“One small question for [you],” he wrote, “What yeshiva [seminary] did you go to? My rabbi was the dean of the yeshiva in New Jersey…”
It was at this point I realized that my online dialogue partner was feeling rather triggered. This stranger, who I encountered in the comments section of a Kabbalah Facebook group, was apparently put on edge by what I had shared.
This type of online tension, as we know, is not a new phenomenon.
When I openly discuss challenging topics like “Where does Kabbalah come from?” or “What are the origins of the Bible?” it often goes in the direction of people asking:
“Who are you, anyways?”
“Where were you ordained?”
“How can you call yourself a rabbi if you don’t believe in _______?”
These kinds of questions tend to come up when people feel personally affronted by ideas. When they feel uneasy, instead of grappling with the issues themselves, they can move to question the capacity of their debate partners to accurately present the facts.
Attacking the Person, Not Their Ideas
This type of rebuttal — where we question the source of the information as opposed to the information itself — is known as ad hominem argumentation. It tends to arise when people are confronted by notions that run contrary to what they believe. In the case of the dialogues I have been having lately, when somebody (who is usually less informed by an academic mindset) is bothered by what I have presented, they often turn from debating the facts and logic to questioning my authority on the subject.
I understand this as a very natural and self-protective human reaction that all of us are guilty of from time to time. It’s quite common, in fact.
In light of the ad hominem arguments that have been coming my way recently, I’ve decided to write about who is actually qualified to discuss Judaism today.
One of the most obvious answers is rabbis, right?
What is a Rabbi, Anyways?
The word “rabbi” is a combination of the Hebrew word rav which means master or teacher and the possessive suffix “i” which means mine. Rabbi means, “my teacher” or “my master.” If the word “master” sounds off-putting to you, think of a Karate Master or Master Yoda — trainers and teachers in a lineage with particular knowledge and skills.
Originally, there was no official way to become a rabbi. There was no ordination, rabbinic certificate, laying on of hands, or anything else. Someone was first called “rabbi” when their student was quoting their teaching and referencing them by name, as in, “My teacher [rabbi] so-and-so said…”
In the era where rabbis were first recorded being quoted (around 200 CE), many other Jewish authorities were cited that did not have that title. Have you ever heard of Hillel the Elder? He is one of the most famous Jewish teachers of his era and he did not have the title “rabbi.” Hillel is one of many examples of the group of people engaged in the function that a few generations later became explicitly associated with the rabbis. These functions, at their core, were scholarly and legal. Yes, rabbis were keepers and cultivators of wisdom and sometimes leaders of ritual. But, their fundamental role which set them apart from other Jews, was to know the texts and utilize them to make decisions about Jewish legal, ritual and ethical life.
Many people today think a rabbi’s role is to lead prayer services, officiate life-cycle rituals, and call the shots (or at least attempt to) in synagogues. Technically (and in practice), anybody can perform these functions. A rabbi’s officiation does not make a wedding binding, for example. Also, converts don’t need rabbis to become Jews — they just need learned Jews to be present at their conversion. And, any Jewish person who is able can lead a prayer service (as long as they are old enough).
The rabbis’ core function has always been that of scholar. Interestingly, in the very beginning, there was no official distinction between rabbis and non-rabbis if they were all learned Jews. Today, we differentiate between them based on ordination, not level of learning.
So, what does it mean to be ordained?
The Different Types of Ordinations: Strengths and Limitations in Scholarship
Note: No training program or denomination is a monolith. I’m describing large trends here but it is not uncommon for rabbis with training elsewhere to break the common pattern of their ordination stream.
Also, I am only comparing different types of ordination with regard to how they train rabbis as scholars of Jewish textual sources, not any other aspect of rabbinic training.
Most Orthodox Rabbis are trained over the course of around four years of study, focusing on the Talmud and Halakhic [Jewish legal] texts. A good Orthodx yeshiva [seminary] will, at the very least, train its students to decode, understand, translate, and dispense the legal principles of Judaism.
Inside the yeshivas, Orthodox rabbis almost never get trained in academic history. They also rarely get much training in the precise grammar of Hebrew or Aramaic. Instead, they are expected to pick it up informally along the way. This means that they might not, for example, understand the difference between a Hebrew gerund and a verb. In certain ways, their less precise training of Hebrew grammar helps those rabbis follow in the long tradition of reinterpreting phrases and words to fit the circumstances at hand.
As it so happens, someone (who is also quoted in the opening line of this article) recently tried to argue with me that the term Kabbalat Shabbat means “to receive Shabbat.” This was part of their view that receiving Shabbat was a verb and therefore a process that could not be called a “thing.” I think it’s a very nice interpretation, but it is not a grammatically accurate reading.
“Kabbalat” in the term Kabbalat Shabbat is a gerund that is in construct form. That means the translation is “receiving Shabbat,” where “receiving” functions as a noun. Thus, Kabbalat Shabbat can be called a “thing.” By extension, the real point we were discussing — whether “Kabbalah” was a verb or not — hinged on the same issue. Grammatically, though I love the idea of Kabbalah being a continuous process, like a verb, it is actually a gerund. It can be called a “thing.”
By the way, if you don’t know how to make sense of the above two paragraphs, you are in good company. This specificity of Hebrew grammar is only taught in certain rabbinical schools and academic settings (including Hebrew College, where I was ordained).
LIBERAL DENOMINATIONS (Programs with Campuses)
Liberal Jewish rabbinical schools: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructing Judaism (formerly Reconstructionist), and non-denominational (eg. Hebrew College and Machon Hadar) usually train their rabbis over the course of 5 or 6 years with a combination of textual reading and historical approaches.
Each rabbinic program emphasizes different components, but they share in common the enriching knowledge gained from several generations of historical research into the Jewish past. Jewish Studies professors and some Biblical professors, by the way, are certainly modern day authorities on Judaism. They tend to focus more on describing and researching Judaism, while rabbis tend to transmit Judaism in more everyday settings.
Partly because the Liberal Rabbinical schools spend considerable amounts of time teaching practical rabbinical skills, such as pastoral care and community leadership, they often provide less exposure to traditional halakhic sources than most Orthodox rabbinic ordinations. Conservative ordination programs and Machon Hadar, however, spend a great deal of time on Jewish legal material.
In brief: if you want somebody to find a rabbinic source relating to a legal matter, you will have the best luck asking a rabbi trained at a Conservative or Orthodox rabbinic program, or at Machon Hadar. If you want somebody who is able to talk about the history of any of the Jewish communities or of the origins of texts, a liberally-trained rabbi is the best bet.
Just because somebody knows Talmud and Halakhic sources does not mean they understand the historical context in which those teachings arose. Conversely, just because somebody knows the history of where and why a school of thought came to be, does not mean that they can open up a book from that time period and read it with fluency. My personal ideal is to be able to do both, but it takes a lot of training and dedication beyond what most ordination programs offer.
LIBERAL DENOMINATIONS (Online and Distance Programs)
Besides the ones mentioned above, there is a distance/online 5-year denominational program called Aleph, for the Jewish Renewal Movement. It specializes more in Jewish mysticism and ritual/prayer leadership, although they also spend time with other traditional sources and historical content.
There are many other online and distance programs that are emerging in the current landscape. Most of them are 2-3 years long. Although people may enter these programs with extensive previous knowledge, it is impossible to train a beginner to be able to translate and decode the foundational rabbinic Jewish texts over this period of time. As such, many of these programs focus on practical skills like life-cycle rituals, pastoral care, and leading services.
So, who has the authority to teach Judaism?
The quick answer: anybody.
At the end of the day, it is not about the source of the information, it is about the accuracy of the information. Questioning somebody’s authority to relay truth or wisdom based on their training or who taught them is a logical fallacy.
Truth is truth. Facts are facts. And, with that being said, it is worthwhile to investigate claims if you have suspicion about the person who is relaying them. I encourage everyone to find out what is real in Judaism and in life more broadly.
I hope this list of the ways that people are trained will help you discern which rabbis are likely to have particular knowledge in certain areas. Personally, if I want to find a passage in the Talmud, I often consult people who are trained in Orthodox or Conservative settings. However, if they are untrained in academic approaches (eg. many Orthodox rabbis), I investigate the sources they present to me with more skepticism.
If I want to understand a grammatical issue, I look to people who have expertise in that (such as rabbis from Hebrew College or some university professors). If I want a historical analysis of Jewish mysticism, I won’t ask the average Orthodox rabbi just as I would not expect the average Reform rabbi to delineate the halakhic position on family purity laws as they relate to menstruation.
I wish you all the best in your quest for knowledge. If you have any questions or topics you’d like to delve into, use my contact form and check the “Online one-on-one sessions” box.