Most of us have opportunities to celebrate personal milestones of ourselves and our families – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and the like. Sometimes, we may also have occasion to participate in celebrating what may be called communal milestones — occasions representing significant achievements of institutions we care about. Every once in a while, some of us may be fortunate enough to see them combined — to celebrate a personal milestone that also signifies an achievement of such an institution.
I had such good fortune last week. I attended the 15th Chag Ha`Semikha of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. I watched as nine men received semikha (rabbinic ordination) at a moving ceremony. One of those musmakhim (ordained rabbis), was my son, Noah.
For me, of course, the personal aspect of that milestone dominated my emotions. When Rabbi Dov Linzer, YCT’s Rosh HaYeshiva and President, pronounced the traditional formula “yoreh yoreh” it was the fulfillment of a long held aspiration, one for which Noah had worked hard. His joy at this milestone was palpable. Like his classmates, Noah views the rabbinate as both a profession and a mission. He will serve next year as Assistant Rabbi in the Religious Affairs Department of the Hebrew Home in Riverdale. He is eager to begin this next phase of his professional life.
But while the personal joy and paternal pride in Noah’s accomplishments were uppermost in my mind as I watched the semikha ceremony on that night, I was also conscious throughout the evening that YCT is a unique institution. Despite the hurdles placed in its path by many in the Orthodox establishment, the school has played and is continuing to play an important role in the Jewish future. The idealistic young men who were ordained that night join more than 100 prior musmakhim who are serving Klal Yisrael in a wide range of rabbinic positions. At a time when many other yeshivot are becoming increasingly insular, willing to serve only the narrow slice of the Jewish people who fully share their outlook, YCT has, from its inception, consciously aimed to produce rabbis fully committed to Torah, yet prepared to interact with today’s Jewish community in all its maddening diversity. Its priority is to produce rabbinic professionals, not Talmudic scholars.
The school’s core values, which it printed as part of the program for the occasion, include “scrupulous observance of halakha”, “intellectual openness, questioning and critical thinking”, and “affirming the shared covenantal bond between all Jews.” While one can certainly find individuals committed to these values elsewhere in contemporary Orthodoxy, one would be hard put to find another rabbinical school whose primary focus is producing rabbis dedicated to them.
Given YCTs commitment to engaging both Torah and modernity, it is hardly surprising that it has occasionally become a focus of controversy. This dual commitment leaves the school vulnerable to criticism from both left and right, sometimes on the same issue. While I’m sure the school’s leadership would prefer not to spend the effort needed to fend off attacks from its ideological adversaries, this may be the price they pay for confronting issues that others prefer to evade.
The challenges that modern Orthodox rabbis will face, whether in the pulpit, day school, Hillel or other communal institutions will require the ability to translate the halakhic tradition into a contemporary idiom. Yet many Orthodox yeshivas today put a premium on mastery of the most esoteric elements of the tradition. YCT, to be sure, requires competence in the basics of the traditional rabbinic curriculum, but it also has an extensive practical rabbinics curriculum.
One would expect the controversy surrounding YCT to have a negative effect on the job prospects of its musmakhim, and no doubt it has. Yet all of Noah’s classmates had been placed by the time of the Chag HaSemikha, and the school’s overall placement record has been excellent. Whether by design or necessity — or by some combination of the two –YCT seems to be playing the long game, confident that if it continues to produce skilled and dedicated rabbis, they will, over time, overcome the obstacles created by YCT’s detractors.. Professional success is the best argument against the school’s ideological adversaries.
None of this has occurred by accident. YCT’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss (Rav Avi, as he’s known locally) began with a vision of what was needed to create a cadre of modern Orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Dov Linzer, who is both President and Rosh HaYeshiva, translates that vision into day-to-day reality. In the long run, however, YCT’s success will depend on the quality of its graduates and their ability, in the course of rabbinic careers that will span decades, to persuade the communities in which they will serve of the value of that vision.
I make no claim to impartiality in this struggle for the soul of Orthodoxy. My son, after all, is betting his career on its outcome. More important, having watched Noah and his classmates mature into capable rabbinic professionals these last five years, I believe that YCT is filling a critical need of Klal Yisrael by turning out rabbis whose skills, dedication and idealism are desperately needed by the Jewish people throughout the world.
May Noah and his classmates — and the YCT musmakhim who have preceeded and will follow them — achieve success in the profession and mission they have chosen. May YCT go from strength to strength and may the Almighty open the eyes and hearts of its detractors so that they may appreciate the vital needs that this extraordinary school is filling.