When my co-editor, Ellie Roscher, and I called for essays in our recently published book, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, we invited laypeople, rabbis and educators of rabbis to submit essays. We received one submission from a full-time rabbinical student—something that we hadn’t anticipated. However, using some creative Talmudic logic, I suggested to Ellie that he is also a layperson, so why let a technicality prevent a good essay from making it online? This week’s guest post is by Jonah Rank, a layperson who is a fifth year rabbinical student. We invite other rabbinical students to respond to his comments on a desire from a more customized, individualized curriculum designed around students’ needs.
Seeking 70 Faces In Rabbinic Training
By Jonah Rank
It’s tough to say what it is that makes someone a rabbi since almost anything rabbis do is something someone else can do: officiate at any Jewish life cycle event, lead prayer services, study Torah, teach Torah, or even decide matters of Jewish law. It’s not that rabbinic roles have been usurped by educated Jews, but being a rabbi has never been about just one thing. Rabbis have taken on many shapes throughout history: legalists, mystics, preachers, storytellers, sages, pastoral caregivers, kosher slaughterers, synagogue administrators, teachers, and more.
With outstanding scholars founding many of the great rabbinical schools of North America and Western Europe during the past two centuries, the rabbinate has morphed from being less of a personalized response to a spiritual calling and more of a mass-produced, certified, nearly-unionized profession. In an age when professional Jews are accused of stuffiness and being spiritually boring, some might lament that a Jewish community that has grown apathetic has long outgrown the “one-size-fits-all” curricular tendencies of the ivory tower schools built by academics. But, especially in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, it is rare that a brick-and-mortar rabbinical training school can succeed both in providing for the needs of the students and maintaining a stable faculty. If we are therefore to seek models of pedagogy housed in physical buildings that tend to the individualized needs of each student, we must ask ourselves: How could one possibly design an institutionalized rabbinic education that still permits students vast agency in customizing their own trajectory?
In recent years, many rabbinical schools (including the one I attend, the Jewish Theological Seminary) have laudably granted increased freedom of choice to students in determining their course of study. In the abstract, I have nonetheless been curious to work out what would be the maximal amount of independence a student can have in a rabbinical school that still met accreditation standards, still had required courses for all students, and still covered “traditional” material that I (along with a smattering of friends, teachers and colleagues) felt would be vital for a rabbinic education.
Two years ago, I conducted an informal survey via Facebook, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations, where I spoke with approximately 30 prospective, current and former rabbinical students from several rabbinical schools. I asked my colleagues and colleagues-to-be what they deemed essential to a rabbinic education—course-wise and otherwise. Were I to design a rabbinical school based off of the suggestions I received at that time, it would take over 8 years to become a rabbi. In order to permit that students would be able to graduate within 5 years (a long but arguably reasonable amount of time to be in rabbinical school), I would suggest that some of the narrower interests suggested during my surveying can come in the form of electives that surround a common core curriculum of rabbinic education that all rabbinic students share. Surrounding a rabbinical school’s curricular academic core—the lead melody that all students must sing—students and their mentors must work collaboratively and creatively to arrange a suitable orchestration to accompany the song of a rabbinic education.
Certain themes that underlie the resultant curriculum I tried to design for a hypothetical rabbinical school differ significantly from current trends in many rabbinical schools:
- The creation of a non-professional track for rabbinic studies, still resulting in Semikhah (ordination), alongside a professional track granting a degree alongside Semikhah;
- The rabbinical school offering a variety of curricular paths (e.g., differing curricula for those seeking to highlight social justice in their rabbinate vs. those seeking to highlight academia in their rabbinate vs. those seeking to highlight synagogue-work in their rabbinate, etc.);
- A requirement that every rabbinical student has, prior to ordination, learned a Jewish “trade” (e.g., a social “trade” such as counseling, a Jewish art “trade” such as Jewish storytelling, a “hand trade” such as building a mikveh, or a knowledge trade such as becoming a mashgi’ach to supervise the kosher status of food);
- An intense combination of personal theological reflections; academic studies of history and language; contemplating expanding roles for interfaith collaboration; and increased familiarity with Jewish legal and other rabbinic genres of texts.
These bullet points yield merely an unpolished outline of this imagined rabbinic education I have referred to as “Shiv’im Panim” (the “70 faces” of a multifaceted Torah-education) in an essay now published on my website. I hope that the fantasy rabbinical school curriculum I have designed and now made public might help others in designing new templates and models of rabbinic education that increasingly nourish the souls of those who walk the halls of our academies.
Jonah Rank is a musician, and, as of May 2015, a rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Jonah is currently studying for an M.A. in Jewish mysticism. Since 2006, Jonah has worked on new liturgical projects for the Rabbinical Assembly, most notably as the secretary to Mahzor Lev Shalem (released in 2010) and Siddur Lev Shalem (forthcoming).