ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 260

Promoted Essay The Times of Israel - Promoted Content Sources Journal: Spring 2024

Liberal North American Jews do not have nearly enough rabbis

But even if we were producing the same number of rabbis we once did, we still would not have enough leaders to serve the theological, spiritual, and moral needs of a North American Jewry.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, Jewish history and memory, and questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. He also hosts the Identity/Crisis podcast.

Liberal North American Jews do not have nearly enough rabbis, and the problem is getting worse. The rabbinic retirement rate, accelerated by burnout, is outpacing the graduation rate, and the number of students enrolling in American Jewry’s mainstream liberal seminaries has plummeted over the last several decades. But even if we were producing the same number of rabbis we once did, it seems to me that we still would not have enough leaders to serve the theological, spiritual, and moral needs of a North American Jewry starved for leadership.

Both rabbinic training and the rabbinic workforce desperately need our communal attention. Rabbinic jobs have gotten harder and lonelier; stakeholders are more demanding of the rabbis they hire to lead their institutions, even as they are growing less attached to those very institutions; the people who take these jobs often experience them as servile, and they come with widely variable pay scales. Most rabbinic training programs are long and expensive. And all of this takes place within an ecosystem of American Liberal Judaism whose institutions and ideas have been struggling for a long time.

But I think that what we need is not merely more rabbis—we could make that happen quickly and easily by further diminishing our expectations of rabbinic training and rabbinic competencies—but rather to restore rabbinic self-respect and rethink our expectations, so that our rabbis will be leaders we respect and, thus, the leaders we need. I believe that by emphasizing the democratic nature of Torah study over the last few decades, we have devalued the rabbinic role of protecting and preserving Torah over generations and carefully showing the way that it can change over time. The role of “the Rabbi,” like teachers and other professions once understood to represent expertise, has become increasingly devalued.[1] We have disempowered our rabbis for the sake of amplifying our own agency in shaping our Judaism, only to discover that we cannot go at it without guidance. For the sake of the future of a robust Liberal Judaism, a Judaism that truly empowers us, we need—paradoxically—the rehabilitation of a more elitist model of rabbinic Torah study and authority. This entails changes not only in what we expect rabbis to do but in what we expect them to know; and what we, as non-rabbis, are willing to sacrifice and make possible in return.

 

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