From teacher to scholar to pastor: the evolving postwar modern Orthodox rabbinate.

Author:Eleff, Zev

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.


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." (9) Soloveichik's words struck emotional chords with many, reminding American Orthodox Jews of their grave responsibility. (10) His words probably also concerned some of the young rabbis seated in the auditorium that night. Chances are, they did not disagree with their master, nor did they devalue traditional Torah study. Rather, they were realistic about their professional opportunities in the United States.

By the 1940s, the Conservative movement in American Judaism had virtually cornered the market on traditional congregations. (11) The movement's flagship rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) had earned a reputation for producing English-speaking rabbis whose sermons and scholarship rivaled those of their Reform counterparts at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Several decades into the twentieth century, it was clear that Conservative Judaism was offering a mighty challenge to the Reform movement's hegemony over American Judaism. Meanwhile, American Orthodoxy continued to lose sway with the masses, but it still managed to remain a very vocal minority. Skeptical Orthodox Jews had for a long while held JTS graduates in contempt. They charged that the inadequacy of Conservative men's level of traditional learning disqualified them from Orthodox pulpits. (12) But American Jews disagreed. To be sure, RIETS graduates initially conquered enough synagogue turf to ring a few alarms within Conservative ranks. In 1929, leaders of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, alerted its members to that reality, stating, "We are no longer the only institution in American Jewry that claims to supply English-speaking rabbis to congregations in the traditional fold." (13) Such concerns were soon allayed, however. By the 1930s, many more lay leaders were American born, and they preferred JTS rabbis--men who could both speak in educated English and appease the older crowd with conversational Yiddish. (14)

The rabbinic marketplace forced the Orthodox to adapt its strategies in order to compete against JTS. The Orthodox seminary began promoting its graduates as worldly men who could speak coherently to the people in the pews. In 1943, Dr. Samuel Belkin, dean of RIETS, billed one of his students as an "eloquent speaker both in Yiddish and English [who] also possesses unusual qualifications as a pedagogue and teacher." Another Yeshiva administrator described that same young man as one who had "gained a reputation as a scholar in both the Talmud and secular fields as well as a gifted speaker." (15) Two years later, Yeshiva received some information about a North Carolina synagogue: "There is room here for one of our graduates who speaks English well and is well versed in Talmudic literature. The sentiment here is definitely pro-orthodox[sic]. The community here, though small in number, comprises a rich, powerful community." (16) Despite such optimism, Yeshiva failed to place its man in that particular post. As the midcentury loomed, RIETS offered a New Jersey congregation "one of the most brilliant students ever to attend this Institution." The young man surpassed his RIETS peers, the placement document stated. "Ele is one of our most able speakers and his record thus far, wherever he has served in the past, has been most excellent." (17)

The situation was ubiquitous. As far west as Oklahoma, a congregation solicited RIETS for a recent graduate who was "a progressive, conservative man, a good speaker." (18) Similarly, the Baron Hirsch Congregation of Memphis chose to hire Orthodox Rabbi Isadore Goodman after a lay leader confirmed that his "voice is as clear as a silver bell." (19) On occasion, installing an Orthodox rabbi in an embattled community worked seamlessly. In the late 1940s, the president of a Connecticut congregation wrote to Belkin, by then the president of Yeshiva University, a year after the congregation had hired a Yeshiva graduate. The lay leader praised the young rabbi for advancing adult education and building up the Sunday school. In a community that had had miserable experiences with Orthodox leaders, the congregational president wrote, the new rabbi's arrival had "at once dispelled and disintegrated all opposition." (20)

More often than not, though, synagogues selected JTS graduates over those from RIETS. Yeshiva mourned every loss to JTS. The most lamentable form of defeat was the kind that took place in 1944. A Pennsylvania congregation informed Yeshiva that it had dismissed its RIETS rabbi for the simple reason that the congregation had "decided to re-affiliate itself with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America." (21) To the chagrin of Orthodox clergy and their teachers, the failure to find employment was rarely a matter of rabbinic aptitude. To the contrary, congregation presidents typically began their polite letters of rejection by expressing admiration for the Orthodox rabbi's command of traditional texts and codes. Rather, the lay leaders doubted whether Orthodox rabbis could be sufficiently modern so as to tend to the current needs of America's Jews.

The Teacher-Rabbi and His Conservative Rival

In spite of its struggles, Orthodox rabbis continued to challenge Conservative rabbis by emulating them. In many cases, the imitation had more to do with the type of congregation that had emerged in the suburbs than it did with Orthodoxy's reverence for Conservative Judaism. As author Herman Wouk explained it, more than ever, lay leaders expected their traditional rabbi to possess the art of communicating his ideas to the congregation. (22) Other shifts among the Orthodox rabbinate had to do with matters beyond the rabbi's pulpit presence. Over the first half of the century, the American synagogue had become an all-encompassing...

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