Academic journal article American Jewish History

From Teacher to Scholar to Pastor: The Evolving Postwar Modern Orthodox Rabbinate

Academic journal article American Jewish History

From Teacher to Scholar to Pastor: The Evolving Postwar Modern Orthodox Rabbinate

Article excerpt

In September of 2012, Rabbi Avi Weiss reflected on the Orthodox rabbinical school he had founded in Riverdale, N.Y. more than a dozen years before. The emphasis of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) on "practical rabbinics," said Weiss, makes it unique in its "approach to rabbinic education." Although his faculty provides students with the material to become "knowledgeable," Weiss said, he stressed the importance of the pastoral elements, observing, "The rabbinate is about simply being there for people." (1) That sentiment was well understood by one of Weiss's graduates. Speaking to a researcher, the young rabbi confessed that he had chosen YCT because of the importance the seminary placed on counseling. "Of the different things that rabbis do," he said, "that's one of the most important for me, so I wanted to go to a place where I would get taught that. (2)

Most probably, the young rabbi's alternative choice of a seminary would have been Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). Although the school's curriculum has never matched YCT's offerings in pastoral training, RIETS recently reconfigured its curriculum to reflect more inclusively the professional portfolio of today's American Orthodox rabbi. (3) Ever cautious of criticism, RIETS carefully measured its curricular changes to ensure that traditional Torah learning would remain paramount within its study halls. YCT has not shared these concerns, at least not to the same degree. Criticism toward YCT's belief in innovative Orthodox rabbinic training has been forthcoming. Ever since YCT, a liberal Orthodox seminary, was founded in 1999, moderates at Yeshiva and interested parties within right-wing Orthodoxy had been quick to label the seminary as "Orthodox-lite." (4) Many of the complaints centered on the school's pastoral courses that were drawing considerable time away from Torah study. In response, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, YCT's newly appointed president, claimed in 2013 that it was precisely their pastoral training that "forged successful careers" for the school's graduates. (5) Time and again, however, those opposed to the curriculum at YCT have rejected this model of rabbinic training. Instead, they argue, Orthodox rabbis imbued with Torah knowledge have fared well and have adequately met the needs of their communities and congregations without exposure to a significantly revamped rabbinical school curriculum.

Neither side is totally correct. Over the years, traditionalist rabbis have styled themselves--as have some of their more liberal counterparts--as learned men steeped in Torah knowledge. (6) But that classic rabbinic profile was also bound up with two other important matters. First, rabbis responded to the changing expectations of their laypeople. Second, elements beyond the insular Orthodox community compelled the Orthodox rabbinate to adapt to new conditions. (7) By and large, the Orthodox rabbinate has succeeded. Although still the smallest of the major religious movements in American Judaism, Orthodoxy has persisted despite the most ominous predictions. (8) For their part in securing the community's vitality, Orthodox rabbis have adjusted to internal and external forces. But versatility has probably not been enough. More than that, the traditional rabbinate has persevered because it was able to adapt while simultaneously maintaining a rabbinic image that was unquestionably Orthodox in character. On the other hand, the Orthodox rabbinate has struggled when it could neither adapt to its surroundings nor present a concrete religious identity.

Prologue

On March 1, 1940, RIETS held its quadrennial ordination ceremony. The evening's featured speaker was the school's leading scholar, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik. The sage offered a clear message to the eighteen graduates: In response to Hitler's European conflagration, he asserted, "American Judaism has been charged with the mission to stand at the breach and expand and raise the dissemination of Torah in this country, and to save the surviving remnant and continue the long tradition for which our fathers gave their lives. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.