Sunday, April 20, 2014


The UOJ Archives

by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobowits

(Sent in by a reader-Tradition. Deserving of its own post.)

By the encouraging response from many readers to our observations under this heading in our last issue, we venture now to expand on this theme and to offer some constructive solutions to the problems posed. The principal criticisms leveled at the existing tendencies in the preceding review may be summarized by the following five points:

1. The denigration and usurpation of the role of practicing rabbis by yeshivah deans had virtually eliminated the traditional place and functions of the rabbinate in the spiritual government of the religious community, resulting in the disappearance of the public Torah image in the community at large.

2. The transfer of rabbinic jurisdiction from communal rabbis to academic scholars confined to yeshivot had severely limited the scope of contemporary Halakhah and caused substantial deviations from the traditional pattern in the methods used to determine Jewish law.

3. These unprecedented developments had led to the displacement by yeshivot of kehillot as the institutional center of gravity in Jewish religious life.

4. The yeshivot's discouragement of rabbinical careers was directly responsible for the spread of mediocrity in the rabbinate and the growing scarcity of candidates forleading rabbinical positions.

5. Yeshivot, by tending to stifle rather than to promote a sense of commitment to the wider community, had been equally unsuccessful in raising a community-minded laity, so that public Jewish life became increasingly drained of rabbinical and lay leaders alike.

To reverse these baneful trends will require much courage and vision. But the foremost requisite is a willingness by all concerned to engage in a dispassionate debate, to tolerate genuine criticism and dissent, and to sweep away the cobwebs of conformity and stereotyped thinking to make room for honest search and bold correctives.

The following observations and suggestions on the above five points are offered in this spirit:

1. The answer to the first challenge is obviously the restoration of rabbinic authority. "Jephtah in his generation is [vested with as much authority] as Samuel in his generation, to teach you that even the most unworthy person, once he is appointed w a leader over a community, is like the mightiest of the mighty" (Rosh Hashanah 25b). Rabbinical authority, our Sages averred, derives from communal appointment, not from mere wisdom or learning. As expressed so forcefully in the incident on fixing the date of Yom Kippur (Rosh Hashanah, 2:9), a Rabbi Joshua, however superior his scholarship, must submit to the rulings and decrees of a Rabbi Gamaliel as the practicing office-holder. There can be no substitute for, or challenge to, an official and legitimate incumbent of a rabbinical post.

A part of the problem may lie in the current use and abuse of the rabbinical title.

Semikhah (rabbinical ordination) is traditionally the conferment of power and responsibility to exercise rabbinical jurisdiction, as emphasized in its wording yoreh yoreh-"he shall surely give rulings." It is the passport to an office, not some honorific title or degree. It is a charge to practice rabbinics, a "crown" of sovereignty that confers obligations as well as rights, as the wording of the document implies.

It is definitely not just a certificate of academic proficiency.

"Any scholar who has attained hora'ah (or semikhah) and does not exercise it withholds Torah and causes the public to stumble; regarding him it is written: 'A mighty host are all her slain' (Prov. 7:26)" (Yoreh De'ah, 242:14), just as a qualified physician who does not practice medicine is deemed guilty of bloodshed (ib., 336:1).Semikhah ought to be awarded only to candidates for the active rabbinate and not as a kind of higher yeshivah graduation diploma, and the use of the rabbinical title should be limited to practicing rabbis. It was never meant as an incentive to Talmudical studies. "A man should not say, I will study so that people will call me 'Rabbi' " (Nedarim 62a). If any such incentives or rewards are really needed, let us reintroduce the time-honored titles of "Morenu" and "He-chaser" as a mark of distinction for scholarship and piety. Let outstanding masters be known by the affectionate "Reb" or the more eminent "Hagaon."

Even many Talmudical savants were content to forego any rabbinical appellation, men like Hillel and Shamai, or Abaye, Rava and Samuel, amongst numerous others!

Businessmen, accountants, or insurance agents using the title of rabbi without exercising it can hardly contribute to the public respect for the rabbinate, especially in our confused society.

Historically and halakhically, a rabbi is an administrator of Jewish law, a spiritual guide and a communal leader. Yeshivot, as the custodians of Torah education, should be the first to acknowledge the function of rabbis in this capacity, and not merely as expedient fund-raising agents, if the Torah image and authority are to be restored in Jewish life.

2. The effectiveness of rabbinical authority today largely depends on public endorsement. For the first time in our history Judaism must be vindicated in a democratic age. Gone are the days when any ex cathedra pronouncement or dogmatic ruling by a rabbi would automatically command popular respect by virtue of his learning or standing.

In the administration of Jewish law, justice must not only be done, but be manifestly seen to be done; as far as is possible, the logic of halakhic decisions must be demonstrated before the bar of public opinion to win acceptance.

To translate this essential ideal into practice, three elements are required: (a) relevance, (b) sweet reasonableness, and (c) a measure of tolerance.

(a) Halakhah must be, and appear to be, a guide to human progress, not a brake on it. All too often rabbinic judgments deal with religious problems in the light of modern conditions, not with modern problems in the light of religious conditions. Vast segments of our people are alienated from Torah life because they believe that Halakhah creates problems instead of solving them.

This is bound to result from the emphasis in rabbinic rulings on subjects of little relevance to the average modern Jew rather than on the great moral, social, and intellectual challenges troubling our age. To make Judaism meaningful and true to its primary purpose, halakhic guides must address themselves increasingly to defining the contribution of Jewish thought and teachings to such areas of current concern as birth-control, juvenile delinquency, the use of leisure, the economics of automation, Jewish-Christian relations, and the place of religion in public life. Halakhah cannot become a popular guide to life unless it embraces all life.

(b) In making halakhic decisions, the reasons given are as important as the conclusions. Even Moses was charged "to trouble himself in making everyone comprehend the reasons" for his teachings (Rashi, Ex. 21:1), and the Shulchan Arukh forbids rabbis to issue permissive rulings "which astound the public" because they are unintelligible (Yoreh De'ah, 242:10). Today more than ever before, rabbis must interpret or explain as well as adjudicate the law if they are to enjoy the fealty of the public.

They must serve both as priests "to teach God's judgments to Jacob and His Torah to Israel" (Deut. 33:10) and as heirs to the Prophets (B. Batra 12a) in presenting the moral and universal aspirations of Jewish existence.(c) The third requisite, tolerance, is equally indispensable for the restoration of rabbinical authority. Differences of opinion are the dynamics of Jewish learning and practice. They have always fertilized the very soil of the Torah "tree of life." The cause of Torah Judaism is hindered rather than helped by the present tendency towards ever more rigid uniformity, turning stringency into a fetish and branding all dissent as heresy. The violent agitation against Rabbi Mosheh Feinstein's ruling on artificial insemination and against the Manhattan Eruv, though both based on unimpeachable authorities, are cases in point drawn from recent experience in New York.The absence of all these three desiderata is inherent in the exercise of rabbinical jurisdiction by yeshivah deans who are remote from the concerns of contemporary society, shielded from the pressures of public opinion, and conditioned by the unquestioning loyalty of their yeshivah students. Practicing rabbis, on the other hand, are necessarily exposed to the broader challenges of real life, required to win consent as well as obedience, and compelled to explore legitimate concessions or to tolerate dissent.

3. Rabbinical offices cannot be filled with incumbents, adequate in quality and in quantity, without training them.

A lamdan (Talmudical scholar), however learned, is not necessarily a rabbi and may be a far cry from it. 

To meet the exacting and manifold tasks of rabbinic leadership, especially in our trying times, numerous skills are required in addition to scholarship. The spiritual leadership of a congregation calls for a high degree of proficiency in the presentation of Jewish thought, in the exploitation of public and personal relations for religious ends, in the impressive conduct of religious services and functions, in communal vision and diplomacy, in educational expertise, in some literary finesse, and above all in competently grappling with the intellectual challenges of our age. The exercise of purely rabbinical jurisdiction as a moreh hora'ah (an administrator of Halakhah), too, requires far more than mere competence in a few Talmudic tractates and some one hundred chapters of Yoreh De'ah dealing with ritual slaughter and kashrut, as presently constituting the semikhah program. To pass halakhic judgments a rabbi must be at home in all parts of the Shulchan Arukh, especially the Orach Chayyim and Even Ha-Ezer, familiar with the responsa literature and its methods, and proficient in the shikkul ha-da'at (weighing of opinions) indispensable for all rabbinic rulings. These skills can be acquired only by years of training and experience (shimmush), and through the constant consultation of writings and masters reflecting this experience.

The requirements for rabbinic ordination, therefore, should be amended to include this training, both in theory and in practice. To authorize rabbis to practice rabbinics and to guide congregations by virtue of their Talmudic learning only is as irresponsible as to qualify physicians to treat patients and to administer hospitals merely on the basis of some academic studies in the principles of medical science and without any clinical or hospital experience. Yeshivot devoted to theoretical studies in Talmud and parts of Yoreh De'ah can no more turn out competent rabbis without the help of rabbinical seminaries than medical schools and textbooks can produce qualified doctors without hospitals.The rabbinate today demands highly specialized professional skills to be an effective agency of spiritual leadership and halakhic jurisdiction. To ensure an adequate supply of high calibre rabbis professional schools are no less essential than for the training of any other professionals. The yeshivot can continue to ignore this need only at the cost of letting countless more spiritual "patients" die for lack of competent healers.

The appalling toll of defections from Judaism, of religious casualties, will hardly abate unless rabbinical functions are restored to rabbis equipped to respond to the questions and questionings of our times-men able not only "to learn and to teach" but also "to guard and to act."

4. Yeshivot are meant to make Jews, kehillot (congregations) to preserve them; the former prepare for Jewish life, the latter act it out. When Moses communicated the main principles of Jewish living to the Children of Israel, he assembled them in "congregations," not in yeshivot (Ex. 35:1; Lev. 19:2, and Rashi). For countless centuries congregations led by rabbis have always been the backbone of organized Jewish life. Under their umbrella all other facets of communal activity grew up and operated: education, rabbinical courts (batei din), mikvaot and welfare services. Today, with the disappearance of kehillot as the principal bulwark of Jewish life and their replacement by yeshivot, many of these communal amenities are largely either non-existent (such as communal batei din), or in unreliable private hands (such as kashrut and shechitah), or under non-religious control (such as the social services of the federations, etc.), and the religious community is fragmented and impotent in guiding the destinies of our people.This situation will not be ameliorated until the yeshivot orientate their students towards a sense of communal responsibility, as expressed, in the first instance, by active membership in established congregations.

So long as our most valuable human resources are absorbed and nullified by communally ineffective shtibels, which neither demand nor offer any contributions to the wider community, the most vital potential for building up the organism of Jewish religious life is frittered away, and the congregations that do exist are religiously emaciated for want of members who are intensely committed and exemplary in their learning and conduct.

The allegedly low standards of observance and religious fervor in larger synagogues are no excuse for defying Hillel's maxim, "Do not separate yourself from the congregation" and for surrendering our public institutions to the rule of ignorance and apathy. On the contrary, "where there are no men, you endeavor to be the man!"

The decline of our congregations calls for mobilizing the support of our yeshivot, not for their withdrawal and indifference. The dearth of Torah-committed members in our major Orthodox synagogues does not excuse the yeshivot - it indicts them.

5. The Torah tradition, as "a tree of life to them that strengthen it," has always given equal recognition to the scholar and to the supporter of scholarship, to Issachar and to Zevulun who shared the rewards and the responsibilities for Jewish learning in identical parts. Hence, it was considered no less important to raise Zevuluns, dedicated to the support of Torah learning and living, than to produce Issachars, devoted to the mastery of Torah studies.Today this essential balance in Jewish life is being dangerously upset. The yeshivot, by their monolithic program aiming at the accomplished lamdan as their sole ideal, seek to fulfill one requirement whilst ignoring the other. As the main custodians of public Jewish education, yeshivot will have to be more diversified in their curriculum and objectives to meet all our needs. The graduation of a potential Zevulun-a successful and devout businessman or professional -should be as urgent and precious a task as raising a profoundly learned Issachar.

To this end, yeshivot (at least the larger ones) should have a dual program of Jewish studies: one, stressing intensive learning designed to train competent scholars, rabbis and teachers, and the other, with an academically more limited scope, aimed at producing dedicated and knowledgeable ba'alei battim, distinguished by their piety and public-spiritedness rather than their scholarship.

These latter products will eventually swell the ranks of an enlightened and loyal laity from which our lay leaders and Torah supporters are recruited. Not every yeshivah student is fit or willing to be fashioned into a lamdan. By focusing the entire educational system on the few who are intellectually and otherwise endowed for Talmudic excellence, the yeshivot neglect all others and they are often lost to traditional Judaism later in life. With proper modifications in yeshivah policies, aims and methods, this large group could be turned into an element no less vital for the preservation of the Torah community than the most erudite scholars.

It is to this group of deeply committed "plebeians," at present completely ignored in the yeshivah "world," that we must look for providing our scholars with followers and financial support and for replenishing the thinning ranks of our lay leaders and communal workers.

Without Zevuluns, Issachars will eventually disappear, too, and it is up to the institutions of Jewish education to raise the former as well as the latter if creative Jewish living is to be perpetuated, and if the Jewish people is to recover its national purpose.