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?