The Cartel Has Been Broken

In retrospect, the phenomenon of Internet-trained Rabbis serving in Conservative and Reform congregations was bound to happen.

For decades, the liberal movements have tightly managed their Rabbinic placements. The size of each class at HUC or JTS (plus Ziegler in LA) is limited, and each year’s graduates band together as an informal cartel, setting acceptable starting salaries for congregations of different sizes. While this has made it difficult or impossible for smaller congregations to afford a Rabbi, it has also ensured that the Rabbis are able to quickly repay the roughly $100,000 they spent for five years of training — and make quite a decent living from then on.

I recall over a decade ago that there was some controversy when new, “non-denominational” Rabbinic schools were founded. But now, these “non-movement” schools constitute a movement of their own, churning out new rabbis at an impressive rate. All you have to do is commit two or three hours a week (and $8000), and write a 2000 word paper at the end on “any Jewish topic” to prove you’ve learned something, and that’s it, you’re ready to be called Rabbi. And some of those rabbis are, says the Forward, claiming Conservative and Reform pulpits.

Of course, what I find most intriguing about this article is the opening line: “Rabbi Eli Kavon’s colleagues don’t consider him a Rabbi.” All of a sudden, the liberal movements claim to have a standard! For over 200 years, they have insisted that their clergy should be recognized by Orthodox Rabbis as valid equals, despite the Orthodox carping about their piddling “standards” — items such as knowledge of Talmud and Jewish Law, or the belief that things like the Exodus actually took place. But now that the poor fellow who invested $100,000 in his JTS diploma can be replaced by a, wait for it, “nontraditional” Rabbi from Rabbinical Seminary International, Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, or even Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk — well now, that can’t be tolerated.

All of which begs the question: by what criteria are these graduates ineligible to be recognized, or to join a board of rabbis? Having long since declared that individual autonomy is the supreme value of Reform Judaism, how are they able to declare these individuals pasul?

The fallacy inherent in the liberal argument against these rabbis is obvious. As Irving Pomerantz, a member of the board of the synagogue that hired Eli Kavon, put it, “He may know Talmud, I don’t know. We don’t have Talmud questions.” Kavon’s sermons are, according to Pomerantz, the best he has heard, and apparently he does a good job teaching the Torah portion.

The problem is that the Reform movement dismissed the Talmud hundreds of years ago, the Conservative movement has, despite claims to the contrary, followed suit, and now they have no standard by which to claim that these “nontraditional” rabbis (the irony of that term is just priceless…) are not suited for the job.

Furthermore, there is little evidence to support the idea that those who invested $100,000 are truly better informed about Jewish traditions and practices than their online replacements. Just a week later, the Forward published an opinion piece from a fourth-year rabbinical student at JTS insisting that we should learn to love… Chrismukkah. This promising young rabbinical candidate informs us that to him, the most moving spiritual moments of the year include the beginning of ma’ariv on Rosh Hashanah, the smell of latkes, and the “rum-pum-pum-pum” of “The Little Drummer Boy.” I think it’s obvious I didn’t make this up; my imagination could never have even reached for the latkes in this context.

But accompanying an appalling ignorance of the many and diverse truly inspirational moments on the Jewish calendar, we should not be surprised to learn, is a willingness to ignore what little he has learned of our history in order to create new concepts that turn that history on its head. For example, he cites the fact that the victory of Chanukah included a fight against those Jews who built a Greek gymnasium in the holy city, but then uses that element to support his claim that Chanukah “was largely about assimilating various external ritual traditions into the Jewish fold.” Anyone reading his source document (the Book of Maccabees) already knows that Chanukah celebrated the victory of those who rejected that very idea, but, “rum-pum-pum-pum,” he is that anxious to justify the “Hannukah Bush” in the modern Jewish home that he will lead those who know no better down a path to oblivion.

When this is what $100,000 and a five-year full-time investment buys you, is it any wonder that the Irving Pomerantz’s of the world will be quite happy with the lower salary demanded by the products of the $8000 online ordination?

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11 Responses

  1. AnDat says:

    Not that I disagree with you about whether there’s irony here – of course there is – but the tone of this article seems inappropriate. Our brothers whose parents opted for Conservative or Reform will have rabbis with even less Jewish knowledge and connection than they did until now, and you’re laughing? (Perhaps I’m misreading you, but this seems awfully like something between plain amusement and schadenfreude.)
    Yes, you say that “there is little evidence to support the idea that those who invested $100,000 are truly better informed about Jewish traditions and practices than their online replacements.” Maybe, though I’m not sure I can credit the claim that in those five years of study the Conservative and Reform rabbis learn nothing at all. But you will admit that they are at least somewhat invested in Judaism – $100 000 and five years of their lives’ worth, if nothing else. For many Jews, the rabbi at their Temple is their only connection to Judaism, and a weakening of that connection should be cause for pain, not mockery.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    The consumer is king.

  3. Toby Katz says:

    “I’m not sure I can credit the claim that in those five years of study the Conservative and Reform rabbis learn nothing at all. But you will admit that they are at least somewhat invested in Judaism – $100 000 and five years of their lives’ worth, if nothing else.”

    They actually learn almost nothing at all and most of what they learn is false. They are not invested in Judaism at all, but in the exact opposite of Judaism. Every mitzva they consider an aveira and vice versa.

  4. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Heterodox Rabbis are primarily teachers. The other traditional Rabbinic function, making Halachic decisions, is not required very often. In these days of widespread Internet availability, it makes little sense to rely on a single teachers.

    Rabbi Yaakov Menken, I know you do not normally allow links in comments, but this is a good place to mention and

  5. dr. bill says:

    Toby Katz writes: “…They actually learn almost nothing at all and most of what they learn is false. They are not invested in Judaism at all, but in the exact opposite of Judaism. Every mitzva they consider an aveira and vice versa.”

    If you needed to understand the basis for the disdain for some chareidim in parts of the Jewish world, the above summarizes what some preceive to be a position many believe privately but few are willing to express so clearly. In the spirit of Levi of Berditchev – thanks for the candor.

  6. Hoffa Araujo says:

    Dr. G.,

    I didn’t know that R’ Levi of Berditchev applies to heterodox movements and their training schools. And if you think that without Mrs. Katz’s comments there would be no disdain of Chareidim (which you appear to exhibit on a regular basis here and in other fora) then I have a bridge to sell you.

  7. Yaakov Menken says:

    While I don’t know if I would take it as far as Toby Katz, I don’t think Dr. Bill hit the correct point. They do consider it a mitzva to welcome intermarried couples to the point that they sanction intermarriage de facto (and an increasing number of their rabbis will perform the service), to support abortion on demand, and to bless same-gender relationships. While her tone was too harsh, it would be hard to dispute the assertion that they consider these aveiros to be mitzvos. Challenge her on the term “every” and that’s fine.

    But to go back to the original comment from “AnDat,” and her response… I didn’t say that they learn nothing at all. From our perspective, as Mrs. Katz said, that might be true: they know extremely little of Mishnah or Gemara. But that’s not the point. The fact that Conservative and Reform congregations are hiring these rabbis with minimal training demonstrates that whatever it is the JTS graduates have learned, these congregations don’t value it. More congregations would probably consider these online graduates, were it not for the threat of sanctions from the movements themselves.

    No one is laughing about the congregations led by the ignorant. The silver lining here is that liberal congregations are demonstrating that they see no value in five years of liberal rabbinical schooling. Yes, that is good news; they are recognizing that “the emperor has no clothes.” Oh, yes, and that the Forward called these online rabbis “nontraditional,” a threat to “traditional” liberal clergy — yes, that’s funny. Those who don’t get it either have no knowledge of Jewish history or no sense of humor (or both!), and I can’t help them.

    Someone wrote to me asking about the Orthodox online programs. But there’s no comparison at all. First of all, the Orthodox programs require the same amount of time per day as the non-Orthodox programs require per week, and for at least as long a time. But furthermore, and more to the point, no one imagines that a person can walk in with no previous background, take one of those courses, and be ready to serve a pulpit in an Orthodox congregation. From my own conversations with both students and administrators, it is my impression that the majority take the courses for the learning, not in order to become pulpit rabbis.

    The Orthodox have no cartel. Each congregation can select (and negotiate a salary with) a Rabbi of its own choosing — from hundreds if not thousands of possible candidates. Some congregations will want a dynamic speaker, while others will look for a posek who is a bar samcha. So you never find a situation in which a person with a few thousand dollars worth of training (online, at that) is seriously considered alongside a person who sat in Beis Medrash for a decade.

  8. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Menken, You correctly point out the one word “every” in large measure provoked my comment; change it to “some,” as your examples do, changes the sentence substantively.

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    The synagogue scene is so much different from when I was growing up. I remember my father coming home from a shul meeting and saying that “we can hire a rabbi from JTS for $12,000 and one from YU for $8,000 per year, so we are getting an orthodox rabbi.
    That was a good decision because rabbi Aaron Borow had a big influence on my life. However, in those days, the Conservatives were riding high and YU was willing to send rabbis to mixed pew shuls. Both are no longer the case.
    Even as a young person I saw systemic faults in non orthodox Judaism.Mianly that there was a lack of committment and knowledge on the part of the laity. The Conservative Movement has always had a lay membership that did not seriously reflect the asperations of the rabbinic leadership. The idea was that half a loaf is bettr than none. Hebrew School did not inspire too many kids and going to Junior Congregation when your own parents were not in shul was also not giving the right message. In those days they said that orthodox rabbis served Conservative synagogues with Reform members.
    Today’s Conservative rabbis are no longer yeshiva bochurim seeking a better livelihood.

    The real problem of the hetrodox movements is that their edifices need income and the younger generation is not joining anything except the gym. The shul in Florida that hired the mail order rabbi is composed of old people and has no future. They aren’t looking for guidance, just someone to conduct services when needed and be interesting on something that the old timers are interested in hearing about. How much knowledge do you need for that job?

    In conclusion, we err when we judge Conservative judaism by the yard stick of orthodoxy. Most people who joined did so for social and cultural reasons and dogma has nothing to do with it. Now, with the sexual revolution, the rabbis themselves are far less consistant with basic orthodox beliefs. i thin they really have to give up the pretence that they are halachic, because no one believes or cares any more.

  10. Daniel says:

    I’m not too worried about the conservative cartel. We have our own problems at home.

    I’m talking about YCT, of course. The barbarians are the gate, and they’re getting in. The cartel has been broken.

  11. joel rich says:

    Without addressing your specifics, It was broken a long time ago – how many male teachers got a “field commission” of Rabbi? Was there ever a board of examiners checking “private label” smichas’?

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