Jerusalem ordination of secular Jews seeks to ‘redeem’ the word ‘rabbi’
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'Create for yourself a rabbi, obtain for yourself a comrade'

Jerusalem ordination of secular Jews seeks to ‘redeem’ the word ‘rabbi’

Egalitarian and pluralistic, the first cohort of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis is set to lead Israelis in the promised land on their own terms

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

At the ordination ceremony for the first cohort of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, Rabba Noga Brenner Samia accepts her certificate from Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Center and Dr. Moti Zeira, CEO of HaMidrasha at Oranim on September 20, 2016. (Netanel Tobias)
At the ordination ceremony for the first cohort of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, Rabba Noga Brenner Samia accepts her certificate from Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Center and Dr. Moti Zeira, CEO of HaMidrasha at Oranim on September 20, 2016. (Netanel Tobias)

On a recent balmy night in Jerusalem, an ordination ceremony began fittingly with the singing of “I believe.” But the words to this “I believe” form no liturgical prayer. Rather, they are the lyrics of a poem better known as “You May Laugh” by Zionist thinker Shaul Tchernichovsky.

Back in 1892, the Russian-born Hebrew poet expressed to his beloved in eight short stanzas his somewhat incredible utopian belief in a State of Israel based upon humanism, socialism, Zionism and fellowship.

It was a perfect anthem for this group of 16 fledgling rabbis who ordained one another at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Already leaders in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Sephardic, Ethiopian, and surprisingly, secular communities, the disparate group now comes under a new banner — “The Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis” — and claims ownership of Tchernichovsky’s dream for themselves.

This quiet revolution is a project of pluralistic research and leadership hub Hartman and Jewish renewal educational center HaMidrasha at Oranim. The Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis is an egalitarian two-year program — the group was evenly split between men and women — which trains existing Israeli community spiritual leaders towards a pluralistic, inclusive vision.

The first graduating class of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis at their ordination in Jerusalem on September 20, 2016. (Netanel Tobias)
The first graduating class of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis at their ordination in Jerusalem on September 20, 2016. (Netanel Tobias)

They come from varied Jewish backgrounds — from Ethiopian shepherd to secular kibbutznik to Modern Orthodox rabbi — and speak 10 languages. But with the backing of these two well-rooted institutions, the first cohort of a new Israeli Rabbinate is working to realize Tchernichovsky’s hope and “catalyze a process of spiritual rejuvenation for the Israeli public sphere and its emerging Jewish communities.”

Among those “emerging communities” are the proliferation of secular synagogues and yeshivot (houses of study) now seen across the country. From traditionally non-religious kibbutzim to thriving centers in major cities, these grassroots communities are finding increased interest in religion and Jewish culture among a secular public that today feels neither threatened nor obligated by classical religious texts.

In this novel non-denominational Hartman/Oranim rabbinical program, secular Judaism has a seat at the table in which a buffet of pluralistic Judaism is served for those hungry for their Jewish roots.

A secular Israeli rabbinate?

While preparing for the big night few hours ahead of the ordination celebration, Rabba Noga Brenner Samia, the deputy director of Bina (also known as the Secular Yeshiva), talked to The Times of Israel about changing definitions alongside changing roles.

“On the one hand, becoming a rabbi has always been a dream of mine. I looked into one of the liberal rabbinical colleges, but it never was possible, and so I had kind of given up on the dream,” said Brenner Samia. The Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, however, provided an opportunity for becoming a rabbi to serve her community, on her own terms.

“At Bina, a big part of what we try to do is to ‘redeem’ Judaism, reclaim ownership of Judaism, reclaim terms and language and concepts, but while reinterpreting and redefining, also finding new meanings,” she said. “We’ve done that already for ‘yeshiva’ — taken a word that’s been used for serious Jewish learning for generations, and redefined and expanded the definition to include our kind of yeshiva” — men and women learning together, with a social justice bent.

Rabba Noga Brenner Samia, the deputy director of Bina (Netanel Tobias)
Rabba Noga Brenner Samia, the deputy director of Bina (Netanel Tobias)

“I see this as another example — redeeming and redefining rabbi,” said Brenner Samia. And it’s not just her: The entire cohort, she said, is “pushing boundaries, each in our own world.”

But for her and the other half-dozen secular leaders ordained alongside, becoming a rabbi involves questioning the essence of what it means to be a hiloni (secular) spiritual leader today.

“We don’t look upon it as a title of authority; the title is a statement of redefining the role. It’s more of a responsibility, a commitment to a certain kind of leadership,” said Brenner Samia.

Innovations within the past decade have shown that it’s a kind of Israeli secular leadership that is slowly reaching critical mass.

Israel’s first secular clergy, Rabbi Sivan Maas, was ordained in 2003. Maas, who today is the dean of the Jerusalem-based wing of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), was ordained in Detroit, Michigan, by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969.

In Israel, Maas’s Tmura Israeli Judaism rabbinical program has ordained 32 secular rabbis since 2006 who work throughout Israel, officiating at 100s of life-cycle events each year, as educators, and slowly, as congregational rabbis.

‘We need experts at Judaism who are able to lead communities, and that, for all practical purposes, is rabbis’

In a 2001 The New York Times article, Wine explained the need for a secular rabbinate. “We need experts at Judaism who are able to lead communities, and that, for all practical purposes, is rabbis,” said Wine, who died in 2007.

Today in North America there are some 10,000 Jews who belong to secular humanistic communities, according to Rabbi Adam Chalom, who is today the dean of the North America-based wing of IISHJ.

“In one of my first sermons at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, the community at which I work in suburban Chicago, I quipped that the roles of secular, humanistic rabbis are to be ‘enablers, ennoblers and engagers’ – to help people to live authentic Jewish lives of secular integrity, to give them confidence in their Jewish identity and their right to make choices, and to inspire them to connect with their heritage in meaningful and inspirational ways,” Chalom told The Times of Israel this week.

Wine stated in the 2001 NYT article that Humanistic Judaism is based on two principles, “that the source of power for solving human problems lies within human beings and that Judaism is more than a religion, that it is the culture of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Sivan Maas, the dean of the Jerusalem-based wing of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, at a 2010 ordination ceremony. (courtesy)
Rabbi Sivan Maas, the dean of the Jerusalem-based wing of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, at a 2010 ordination ceremony. (courtesy)

According to Maas, her fellow Israeli secular rabbis are fulfilling an ever-growing need that is today even recognized by funding from the Israeli government.

“Most Israelis live a secular way of life. They are sovereign to their own choices in that they don’t depend on any higher power to make their choices,” Maas told The Times of Israel this week. Increasingly, she said, they are choosing to conduct their lives removed from the existing Israeli rabbinate.

‘We’re there to cater to Israelis who live a Jewish Israeli way of life’

Maas emphasized that she and her fellow secular Israeli rabbis are not part of any denomination. “We’re there to cater to Israelis who live a Jewish Israeli way of life,” she said.

A strong Jewish identity, said Maas, is as essential to secular Jews as it is to the religiously observant. It is only when secular Israelis understand their unique place in society that they will feel empowered to dialogue with others.

“When you feel weak in your identity, you become guarded and extreme against those who do not understand you,” said Maas.

Isn’t ‘secular rabbi’ an oxymoron?

For many, this idea of a secular rabbinate is difficult to grasp. At face value, it even sounds almost oxymoronic.

At the well-healed reception before the Jerusalem ordination ceremony on Tuesday night, between schmoozing with the who’s who of Israeli intelligentsia, popular Israeli philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman explained that the notion of a secular rabbinate requires a redefinition of the words “rabbi” and “secular.”

“It a double movement: It enriches the image of the rabbi, but the more important movement is the enrichment of what it means to be secular in Israel,” said Goodman.

Dr. Micah Goodman on the grounds of the Ein Prat Midrasha. (YouTube screenshot)
Dr. Micah Goodman on the grounds of the Ein Prat Midrasha. (YouTube screenshot)

“I think a very dominant secular identity in Israel is the ‘angry identity’ based on a rejection of Jewish tradition. And now we see a secular identity not founded on rejection, but based on inspiration from Jewish tradition,” said Goodman.

‘People are saying, ‘Oh this move is changing religion.’ They’re wrong. It’s more interesting than that’

He gives the model of an authoritative father versus a warm grandfather. For much of secular Jewry, religion has traditionally been the authority figure — a Judaism that wants control over their lives. Today, however, many turn to it as one would to a grandfather, someone to be respected and listened to, and inspired by.

“The institution of a secular rabbinate is breaking dichotomy,” said Goodman. Secular Jews can now see their Jewish roots as a foundation. “Not a rejection, but a liberation,” said Goodman. “They are liberated from the authority from the past, but not against the past.”

“People are saying, ‘Oh this move is changing religion.’ They’re wrong. It’s more interesting than that: It’s changing secularism. It’s not that secular Israelis are becoming religious, the seculars themselves are going through a paradigm shift,” said Goodman.

The distilled spirit of the kibbutz

In many ways the kibbutz movement, the traditional bastion of secular Israeli culture, is also the crucible of its new spiritual wing. The “secular” half of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis initiative, HaMidrasha at Oranim, an academic college founded in 1951 by the United Kibbutz Movement, is in itself — a center for Jewish prayer and learning classical Jewish texts — representative of the shift in secular thinking towards religion.

This transition within the secular kibbutz movement has aided a “blurring of definitions” within Israeli society, said Rav Rani Jaeger, one of recently ordained Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis cohort, and the co-founder and chairman of Beit Tefillah Yisraeli, a “secular” congregation in Tel Aviv.

Rav Rani Jaeger, one of recently ordained Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis cohort, and the co-founder and chairman of Beit Tefillah Yisraeli, a 'secular' congregation in Tel Aviv. (Netanel Tobias)
Rav Rani Jaeger, one of recently ordained Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis cohort, and the co-founder and chairman of Beit Tefillah Yisraeli, a ‘secular’ congregation in Tel Aviv. (Netanel Tobias)

Initially there was a rebellion against religion by early secular kibbutz pioneers, said Jaeger, but “without the rebellion of Zionism, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

“I think that the challenge of Israeli society is how to come out of that rebellion and again affirm something, not just reject. What do we do with Israeli identity that is positive and not rejective,” Tel Aviv-born Jaeger asked in a quick phone conversation the day after his ordination.

The kibbutz movement, said Jaeger, outgrew its “adolescent” anti-religious attitude and began to take ownership of their Jewish tradition and rejuvenate it.

‘I think that the challenge of Israeli society is how to come out of that rebellion and again affirm something, not just reject’

The “dowry” the kibbutz movement brought was a positive reaffirmation and redefinition of Jewish texts and rituals, said Jaeger, citing the multitude of Passover Haggadot (the ritual text read at the Passover seder) generated by the kibbutz movement in the past 100 years.

“Did you know that the kibbutzim proposed hundreds of haggadot? Isn’t that one of the most amazing creative moments of Judaism of the 20th century — 200-300 new haggadot?” said Jaeger. “There isn’t one stream other than the kibbutzim that is so prolific.”

In the wake of this blurring of identities, however, many kibbutzim still staunchly maintain their secularity. Recently, 90 of the 160 members of the Ein Gedi Kibbutz voted to reject a Tamar regional proposal to build a new Orthodox synagogue and ritual bath at the popular hotel there.

In an interview with local Hebrew website MyNet, Mani Gal, a longtime member who has served as the kibbutz’s secular rabbi for the past 30 years, said the older members were concerned about opening the door to an outside religious authority that would begin to tell them what they may or may not do at the kibbutz. (The cafeteria does already have a certificate of kashrut and there is a small Orthodox synagogue for hotel guests.)

Picnickers at Kibbutz Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea. (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel staff)
Picnickers at Kibbutz Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel staff)

Had the proposed synagogue been egalitarian, where men and women sit together, and mothers can read from the Torah, just like fathers of the bar/bat mitzva children, it is possible the kibbutz members may have reacted differently, said Gal.

The mix of democratic and egalitarian principles so essential to the kibbutz movement is reflected in the leadership of HaMidrasha at Oranim.

“We are convinced that, as Israeli rabbis/rabbas, our graduates will create a strong foundation of Israeli-Jewish spiritual leadership committed to Jewish sources, social responsibility, solidarity, justice, camaraderie, human rights and mutual responsibility,” said Dr. Moti Zeira, CEO of HaMidrasha at Oranim.

In taking this “leap of faith” and ordaining rabbis, Zeira said, “We believe with all our hearts that they will extend the benefits of community life to an Israeli society eager for spiritual engagement, and become driving forces towards building the country as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Projected behind the stage at the Hartman ordination of the first class of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis were the Hebrew words from the Mishna for Masechet Avot, “Create for yourself a rabbi, obtain for yourself a comrade.”

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute, speaks at the Jerusalem ordination ceremony of the first cohort of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, September 20, 2016. (Netanel Tobias)
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute, speaks at the Jerusalem ordination ceremony of the first cohort of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, September 20, 2016. (Netanel Tobias)

The partnership between HaMidrasha at Oranim and the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by Modern Orthodox thinker Rabbi Professor David Hartman, and today run by his son, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, is remarkable in its intentional inclusive pluralism.

“When you do something new, you must also remember that there’s nothing new under the sun,” said Hartman, president of the Hartman Institute, as a preface to his speech at the ordination. The Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis “stands on the shoulders” of the decades of work done by Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform and Jewish Renewal leaders.

‘When you do something new, you must also remember that there’s nothing new under the sun’

In America, said Hartman, who had returned from the States earlier that day, there is a pervasive sense of mission among the Jewish communities that they must be “a light to the nations.”

Hartman read from the Book of Isaiah, “And God said, ‘It is too easy for you, My servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob and restore them to Israel. And I shall grant you to be a light unto the nations, to be My salvation until the end of the earth.'”

Hartman said, however, that due to its extreme internal factionality, Israeli society has yet to achieve the ability to be a “light to the nations.” “How do we teach the Israeli society that the return to Israel is just the beginning, not the end… I want to be a light to the nations, but we’re not there yet,” said Hartman.

Before the ceremony closed to the strains of the psalm “Shir HaMaalot” and the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva,” Hartman turned his remarks to the first rabbinical class and said, “You are the light to the nations.”

“May you have the strength to fight for our society,” said Hartman. “We are in need of a Judaism that is light… Our society requires it.”

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