Sunday, June 6, 2010

Studying for Ordination - The Heart and the Mind

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

If I had made a wordle out of my emails of 7-10 days ago – ie pre-Flotilla – the words New Canadian Yeshiva and Conservative Semichah would have been featured prominently. Everyone wanted to talk about this new institution, with its interesting array of staff and its claim to represent true centrism.

To me, though, the most thought-provoking part of this new institution’s presentation was its emphasis on the academics of training for the rabbinate. They emphasize the intellectual, with course descriptions and fieldwork and academic study and touted affiliations with a dozen or so university Judaic Studies departments. Semichah (ordination) studies are laid out with tracks and texts and credits, and so on.

I state at the outset that I know next-to-nothing about this institution; I have only viewed their website. So this is not a comment on the specific institution, or the people involved. It is only my reaction to the design of a semichah curriculum along academic lines.

To me, academia is about cold study.

Academics may be personally religious, but they are not supposed to bring that religion into the academic setting. Their fervor comes from fascination for and absorption in the topic, but from the brain rather than the heart. A professor who is Jewish should teach biblical criticism or talmudic hermeneutics or pastoral counseling just as a Hindu would, and a student should learn from each identically.

For a university professor to teach a text from a heartfelt devotional perspective is wrong – objectivity is the name of the game, the professor a narrator viewing the text, the ritual and their form and function from the point of view of an impassive observer. And the student is expected to divorce his own inner life from the subject matter, as well, at least for the duration of the semester.

Training for the rabbinate, on the other hand, is as much about building the soul as it is about building the mind.

Of course, training for the rabbinate has always been intellectual, in the sense that there is heavy emphasis on text study, whether on a modern critical basis or in the traditional model. But it’s also been about personal growth of the rabbinical student, through mussar [ethical instruction] and mentorship and spiritual development. It's about sensitizing the student to the needs of others, and sensitizing the student to his relationship with Gd.

How will that fit into a university setting?

I taught a Pirkei Avos shiur yesterday, and as part of the shiur I noted the statement of the start of Avos d’Rabbi Nasan [also found in Yoma 4a-b, in a slightly different format], expanding on Pirkei Avos 1:1: משה נתקדש בענן וקבל תורה מסיני , “Moshe was sanctified in the cloud, and then he received the Torah from Sinai.” As the text proceeds to explain, Moshe could only receive the Torah after experiencing the awe of remaining in a cloud for six days, so that he would receive the Torah באימה, ביראה, ברתת ובזיעה – with intimidation, with awe, with trembling. It had to be an emotional experience, not only an intellectual experience.

Avos d’Rabbi Nasan argues that Torah study which will perpetuate a masorah, a tradition that endures through generations, cannot be academic. Torah study which worries about the loss of a single letter,Torah study which inspires all-nighters to understand a Rambam or finish a masechta, Torah study which is concerned about teaching and inculcating a lifestyle, Torah study which is concerned about raising children to a love of Judaism, Torah study which leads to practice, must be heartfelt.

When Chagigah 15b says that one may learn Torah only from a mentor who is like a malach [angel], it’s because the experience is meant to be religious.

When Shabbos 30b says that one’s lips should “drip bitterness” with the awe of learning, and if they do not then they should be burned, it’s because the experience is meant to be religious.

And when Shabbos 30b says that Torah that is not preceded by awe of Heaven is useless, it’s because the experience is meant to be religious.

This is what bothers me about aligning rabbinic training with university education. University-alignment makes the focus of rabbinic training the absorption of legal information, practical details, officiating and counseling and paskening – but not about personal religious growth and development. [Example: The posted curriculum includes nothing about mussar for the student’s own growth, but only about mussar as a tool the rabbi can use on others.] It involves a focus on becoming a better teacher and pastor, but not a better Jew. Through pastoral training there may be some development in בין אדם לחבירו, social sensitivity, but not בין אדם למקום, the relationship between student and Gd.

It displays a lack of אימה, of awe.

I know that this is also one of the knocks people bring against my own alma mater, Yeshiva University – there is a conception, in some circles, that YU is overly academic in its approach to Judaics. But that knock tends to come from people who haven’t actually been at YU, and particularly RIETS; my experience in the yeshiva was one of personal growth along with academic growth, of rebbeim who were role models in Yiras Shamayim (awe of heaven) as well as Torah study.

One last note: This is not meant to be a diatribe against academic Jewish studies. I believe that we should have intellectual, academic, rigorous study of Torah, and that rabbis as well as others will benefit from learning it properly. I also believe that practical rabbinical training should be executed in a formal, planned, structured way. But rabbinic training must be far more than that. To do otherwise will breed fine professors, fine orators, fine counselors, but I fear it will not lead to an enduring Judaism.


  1. They emphasize the intellectual,
    sounds like the "complaints " of chassidut/mussarniks against derech brisk.

    Joel Rich

  2. I looked over the website, and they are apparently open to students of every age and background, but with no mention of gender. The student info is very carefully neutral. What is the deal? Are they open to women or not? Or are they going to stay 'kosher' until a "qualified" one actually applies?

  3. Joel-
    Interesting thought; do you have a reference for that?

    just wondering-
    No idea; the site is very careful, agreed. Want to call them and find out?

  4. Being involved in academia myself, I agree with your critiques of the movement; many have already pointed out that academic biases take the "soul" and meaning out of texts by turning them into "documents" that can only be analyzed historically, though I should note that more literary reads of texts are now acceptable within the academy. Nevertheless, as someone who has attempted to combine both traditional and academic learning, I've often found that what passes for "traditional" learning in certain circles ignores darkei limmud engaged in by rishonim and achronim that encourages certain types of criticism that academics value (e.g. le-kayyume giresa, certain forms of Jewish thought and parshanut, theories of derash, etc.). What's more, because much of the Torah world (with some exceptions within the dati leumi/modern orthodox and traditional Sephardic communities) does not include such breadth in their yeshivas, people who are interested in such things find out about them via academics rather than rabbis.

  5. Joseph-
    Very true. If academia were not allergic to אימה, and if the yeshiva were not allergic to academia, both sides would benefit.

  6. I scanned the members of the Board and rabbinical advisors (see Of those I recognized, they are for the most part Toronto Conservative pulpit Rabbis and prominent lay members of conservative shuls. And the faculty is a mix of Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) trained Conservative Rabbis and modern Orthodox Rabbis (although it's fascinating to also see a Chabad rabbi included). The strong connection to academia is clear.

    I also hadn't heard of this yeshiva before, but I know what Canadian Conservative congregations and Rabbis are going through and I can connect the dots. Canadian Conservative shuls and rabbanim have always been more traditional/observant than their US brethren (I know from personal experience). Many of the older rabbanim have Orthodox smicha. Over the past number of years they have been more and more unhappy with the direction that United Synagogue and JTS have taken towards what Canadian Conservatives have called non-halachic directions(I won't go into details). Most (if not all) Toronto conservative shuls broke with the main Conservative movement in the US a number of years ago.

    I think this is an attempt to develop a made-in-Canada yeshiva with a more traditional perspective as an alternative to JTS. (Note the emphasis on stating that they are halachic on the Hashkafa page). Otherwise, their is no obvious way for future Canadian Conservative rabbis to get ordination.

    I may be way off base, but that's what it looks like to me.

  7. Interesting thought, Michael. Could be, I suppose.

  8. Care to react to this?

  9. Isaac-
    Thanks; interesting, and sad. Look here for my reply...