Re-Visiting Rabbinical Training

Recently, I had what was probably the third halachic question that I have faced in my entire rabbinical career regarding the laws of niddah, a menstruant. That’s right, over 25 years in the rabbinate, including 12 in pulpits, and only three of these questions.

Here’s the thing: I spent about one-half year learning these laws as part of my study towards semicha [ordination].

Here’s another thing: During the entire course of study in which only men participated (this was an Orthodox yeshiva), not once did we meet a gynecologist, who might have actually taught us about how women’s anatomy worked; not once did we meed with a psychologist, who might have helped us to understand the ways in which women understand was it means to them to participate in the mikvah process. We certainly never heard from a physician who might have suggested to us that, when confronted with a halachic question of this type, we might do well to recommend that a woman schedule a medical checkup depending on what we were hearing.

Mikvah wasn’t the only area in which our training was woefully inadequate. We spent months studying the laws of shechita, ritual slaughtering. We also studying laws of melicha, how to use techniques such as salting and broiling to remove blood from an animal that had been slaughtered. Somehow, while learning about slaughtering, we never had anyone actually explain the physiology of an animal. Hence, while we knew the names of different body parts that had to be dealt with, we had no idea what those parts looked like or where they lived on the animal.

A great story though: When my wife and I were in Israel, we went to a restaurant in Tiberias. There, she ordered something from the menu that turn out to be a broiled spleen. While I had been able to translate what she’d ordered, and could even tell her what the restaurant had done to make the dish kosher, I had never seen one before (and was pretty sure that I would not ever see one again).

In discussions with colleagues from other movements, it became clear to me that their training, too, often kept the theoretical and practical realms of knowledge too separate.

Here are my points:

  • The training of tomorrow’s rabbis need to reflect the roles that rabbis play today, and more importantly, will be likely to play in tomorrow’s Jewish world. Those roles are far different than what they looked like at the time and place in which most of today’s institutions created their programs of study.
  • Rabbinical training institutions need to open curriculum review processes to insure that what is learned is not merely theoretical knowledge, but is always tied to practical considerations and applications.
  • Such reviews need to be empowered to create significant change.
  • The processes cannot be limited to scholars who have spent most of their years engaged in, well, scholarship. It must include practitioners in all branches of the rabbinate (pulpit, education, campus work, chaplaincy). Included in such processes should be representatives of groups who will be served by the rabbis being trained: congregational lay leaders, and leaders of those organizations in which rabbis are likely to work: Federations, Hillels, Jewish hospitals and organizations.
  • The training of tomorrow’s rabbis needs to be intellectually complete and well-rounded. Whatever knowledge that we believe rabbis should have (whether relating to shechita and niddah, or whether relating to teaching prophetic Judaism or community organization), that knowledge must address areas of study from all perspectives. (E.g., If laws of taharat ha-mishpacha are important to tomorrow’s rabbis, training must include the medical and psychological aspects.)

My sense, in speaking to some younger rabbis, is that some changes have occured in rabbinical programs over the years, but that the programs have not undergone major overhauls.

In the last 30 years, Judaism and the Jewish community have undergone major changes, some of them revolutionary. Don’t we owe it to tomorrow’s community to make sure that our rabbis are trained to lead in that newly emerging future?

3 responses

  1. My school‘s got a lot of that. When we did the niddah curriculum a couple of years ago, we definitely got in the outside professionals to come in and speak with us. (Although we didn’t have a shehitah nor a melihah program last year when doing kashrus stuff, but that’s different from when you did semikhah.I do find your suggestion of including “representatives of groups who will be served by the rabbis being trained” to be interesting.


  2. I would have expected no less from Chovevei Torah. There’s a reason that it is considered to be an innovator (see earlier posting about Avi Weiss back in March, ’08). Thanks for the comment.


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