Rabbinic Education at a Crossroads?

Posted on: June 8th, 2015 by Hayim Herring



I’m pleased to present another guest blog post as a part of the Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinic Education series. It’s written by Rabbi David Evan Markus, who addresses the increase in part-time, trans-denominational and low-residency Jewish clergy ordination programs. The author advocates acceleration of these trends to diversify the Jewish pulpit and meet the unique pastoral needs of 21st century Jews in the current era of weakening institutional affiliation. He also urges universal adoption of mandatory spiritual direction for all Jewish seminary students and instructors. While this is the last scheduled guest essay, I’ve already written an essay with my initial response to this rich national conversation on rabbinical education and leadership, and several more are in the works—so stay tuned!


Seminary and Soul:  Spiritual Education for the 21st Century


Rabbi David Evan MarkusWhile this guest blog post is the last scheduled in the online dimension of Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinic Education, there’s so much yet to say about how best to uplift Jewish spiritual leaders, starting with the proposition that this conversation must never end.  That is why I am heartened to know that Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, co-editors of this series, will help ensure that it never does.


This year’s inquiry about rabbinic education has underscored the truth that professional education is organic and thus must continuously evolve.  Experience hones best practices in pedagogy, and the needs of students and professions are in constant flux.  Legal educators learned this lesson the hard way.  The legal education “case method” that Christopher Columbus Langdell developed in late 1800s birthed generations of lawyers able to refine abstruse points of law for adversarial litigations and transactions, making Langdell a towering figure in the history of professional education.  In the 2000s, however, legal educators awoke to discover that many of Langdell’s innovations – once reforms in their day – had become shackles that bind lawyers to formal conflict (and bad lawyer jokes), poorly preparing them for the creative problem-solving and public-service contexts of a 21st century legal profession.  To realign with the new legal profession now emerging, legal education has needed to change accordingly – and this process is now sweeping across the nation’s law schools.


This proposition holds all the more for spiritual leaders: clergy education must serve the evolving needs of the profession that clergy will enter.  As change sweeps across Jewish life, rabbinic education must change with it.  The 2013 Pew Study depicts a Jewish polity becoming more diverse, resisting affiliation labels, and striving for relevance both within and beyond traditional Jewish structures of synagogue and school – and rabbinic education must evolve likewise.  Even more, rabbinic education must leap ahead of the change unfolding across Jewish life, so that new cohorts of Jewish leaders can wisely shape change rather than merely respond or race to catch up after falling behind.  Change in rabbinic education mustn’t be for its own sake, but to prepare each generation of Jewish leaders to heed their moment’s call to spiritual service.



So the question is, what is this moment’s call to spiritual service?  What is the leap that rabbinic education must make?  This year of introspection about rabbinic education has begun to envision a rabbinate called to become more pastoral, entrepreneurial and communitarian.  The implications for forward-thinking rabbinic education are provocative and transformative:


The pastoral rabbinate.  An effective rabbi navigates the heart and soul, journeying with (not above) congregation and community as an authentic seeker, equipped with a range of finely honed pastoral tools suitable for the breadth of Jewish spiritual life.  Pastoral skills are mimetic and experiential: no amount of book learning alone can teach them.  At minimum, they require expert-guided consistent dialogue within a student’s own spiritual life so that the student, in turn, can become a guide for others: after all, where a guide hasn’t gone, the guide can’t lead anyone.  This kind of authentic spiritual formation requires a seminary environment of exquisite trust and safety – where life’s inevitable triumphs and tumbles, intellectual doubts and emotional detritus, all are fodder for spiritual growth – so that clergy can become adept (and unafraid) at traversing these landscapes.  To that end, and to help teach how to discern the flow of holiness through the totality of life, all rabbinical students – and all seminary educators, as models – must be in mandatory, monthly, confidential and expert hashpa’ah (spiritual direction).  Seminaries also must integrate an applied pastoral focus into all other elements of the rabbinic curriculum – from liturgy to codes and everything in between.  Because an effective pastoral rabbinate depends on a wise heart, admissions criteria must privilege experience and capacity for applied spiritual leadership – not just proven love for Jewish tradition, intellectual capacity for scholarship and commitment to service.  If so, then seminaries must better welcome and even preference second-career and part-time students, who bring a wealth of emotional and spiritual intelligence to their studies – as ALEPH and Academy for Jewish Religion have done.  In turn, seminary schedules and teaching styles must better match adult schedules and learning skills, compatibly with the needs of rigorous seminary education, and better integrate online learning while maintaining effective mimetic environments.  In short, a pastoral rabbinate for the 21st century asks us to rethink the seminary itself – educational models, delivery systems, admissions criteria, curricula and all the rest – all to put spiritual transformation first.


The entrepreneurial rabbinate.  An effective rabbi not only surfs the tide but also steers the boat.  Many of this year’s contributors wisely reflected on social networking, collaborative management and disruptive innovation as important tools for the 21st century rabbinate.  What few seminaries do well, however, is teach rabbis how to innovate.  Rabbis who for centuries understood themselves as purveyors and guardians of tradition now also must mindfully cultivate innovation and the fertile conditions for innovation.  Innovation, however, is risky – and few rabbis (especially ones with contracts to keep or renew) were reared with inclination or skill to take effective risks in their spiritual roles.  At the same time, innovation must balance with continuity: change must connect smoothly to what came before, lest innovations be too much more revolution than evolution.  We must learn again to see all of Jewish tradition and halachah as developmental – always changing, backwards compatible with what came before, but leaning into present and future socioeconomic and psycho-spiritual experience.  In turn, seminaries must learn to teach halachah and tradition in ways that inculcate mastery of this evolutionary process, so that rabbis can steer through the tides of change rather than swim behind or get carried away in the current.  It follows that we must teach rabbis not less halachah but more – and more deeply, taught through this evolutionary lens.  Only then can tomorrow’s rabbis have the skill, knowledge and temperament to direct the flow of Jewish life compatibly with our enduring values.



The community rabbinate.  An effective rabbi in the 21st century is not limited to full-time jobs in synagogue, school or seminary.  Today we see rabbis serving in community centers, social justice advocacy, client services and industry – reflecting a yawning need for rabbinic tools in diverse social contexts, and thus a broadening of rabbinic roles to serve those needs.  Some of these roles are full-time with salaries comparable to synagogue compensation, but many are not.  At the same time, the 2013 Pew study shows quickening disaffiliation from Judaism’s non-Orthodox branches but simultaneous deepening of the private market for rabbinical services. These market shifts challenge today’s socioeconomics of becoming and serving as a rabbi.  The economic truth is that an increasing number of rabbis either want to serve part-time or need to serve part-time.  Thus, if rabbinic education is to remain sustainable for this growing cohort of rabbis, we must find ways not to shackle rabbis to educational debts too large to repay on the salaries they will earn.  The rabbinic path of student debt is all seminary and little soul, and is unsustainable for a profession already shifting on its foundations.  In this moment, we’d do well to remember that “rabbi” is first a calling, not a career: only in the 14th century did the rabbinic “career” begin to emerge.  In their day, Hillel was a woodchopper, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman, Huna was a farmer who raised cattle, Chisda and Pappa were brewers, and Rambam was a physician.  When Talmud’s rabbis told us to “go out and see how the people are accustomed to act” (B.T. Berakhot 45a; Eruvin 14b), it was because they immersed themselves in the daily routines of community, having regular jobs and often struggling to make ends meet.  It may be time to go back to the future: we must not only make a fundraising priority of reducing the cost of rabbinic education, but also use technology and build inter-seminary alliances to scale teaching and cut costs.  These steps will not be easy, and they are not without risk, but the market will not allow seminaries to cling to the economic status quo for long.



Rabbinic education has reached a crossroads.  If we’re deeply honest, rabbis and seminarians must admit that we don’t really know where any path will lead.  Our future is so uncertain: Jewish and rabbinic life is changing under our feet.  The question is not whether we’ll do different: of course we will, because ultimately Jews always have.  Rather, the question is how we’ll do different.  We can either do different early, with enthusiasm and experimentation, leaping ahead of today’s shifts to vision tomorrow’s opportunities.  Or, we can do different late, kicking and screaming, dragged by the market and Jews voting with their feet, following rather than leading.  Let’s choose wisely – and soon – lest the choice be made for us.


Rabbi David Evan Markus is co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, co-rabbi of Temple Beth-El of City Island (New York, New York), and member of the Rabbinics and Spiritual Direction faculties of the ALEPH Ordination Programs.  He is a longtime public servant and serves on the faculties of Fordham and Pace Universities. He presently presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, Ninth Judicial District.  He received dual smicha (ordination) as rabbi and mashpia ruchani (spiritual director) from ALEPH, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, an M.P.P. from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a B.A. from Williams College.  Contact David at davidevanmarkus@gmail.com.

This post excerpts the author’s longer writing, “Seminary and Soul,” available here.

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