mega church specifically, Willow Creek Community Church in South
    Barrington, IL, and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA are leaders in providing
    training of this nature. See http://www.willowcreek.com for more info. You continued:

    “then my concern is “Torah Mah Tehey aleha”? (Slight exageration here, but hopefuly the point is being made.)”

    Any Torah teaching that does NOT meet people where they live, will continue to yield the same dismal results it is currently experiencing, as this type of teaching has already been deemed irrelevant by most who identify as Jews. What’s needed is (as I said above) “relevant, practical, challenging and life application oriented, showing that Judaism actually speaks to life as it is lived and experienced in the 21rst century teach and talk about what Judaism has to say about our physical, financial, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being,”

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan

  4. Maury Hoberman says:

    I fall somewhere between Jordan and Daniel. I agree with Daniel that in the few years that a person preparing for the rabbinate there is not much time to add courses to the curriculum. Even if there were courses added to the curriculum, the level of importance of those courses could not compete with the importance of languager, Talmud, history and those courses that are already required.
    On the other hand, rabbinical students must be made aware of what awaits them after smicha, which includes the practical aspects of how synagogues work, with the understanding that after smicha and at a time when he/she is challenged by community rather than being in the secure life of the student, that it will be necessary to acquire certain skills by continuing his/her education.
    Having said that, there is an area that can be brougt into the rabbinic education.
    I see this as exploring self and what is needed to be able to express and communicate the pleasuree Judaism and living a Jewish life. I think that the rabbinic schools need to stress and teach that we have an ability to connect with God and community experientially. The rabbi should be able to lead his/her community in this process. This is a different approach than simply being proficient in Talmud or liturgy.

  5. Jordan–thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments. And, your recommended reading list is excellent. The only thing I would add is that rabbis and volunteer leaders together must strike the balance between operating as a business while living out their Jewish values and practices. I’m guessing that you believe this–just making the point explict.

    Best wishes and keep writing, Hayim

  6. Daniel–for clarification, can you elaborate on what you mean by “well enough equipped” in your comment, “there are too many Rabbis today who are not well enough equipped in their mastery of these subjects?” And, do you think that all rabbis should have the same baseline of classical Jewish subjects (Tanakh, Talmud, etc.) or should their be different baselines, depending upon the communities they serve?

    Looking forward to your response and thanks for writing. Hayim

  7. Jordan Goodman says:

    Shalom All,
    Maury wrote:

    “I fall somewhere between Jordan and Daniel. I agree with Daniel that in the few years that a person preparing for the rabbinate there is not much time to add courses to the curriculum. Even if there were courses added to the curriculum, the level of importance of those courses could not compete with the importance of languager, Talmud, history and those courses that are already required.”

    Though I have no data to confirm, my guess is that the vast majority of Jews in North America couldn’t care less about about “language, Talmud and history.” What they would care about is how those areas of study relate practically to their lives as they live and experience them in the 21st century.
    Maury continued:

    “On the other hand, rabbinical students must be made aware of what awaits them after smicha, which includes the practical aspects of how synagogues work, with the understanding that after smicha and at a time when he/she is challenged by community rather than being in the secure life of the student, that it will be necessary to acquire certain skills by continuing his/her education.”

    Bingo!!! A congregational rabbi who’s been equipped not only to be a realist but to confront reality head on (what leaders do) with the tools of both “Qemah and Torah”, has the best chance of MEASURABLE success in the world of the 21rst century contemporary synagogue.
    [PLEASE SEE PART TWO -ed.]

  8. Jordan Goodman says:

    PART TWO: [-ed.]

    Maury continued:
    “Having said that, there is an area that can be brougt into the rabbinic education.?I see this as exploring self and what is needed to be able to express and communicate the pleasuree Judaism and living a Jewish life. I think that the rabbinic schools need to stress and teach that we have an ability to connect with God and community experientially. The rabbi should be able to lead his/her community in this process.”

    Are there teachers in Rabbinical schools that have actually done this with a congregation and thus from their real time experience would be able to impart this knowledge to students? Too often academics are far removed from the real world of actually having done or used what they teach. Theory may be great in the classroom and real time experience trumps it every time. Maury continued:

    “This is a different approach than simply being proficient in Talmud or liturgy.”
    About which (as I said before), the vast majority of Jews couldn’t care less. And, no amount of hand wringing by ivory tower academics will change this.

    Rabbi Herring wrote:
    “The only thing I would add is that rabbis and volunteer leaders together must strike the balance between operating as a business while living out their Jewish values and practices.”

    Ideally, yes. A balance implies that both rabbis and lay leaders are actually knowledgeable or at least conversant with both disciplines, Judaism and leadership/business skills. My experience is that this is not the case.

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan

  9. This has been an enlightening discussion. What I’m taking away from it is that rabbinical school education should train rabbis for the real world from the inception of the program. More courses/experiences need to be designed with an eye toward the future world that these students will inhabit as rabbis. Speaking as a rabbi, I do believe that subjects like history, philosophy and literature contribute to a broader rabbinical education and indeed can and should impact on one’s rabbinate. These subjects can also be quite relevant to congregants when presented thoughtfully. But, we don’t have to think in dichotomies, opposing leadership and Torah, but infusing more Torah learning with real world application.

    Shabbat shalom friends–and stay tuned for another post early next week.

  10. The debate about whether rabbinic school is a graduate school, a professional school or a yeshivah/seminary has waged for quite some time. As someone who is blessed to coach rabbis in the “field” I would opine that rabbinic schools have to move away from the 19th century wisenschaft approach (i.e. separate disciplines) to a recognition that rabbis are professionals, not scholars (scholarly professionals?) and prepare them accordingly. Rabbis would still learn text, but in context; what educators call an interdisciplinary or integrative approach to learning.

    So for example, one year might be devoted to Leadership; after all, that is what rabbis are called on to do—lead institutions. Our future rabbis would learn what TaNaCh, rabbinics, medieval philosophers, Jewish history, contemporary writers, etc. all have to say about leadership and would reflect for themselves on what that means. Another semester would be devoted to a study of God from multiple perspectives, again with some emphasis on the personal relationship one has with God guided by a spiritual mentor. (Yes, we can expect that of rabbis).

    I actually have worked this out for all five years of a rabbinic program and would love to share it with the leaders of our great rabbinic schools.

    - Rabbi Terry Bookman

  11. Daniel Alter says:

    HI all
    Trying to catch up with all the comments- really enjoyed them.
    To clarify my point, my issue is that there are many Rabbis presently in the field, who, to me, do not have sufficient Judaic background. In an era when we are developing hundreds of thousands of Jewish day school graduates in this country, who are well versed in Judaics and can study texts in their original language, thereby raising the bar for everyone, I am seeing more and more embarrassing situations where Rabbis say things from the pulpit that are based on ignorance and often plain out wrong.
    If a Rabbi is not a source of Judaic wisdom to his community (I recognize that the Rabbi need not be the most knowledgeable person in the room), then he simply becomes a CEO- which, while important, would be unfortunate in that it would be hard for a Rabbi like that to inspire a community to delve into Torah study in a way that it becomes a significant part of their life.
    I recognize, and agree with, the issues raised by others- where will our Rabbis learn all the other skills. My only concern is that four years of Rabbinical school is not enough to learn 2000 years of wisdom. Every program we add to the curriculum takes away from another part of the curriculum.
    Maybe the answer is for every Rabbinic school graduate to spend the first two years while they are out in the field doing a STAR PEER type program.

  12. Shalom-
    How would you train Rabbis to function in a virtual congregation and in a cyberspace quest for spirituality?
    This new dimension of our digital, Web, cyberworld may offer some interesting options.
    Rabbi Moshe Dror

  13. Jordan Goodman says:

    Shalom Rav,

    Check out the site below, then click on “campus select” then click on “Church online”
    and you’ll see what can be done. Pastor Groeschel is on the leading edge of innovation in the church today and as I’ve said often times before we have much to learn from the Church more specifically, the mega church.

    Shabbat Shalom,
    Biv’racha,
    Jordan

    http://www.lifechurch.tv/welcome

  14. Thanks, Jordon, for highlightling another excellent site! Rabbi Herring

  15. Rabbi Laura Schwartz Harari says:

    What I haven’t seen in this interesting thread of conversation, is any reference to the shifting nature of how American Judaism expresses its culture, relates to its institutions, etc. We, as American Jews, are impacted by the greater culture in which we live. The advent of multiple technologies for communication, for example, has more often found us in relationships with gadgets than in direct contact with people who grasp them. This has surely affected our paradigms of interaction. There are many more areas that I could highlight; such as, the prevailing culture of individualism and the lack of desire for affiliation with institutions, to name just a couple.

    During the process of becoming rabbis, we need to have the opportunity to reflect upon and converse about the current nature of the Jewish community we will interact with upon ordination. This “interdisciplinary” observation is crucial to our ability to serve as professionals.

    If my recent rabbinical training can be an example, we had NO time for reflection–think “output”– since we had so much that we had to “take in”– in both the textual and practical realms. I see the opportunity for reflection and conversation as crucial to the preparation of rabbis.

  16. Hi, Laura and welcome to Tools for Shuls! You are spot on– I think that cultivating reflective practice must occur in rabbinical school. Perhaps one of the consequences for not doing so is that we enter the rabbinate and re-create the frenzied environment that we experienced while in school. I also noticed that rabbis have a tendency to do that at national conventions. So thanks for calling this curricular or structural omission to our attention.

  17. Neal Loevinger says:

    Hi all- I sent this to Hayim privately two months ago. He asked me to post it but as they say- Pesach happens. . . .

    I would submit it’s not that rab schools are teaching the right or wrong things, it’s rather that the model of “in for five out and you’re ready” is itself problematic. There are things that cannot be learned in school before you get smack dab into the emotional system of a synagogue (let’s exclude non-pulpit rabbis for today, no slighting of their work intended), and therefore, the whole idea that one minute, you’re a student, and the next minute, you’re a “finished” or “ordained” rabbi is what needs to be rethought.

    Think about this: almost no lawyers or doctors graduate without then taking jobs where they have intensive mentoring and supervision, in a hospital, a residency, fellowship, a law firm, the government, whatever. Rabbis, on the other hand, except for assistant rabbis, routinely go into small shuls which are often geographically isolated from other rabbis, because those small shuls pay entry level salaries. In other words, it’s the smaller and more remote synagogues, which have some of the greatest challenges, which get the least experienced rabbis, who are the most cut off from support, mentorship and Jewish resources.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    Not only that, but given what powerful emotional/psychological/ systemic forces actively mold the rabbi and his or her responses in the synagogue setting, NO amount of training beforehand will prepare a student for something they can’t understand until they’ve experienced it. It’s like reading a self-help book about marriage when you’re single- yes, there are good things to be gleaned, but some of it you just don’t get till you’re in the context. Rabbis affect congregations, but congregations mold rabbis, too- and this is something that needs to be part of ongoing education and training, in my view. Again, think of a doctor: their schooling gives them an intellectual foundation, but nobody gets to practice without levels of residency.

    Rabbinical internships are not really adequate preparation either, in the same way that living together is not like marriage- until
    you’re “the rabbi,” the full emotional pressures of the family/congregational system are not brought to bear.

    Thus, I’d say, rather than change the curriculum of rab school, change the model: have students become rabbis of small congregations but figure out a way that rab school is not finished once they go out and leave, but continues with mentoring and processing after they’re out in the field.

    Conferences, telephone and video-chat mentoring, required attendance once or twice a year at debriefing gatherings for a few years after ordination, assigning an experienced rabbi to call new rabbis once a week for the first two years – there are lots of ways this could be done.