Paradigm is an overused word but in this case I think it fits. The fact that we talk about “ordaining” rabbis speak to the paradigmatic change in the rabbinate. Jewish tradition says nothing about rabbis being ordained. Quite the contrary, our tradition holds that rabbis have no more religious authority than any other Jew. But that we adopted this very Christian term, replacing s’micha… (literally laying of hands) speaks to a need for change.
Protestant seminaries abound. The Association for Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting body for American seminaries, has nearly 300 member schools. Very few are denomination-specific and even those that are accept students of many flavors other than their own. Once a student finishes their studies (usually with an M.Div.) they are then ordained by their respective denomination. So why not rabbis?
We should worry about this! Not because it’s a New York phenomenon but because while many Jews identify themselves as “cultural” Jews, I posit that food and other cultural identities are actually ethnic identifications.
According to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, ethicity is “…a nostalgic yearning for Jewish folkways that once sustained us as a people apart, but can no longer do so – not, at least, without anti-Semitism to drive it. Ethnicity in this sense is doing what we think Jews have always done, whether they are really what Jews have always done or not, and whether or not they are even authentically Jewish; and doing them by social habit, just because we have grown up with them and feel good doing them. Jewish ethnicity is ‘doing what comes naturally,’ but with no transcendent purpose.”
To distinguish ethnicity from culture, Hoffman writes, “By Jewish culture, I mean the totality of wisdom, practices, folkways and so forth that constitute what we choose to remember of Jewish experience. That experience is simply too massive for anyone to remember it all, so every generation selects part of it (reinterpreting it as necessary), and leaves the rest behind. Leaving behind does not mean losing it forever, however. The parts of Jewish culture that do not get selected in any given generation remain in the cultural reservoir, as it were, to be recovered some day by others.”
And importantly, he contends that culture remains viable and important to Judaism because of, “ … the remarkable fact that Judaism demands study, and not just study of what is relevant, but study of everything Jewish.” I want to emphasize this – Judaism demands study… of everything Jewish.
I don’t think ethnicity or culture can sustain American Judaism in part because most Jews now have no identification with “the old country,” i.e. Eastern Europe. Ask most young Jews and they have no idea that bagels and rye bread are anything more than interesting foods. Add to that the lessening interest in Judaism as a distinct culture (again, Ashkenazik/Eastern European) and what’s left to tie Jews together?
And if synagogues haven’t awakened from their head-in-the-sand slumber this might be what finally does it. Not only are Jewish teens diverging from their slightly older YJA (young Jewish adult) contemporaries, the teen cohort is one that synagogues have had some (perceived) success, though I’ve argued that their success is for those teens who are already engaged.
The other troubling thing is Jewish identity is so tied to ethnic and cultural factors that are largely gone from… American life. How will a Jewish teenager from Kansas connect with a culture she’s never known?
“For most Jewish teens, these classic measurements of Jewish identity are so far from their reality that they’re not really measuring anything of value,” he said. “Teens want to know how will this program help me flourish and become a more successful human being, not will I go to Rosh HaShanah services afterwards.”
“But man, I tried. The experience left me feeling more alienated than ever. The people were welcoming, the rabbis warm, the services spirited, but I could not identify with the earnestness of religious feeling I saw all around me. It felt like popping into a department store on a hot summer day just for the air conditioning; you can’t wander the aisles forever just for the cool climes. At some point, you either need to buy something or to move on. And I wasn’t buying — at least not the products offered.”
Lots in this article – the changing role of cantors, the market forcing changes in rabbinical training, and ultimately “With society changing so rapidly, synagogues are desperate to find formulas that will keep them functioning… They want as many options as possible and don’t want rabbinical organizations — effectively labor unions — to dictate to them.” Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan
Rabbi Julie Jacobs, flanked by former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels, left, and musician Matisyahu, celebrating her rabbinical installation at Beth David Congregation in 2015. Previously the Miami synagogue’s cantor, she now works as both. (Courtesy of Beth David Congregation)
- People are increasingly concentrated in very large congregations.
- There is growing diversity among and within American congregations.
- Many pastors are bi-vocational.
- Worship services are becoming more informal and expressive.
- People in smaller churches give more money to their churches than do people in larger churches.
- Congregations focus more on serving the needy than on trying to effect systemic change.