‘To a Land that I Will Show You’: Training Rabbis for the Future

by David Greenstein

The problems of rabbinic training today are manifold, complex and complexly interrelated. The most fundamental questions concerning this issue are open to considerable and often anguished uncertainty and debate. In order to formulate a coherent stand regarding the elements that should comprise an appropriate rabbinic training program it is necessary to ask a host of related questions, such as: What should such a program prepare its trainees to accomplish? And for whom? Where are rabbis needed? When? Who should be entrusted with guiding such preparation – who should be implementing the various elements of the program and who should be supervising this implementation? What will it take to enable this program to actually succeed in fulfilling its mission?

Of course these questions do not exist in a vacuum. The rabbinate has a long and rich history, as does rabbinic education. The rabbinate has always been a complicated and challenging enterprise. Rabbinic training has always reflected the complementary and competing spiritual and intellectual, personal and communal pressures of the day. But study of this very history leads us to conclude that the rabbinate and rabbinic training have now become problematized to an acute degree never before experienced.

The Foundational Myth of the Rabbinate

The concept of the ‘rabbi’ as the central authoritative figure in the Jewish religious tradition did not develop until after the passing from the scene of the powerful ritual and spiritual virtuosi known as ‘priests’ and ‘prophets.’ Rabbis first appear after the crisis of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. They embarked upon an ambitious program to save the Jewish people. They wished to create a nation that would be dedicated to serving God through the study and practice of the Divine Will, expressed in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible as understood by Jewish tradition). This entailed the production of teachings that could be formulated as authoritative for the community, teachings that encompassed the deepening of Israel’s moral, spiritual and national values and practices. They undertook to impose their vision upon the community and to mold the communal and religious institutions of the community in conformity with that vision. Thus, for instance, the synagogue arose as a popular institution that was only gradually accepted by the rabbis. They then asserted their power so as to co-opt and supervise the activities that took place there and delineate that institution’s place in the overall organization of the community. (On the synagogue, see Levine, 2000)

But what of the rabbis themselves? Where did they come from? Why did they even seek to accomplish this and how did they succeed? Accustomed as we are to analyze history through the lens of power politics, the common answer of a modern student of that era is that they sought power over the community. They represented but one sect of many in the contentious Jewish community of the time. In a sense, after the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction, they found themselves in an advantageous position relative to these other sects and they were shrewd enough to capitalize on their luck.

But from the rabbinic perspective, the answer is different. Their success was due to a motivating dream and a self-definition that comprised what we may call the ‘foundational myth of the rabbinate.’ They sought to transform the whole people of Israel into a people of God’s Torah. But first they undertook to transform themselves so as to model for the people what it would mean to live a life of Torah, in the hope that the entire people would be inspired to emulate them in their way of life. One scholar has explained that this project was nothing less than messianic:

When people believed that by studying Torah and keeping the commandments they would take a critical role in the coming of the messiah, Judaism as we have known it for nearly two millennia was born. When, further, Jews reached the conviction that the figure of the rabbi encompassed all three ‘ the learning, the doing, the hope ‘ Judaism had
come to full and enduring expression. As I said, the rabbi as incarnate and avatar and model of the son of David embodied Judaism and gave to it his honorific, ‘rabbi,’ a mere commonplace title of respect when it first appeared. So Judaism became rabbinic. In due course, the entirety of Judaic existence, from remote past to yearned-for future, sustained a process of rabbinization: the rereading of everything in terms of the system of the rabbi. (Neusner, 1994:172)

It emerges that the standing of the rabbi depended on the community’s acceptance of the worth of the rabbinic enterprise at least as much as it depended on the rabbis’ success in taking up positions of communal and political leadership. The community had to desire to bind itself to the Torah and it had to believe in the spiritual authenticity of the rabbis. It is because the community wanted to believe that rabbis actually embodied the wisdom and holiness of the Torah that the rabbis could convince them that they did so.

But how did an aspiring student become a ‘rabbi,’ an ‘avatar and incarnation of Torah,’ as the fundamental myth of the rabbinate would have it? Who trained the rabbis and what was involved in the training? While there were surely places of study where students could gain learning and hear the lectures of sages, it seems that these places were not fully established institutions such as the academies that developed in later times. Study circles formed and dissolved. Students moved from one sage to another, their training dependent on their relationship to a mentor, rather than to a long-standing school. In this oral culture a student was expected to master the sacred writings by heart along with the growing body of rabbinic interpretations and rulings. But this was not enough:

For a student, success in study was considered of little value if not accompanied by serving a sage; one who had not done so, no matter how much Torah he knew, was considered by some as an `am ha-aretz [= member of the vulgus and, hence, an ignoramus (-DG)].

As for the sage, it was not enough simply to teach students. He was also responsible for introducing them into a total way of life through exposure to his habits and behavior, in and out of the academy, day and night, in public and in private. . . .

Serving a sage entailed rising in his honor, accompanying him on a journey or on the way to the bath house, attending him at meals or when sick. (Levine, 1989:59-60)

Thus the training of rabbis included an intensely personal and transformational process that depended on the student’s willingness and ability to absorb not only the teachings of the master, but, also, the master’s personal habits and bearing. The student had to assimilate how the Torah could be embodied. It was thus that the student succeeded in winning the trust of the master, for ordination was understood to be a declaration of the established rabbi’s confidence in the new rabbi. Ordination was the master’s expression of faith that this neophyte would be able to become a living link in the chain of tradition, and it was a call to the community, in turn, to put its trust in ‘someone like this’ (Babylonian Talmud [BT] Sanhedrin 14a). The perpetuation of this chain of tradition was a value so precious and so vital that the Talmud tells of rabbis who were willing to sacrifice their lives in the act of ordaining their disciples when the Roman authorities sought to forbid this practice.

Since, according to the original myth of the rabbinate, the rabbi stands as a link in the chain of tradition first started with God’s transmission of Torah to Moses, and Moses’ faithful teaching of the Torah to Israel, the conditions of that transmission must be adhered to: ‘Just as I,’ says Moses, ‘[learned from God and taught you] for free, so must you [learn and teach] for free.’ (BT Nedarim 37a) This meant that there was a theoretical prohibition against taking payment for teaching Torah. The rabbinate was not to be made into a profession! Indeed, for generations, and in some communities up until today, while engaging in their studies and rabbinical duties, rabbis also had to learn a trade in order to support themselves and their families.

The Classical Development of the Rabbinate

This basic myth could not be fully realized in its purity. The Jewish people, as individuals and communities, in circumstances of persecution and dislocation as well as tranquility and successful settlement, required a process of institutionalization and professionalization to ensure the dependable development of their spiritual leaders. While the personal link between master and disciple was never cut, economic and political realities promoted the creation of established academies of Torah study ‘ the yeshivot (sing. ‘ yeshivah). Responsible Jewish communities, in an age when communal identity was the primary vessel for an individual’s self-definition and functioning in the world, needed to assure that their religious needs were met by engaging rabbis and paying them. Rabbis needed to devote all their time to their obligations and could not afford to treat their rabbinic studies and duties as secondary.

Nevertheless, these processes did not essentially undermine the basic myth of the rabbinate. This can be seen from noticing the surprising absence of repercussions that followed the cessation of the official practice of ordination, perhaps in the fifth century CE. The Jewish community is a fierce guardian of the memory of its sacred history and it preserves significant dates – most often, unfortunately, dates of catastrophe and tragedy, such as the date of the destruction of the Temple or the expulsion from Spain. But the date when official s’mikhah (‘ traditional rabbinical ordination) was lost has not been preserved. This is because, while the ceremony was discontinued or erased, the institution, for all practical purposes, continued. The institution of the rabbinate had become so fundamental to Judaism that it could withstand the most far-reaching shocks and alterations, as long as the basic myth could be preserved. As long as rabbis could still be seen to incarnate Torah, it did not matter that the age-old ceremony conferring that status had disappeared. The community continued to need its rabbis, so it was willing to empower them through the creation of centers of Torah learning and through financial subsidies, subsidies that, paradoxically, effectively turned the rabbinate into a profession.

Rabbinical Seminaries

While the rabbinate became a paying profession starting in the 14th century, the training of rabbis was still the product of the personal interaction between devoted students and revered teachers. The yeshivot (academies of Torah learning) ‘ which reached their zenith from the nineteenth century until World War II in Eastern Europe – were not academies for the training of rabbis. In these academies students and teachers engaged in pure Torah study, concentrating on the profundities of Talmudic dialectics, with no concern for its practical use in the outside world. As a scholar lovingly recalled,

If, after having spent years of study and companionship with his friends and teachers, a Yeshivah student decided to enter the rabbinate, he would leave the Yeshivah and devote himself for several months to those ‘technical studies’ necessary for his profession. [‘] If one was steeped in Torah, and sought an appointment, either because he was inclined to the rabbinate or because circumstances left him no choice, then only would he take leave and prepare himself for his vocation. The Yeshivah per se neither served as, nor was it considered, a school for the training of rabbis. (Alon, 1970:451-452)

The underlying assumption was that, if the student had become thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Torah, in accordance with the myth of the rabbinate, the acquisition of practical knowledge for the rabbinate would be easy. Yet, this text acknowledges a paradox. In order for that modern student to become a community’s rabbi, he would have to abandon the precincts of pure Torah study and engage the practical needs of the community. So long as the community still identified with the myth of the rabbi as Torah incarnate, this shift could be tolerated. But, no matter how much the Orthodox yeshivah world might wish it, the shift was not always seamless.

In Western Europe, as the Emancipation proceeded apace, the shift became a breach. It was no longer possible to uphold the myth of rabbi as Torah-incarnate. The alienation of the communities from this traditional rabbinic figure became extreme. They wanted rabbis to minister to them, but they did not want ‘old-fashioned’ rabbis. Knowledge of Talmud was considered insufficient, if not detrimental. More important was the rabbi’s pastoral sensitivity and his knowledge and comfort with modern culture, exemplified by his ability to preach in the vernacular. Lay people and rabbis, alike, shared this critique. For rabbis could not ignore the modernizing influences spreading through their communities. Rabbis with only traditional yeshivah training were often at a loss in dealing with emancipated Jews. Many rabbis were deeply concerned with finding ways to make the Jewish way of life relevant to their communities. As they advocated religious reform so did they demand a reform of the process of rabbinic training.

The first rabbinical seminary was opened in 1829, in Padua, followed by similar institutions in Germany and France. These seminaries created the first curricula for rabbinic training, requiring a host of courses to supplement – and supplant – traditional Talmud study. As emancipated Jewry increasingly valued the Western intellectual tradition, the rabbinical seminary sought to maintain its dignity by becoming an academic institution in the Western university model. No longer was Talmud study considered the highest form of engagement in Torah. With the emergence of new fields of historical investigation of Judaism, a more well rounded approach to the mastery of Jewish tradition was sought. The study of Bible, philosophy, history, public speaking and other disciplines was required. All contemporary, non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries continue in that Western European tradition. The Orthodox rabbinical school of Yeshiva University has also modified its course of study under the influence of this model.

How well has this model served for the training of rabbis for modern Jewry?

The Present Crisis

The Jewish people and its rabbis have been struggling with the rewards and costs of emancipation for two centuries. It has not yet developed a broadly successful approach to living Jewishly in the secularized, modern West. Our present situation is further exacerbated by unprecedented losses and challenges. The Jewish people today lives in the aftermath of cataclysmic events, among them: the Shoah (Holocaust), in which one-third of our people were cruelly destroyed, including among them most of the pious and religiously devoted communities of Jewry; the establishment of the State of Israel, making it possible to live a fully responsible and integrated Jewish life for the first time in millennia, including in this possibility the corrupting tendency of power; the attendant disappearance of the vast majority of Jewish communities living in Arab lands, uprooting centuries’ old communities and traditions.

These events have continuing reverberations on the Jewish psyche, individual and collective. Yet the rabbinical seminaries in the United States have not produced any substantive responses to these events that have succeeded in capturing the minds, hearts and bodies of contemporary Jewry. Even as we enjoy political influence and material success of undreamed-of proportions, we are in many ways a broken people. Thus, the Jewish people in the Diaspora are not reproducing; they are diminishing in number. Nor are most of the remaining members of the community growing in devotion to Jewish life. Modern rabbinical seminaries have struggled valiantly against the forces that have produced this crisis. But it must be stated that their curricular and institutional reforms have not yet afforded a solution for training effective rabbis for modern Jewry. This must be admitted, even while acknowledging the many special people who work in the field.

Indeed, one of the significant responses of the modern rabbinate to our present crisis is the inclusion of dedicated women into its ranks. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this breakthrough was not achieved by a seminary. Rather, the first woman to be ordained and to serve the Jewish community, Rabbi Regina Jonas, was ordained, as in the past, by an individual rabbi who, in the traditional manner, tested her and then expressed his conviction of her worthiness and granted her hatarat hora’ah ‘ permission to teach and make Jewish tradition. She served her people in their darkest hour and perished with them in Auschwitz, in 1944. (Zola, 1996:4-5)

Contemporary rabbinical seminary education is enmeshed in self-contradiction in two important ways. First, the modern seminary is founded on the ideal of ‘scholarship.’ But, modern curricula afford students mere glimpses of various aspects of Jewish tradition; the standard curriculum of rabbinical preparation does not and cannot produce scholars. Furthermore, it must be questioned whether the academic model, institutional and educational, is not inherently self-defeating in that it is irremediably inimical to the realization of the rabbinic myth. A method of study that insists on scholarly distance from its subject can hardly be expected to produce students who strive to experience that subject as a ‘Tree of Life.’ ‘Scholarship’ is not the same as ‘Torah,’ even when one devotes one’s life to the former.

To some extent, in recognition of this state of affairs, there has been an attempt to give more weight to the pastoral training of seminarians. Increased opportunities for practical training in the field, such as chaplaincy work, are certainly worthwhile. But, as long as they are seen as supplementary programs, tied to the academic structure of departments and courses, they will remain inadequate and problematic. Placed within an academic setting, the increased involvement of professionals of many fields, with all their welcome and necessary skills and expertise, raises the question of the place of rabbis in the training of rabbis. In what sense does rabbinic training require the direct influence of rabbis upon their disciples? For students or interns are not necessarily disciples.
Furthermore, there is a fundamental problem with the present assumption underlying the introduction of pastoral training. It has been motivated by a desire to ’round-out’ rabbinic training, to add another professional dimension to the skill set of the rabbi. What is missing is a recognition that the pastoral role of rabbis is necessary in areas beyond the realms of illness, aging, physical or emotional trauma and personal counseling. It has not been adequately considered as a necessary element in the calling of rabbis as healers of the spirit of the Jewish people, an element that should influence all aspects of rabbinic training, including theological explorations, policy choices and Torah study itself. Conceived in this way, the pastoral dimension of the contemporary rabbinic calling would be, not supplementary, but integrative of all aspects of the process leading to the making rabbis.

To a Land. . .

The present crisis expresses itself in various ways. Rabbinical students increasingly eschew involvement in the congregational system that has characterized the religious organization of American Jewry for centuries. (Wertheimer, 2003:37) Some attribute this trend to the increased professionalization of the rabbinate, with the attendant demand for more defined jobs that do not impinge upon one’s personal time. Another factor is the disenchantment of prospective rabbis with congregational work that is perceived as futile. These feelings are part of a larger cluster of factors that produce a strong feeling of isolation and estrangement among rabbis.

Non-Orthodox rabbis are encumbered, as well, with their delegitimization by the Orthodox community and its rabbis. Furthermore, since the Orthodox control religious life in Israel, non-Orthodox rabbis are disenfranchised by what is, in many ways, the central Jewish community in the world. The lack of support by non-Orthodox communities in the Diaspora for efforts to change this situation would indicate that the undermining of their rabbis’ standing is not of great moment to them. But there is evidence that the rift between the community and rabbinic leadership is growing in the Orthodox community as well. The dearth of rabbinic leaders in the United States is commonly acknowledged within Orthodox circles, and the breakdown in rabbinic authority and the lack of respect for rabbis has become a matter of increasing concern after recent traumatic events in Israel.

From the communal side the crisis can be discerned in the growing confusion among the laity about what rabbis are needed for. More radically, it can be seen from the growing evidence of vital Jewish endeavors that dismiss or ignore the need for a rabbinic presence altogether. Especially among younger Jews, whatever excitement and experimentation there is derives its impetus and leadership from artists and social entrepreneurs who do not look for ideas or guidance from the rabbinate. (See, for instance, the report, ‘Hipster Jews: helping or hurting?’ at www.jewsweek.com)

The Jewish community recognizes a great need for all kinds of leaders. Across the board, it is no longer obvious that it recognizes a need for rabbis. Where does a rabbi or a rabbinic student turn for definition or validation? One leading rabbi wrote: ‘And so we are, if we are honest with ourselves, in the most difficult and loneliest situation in Jewish history. We are rabbis who have nothing going for us except our own passion, our own conviction, our own lives, and what we are willing to put them on the line for.’ (Hertzberg, 1975:124) This statement goes beyond the existential truth that each of us is ultimately a ‘lonely wo/man of faith’ It speaks of an alienation from community and from tradition. Some years later, in an effort to both affirm and overcome this feeling, a leading figure in rabbinic education declared: ‘Our authority is gone. All we have left to give is ourselves; all we have left to teach with is the example of our own lives. But ‘ come to think of it ‘ isn’t that all we ever had?’ (Green, 1987:32) This essay argues that such exposed loneliness was not ‘all that we ever had’ at all.

The rabbinate originally arose as a response to crisis. The rabbinic enterprise engaged in producing individuals who not only studied Torah, but who personally identified with Torah, so that they could be seen as her authentic avatars and who, believing in a Torah that was simultaneously defined and open-ended, could thus overcome the crisis of the present by linking the traditions of the past with a hope for a messianic future. The idea of leadership of the community was a corollary of that vision, not its motivation. While the past development of the rabbinate can be studied and analyzed, the question is whether schools for rabbinic training, rabbinic students and their teachers still wish to embrace such a vision without ambivalence or embarrassment.

The first step for those engaged in preparing rabbis for the future is to accept the reality of the present crisis. It will not help to aver that the essential state of the rabbinate is today as it has always been. Nor can the crisis be met by, say, calling a conference about it. Nor can future rabbis be adequately prepared by training them to support denominational ideologies that themselves have proven to be inadequate. It is necessary to reevaluate all present educational and training approaches against this criterion: will this program succeed in producing individuals with a love of Torah and a belief in its divinely infinite capacity for responsiveness so that they will strive toward its mastery and its furtherance?

The Jewish people mark their birth from the moment God calls to Abram and charges him to leave his familiar surroundings behind and to go to a land that God will not show him until some time in the future. Abram agrees, knowing only one thing. Wherever he may end up, it is in order to ‘become a blessing.’ (Gen. 12:2)


Alon, 1970 ‘ Gedalyahu Alon, ‘The Lithuanian Yeshivas,’ in The Jewish Expression, Judah Goldin, ed., Bantam Books, 1970, pp. 448-464.

Dorff, 1987 ‘ Elliot N. Dorff, ‘Training Rabbis in the Land of the Free,’ in The Seminary at 100, Nina Beth Cardin and David Wolf Silverman, eds., New York: The Rabbinical Assembly and The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1987, pp. 11-28.

Green, 1987 ‘ Arthur Green, ‘Authority and Autonomy in Rabbinic Education Today,’ in The Seminary at 100, pp. 29-32.

Hertzberg, 1975 ‘ Arthur Hertzberg, ‘The Changing Rabbinate,’ in his Being Jewish in America, NY: Schocken Books, 1979, pp. 116-124.

Levine, 1989 ‘ Lee I. Levine, The Rabbinic Class of Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity, Jerusalem/New York: Yad Izhak Ben Zvi & Jewish Theological Seminary, 1989.

Levine, 2000 – Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Neusner, 1994 ‘ Jacob Neusner, ‘Varieties of Judaism in the Formative Age,’ in Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, Arthur Green, ed. New York: Crossroad, 1994, pp. 171-197.

Ruderman, 1987 ‘ David B. Ruderman, ‘Rabbi and Teacher,’ in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987, pp. 741-747.

Wertheimer, 2003 ‘ ‘The Rabbi Crisis,’ in Commentary 115:5 (May 2003), pp. 35-39

Zola, 1996 ‘ Women Rabbis: Exploration & Celebration, Gary P. Zola, ed., Cincinnati/NY/LA/Jerusalem: HUC-JIR Rabbinic Alumni Association, 1996.