Arthur Green
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Are American rabbis giving in to assimilation?

As leaders move away from traditional study and practice, how will their congregants find new Jewish standard-bearers?
Hebrew College, which houses a rabbinical school that no longer requires its students to marry Jews, in Newton, Massachusetts, 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hebrew College, which houses a rabbinical school that no longer requires its students to marry Jews, in Newton, Massachusetts, 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)

Two decisions quietly announced by liberal rabbinical seminaries in the United States will greatly influence the future of American Jewish leadership and of the community itself. Each is worthy of note and a cause for some consternation.

Several months ago, the (Conservative) Ziegler Rabbinical Program, an arm of American Jewish University in Los Angeles, announced that it was reducing its course of in-house rabbinical study from five to three years, as well as making it available at a much reduced rate. It cut its year-long requirement of study in Israel down to a summer visit. In doing so, it announced that it seeks to define itself more as a professional training program, presumably bothering future rabbis less with the burden of mastering classical sources in the original.

A few weeks ago, Hebrew College in Boston (from which I am recently retired) made it known that it would no longer consider marriage to a non-Jewish spouse an impediment to admission or ordination in its rabbinical program. It did so without demanding any conditions, such as Judaism being the only religion in the home or the raising of the rabbi’s children exclusively as Jews. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia already made this move several years ago. It is now almost certain that the Reform movement’s HUC/JIR will have to submit to the pressure and conform as well.

There are surely complicated reasons behind each of these decisions. A particularly small pool of applicants in the past two years, as well as financial considerations, play a major role. The truth is that the large wealthy stratum of American Jewry has failed to support its own leadership training institutions anywhere close to the degree needed. Jews of means seem much more interested in seeing their names on endowed chairs in Jewish Studies (and other fields) at secular universities than in caring for institutions vital for the Jewish continuity to which they pay lip service. Academics in the Jewish Studies field teaching in universities, members of the Association for Jewish Studies, have made it very clear that they do not see building the Jewish future or strengthening Jewish identity as part of their professional roles, but donors do not quite get that message.

Both of these decisions were also taken in significant part in response to student pressure. The decreasing pool, along with institutional cultures of responsiveness, gives students ever more power in determining the nature of their education. These young Jews, now sixth or seventh generation since their ancestors’ immigration to the United States, are fully American in every way. That includes the liberal American preference for asserting freedoms and rights over obligations and commitments. It goes hand in hand with a certain commitment of younger generation Americans to accessibility as a supreme value. Everybody should have a right to everything; nothing should stand in their way. It thus becomes morally offensive for a rabbinical program to demand that its ordainees marry Jews or live in an exclusively Jewish household. The school may not demand that future rabbis be active in a synagogue while they are in school. What right does a rabbinical seminary have to make such demands? How dare they restrict my freedom! Overly sympathetic administrators tend to identify with these student views.

Similar is the case of the Ziegler program’s reduction of its course of study. What right does the rabbinical school have to make me learn texts in Aramaic, a skill I will never need out there in the pulpit? Yet the congregational rabbi will often be the only deeply committed Jew whom many of her/his congregants know. The rabbi serves as a sort of cultural and spiritual ambassador from the tradition and Jewish history to the contemporary, often mostly indifferent, Jewish community. But an ambassador has little to offer if s/he is not rooted deeply in the tradition they are representing! For Jews, as we all know, this means deep learning in the ancient books. It also means living in a richly and fully Jewish home.

Since its founding, North American Jewry has been a synagogue-centered Jewish community. For most Jews there, membership in the Jewish community is defined by belonging to a synagogue. Suburbanization in the post-World War II era increased this self-image, and it has not changed. Today’s decreasing synagogue membership is associated in the eyes of the community with diminished interest in both Judaism and Jewry – in other words, with the ongoing process of assimilation. Training rabbis who have less to offer, or whose own lives fill less of an inspirational role for those who care most deeply about Jewish identity, will only contribute to the weakening of those synagogue communities.

In the very tradition-fluid American setting, conversion to Judaism has played an important role. As any rabbi of a liberal congregation will tell you, Jews by Choice are often among the most serious and committed members of the community. Many of these do convert in the context of choosing a marriage partner, but then go on to very deep and sincere commitments to Jewish practice and learning. What will it mean to the future of conversion if the rabbi offering the class is him/herself intermarried? This very important channel for Jewish intensification is likely to be weakened. Why bother to convert if the rabbi’s spouse didn’t?

From a historical perspective, each of these decisions will be seen as a further surrendering to the process of assimilation, another reducing of the standards of Jewish difference from the general American population. As an ethno/religious minority living in a melting-pot society, Jews have done remarkably well in maintaining their identity. Other once-distinctive mostly white-skinned communities (race defines everything in the United States) have looked upon us with envy. But bit by bit, the erosion in the non-Orthodox majority increases. It is worth noticing it as it happens, as a first step to asking whether and how it can be reversed.

About the Author
Rabbi Arthur Green is recently retired as founding dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, where he had served as rector since the program’s founding in 2004. He spends several months each year in Jerusalem.
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