Jerusalem — In a bold educational initiative called at once “problematic” and “a blessing,” the Shalom Hartman Institute will offer a joint rabbinical program that will train Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbinical students — men and women — in the same classroom.
At the end of the four-year program, the male and female students will be ordained by some of the institute’s rabbis, and will then be prepared to assume the role of “rabbi-educators” — not pulpit rabbis — in North American community day schools.
The venture, which is expected to begin in September, is unprecedented in that it will be the first rabbinical program in Israel to welcome students from all religious streams of Judaism. Some of these students could be Orthodox women searching for semicha (ordination) from a respected mainstream institution.
The very notion of a transdenominational semicha program has some people very excited and others bewildered or downright worried. A number of nondenominational rabbinical schools exist in the United States, including the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale and Hebrew College in suburban Boston.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the institute’s Modern Orthodox co-director and son of its founder, master educator Rabbi David Hartman, told The Jewish Week that the program isn’t as shocking as some are painting it to be.
Rather, Rabbi Hartman said, the rabbinical track is merely an extension of the institute’s two-year Melamadim master’s program, which he calls “a unique program that is training an elite cadre of [students] to be high school teachers for all types of high schools in Israel and North America.”
The proposed rabbinical track, Rabbi Hartman said, grew out of a desire to train students to be school rabbis, a job most mainstream rabbis have not been specifically trained to perform. Even when rabbis want to serve as school rabbi-educators, he said, “they don’t learn the job in existing semicha programs, which focus primarily on the pulpit.”
To serve as the preeminent educational authority in a day school, Rabbi Hartman said, a person “needs more training than a master’s program can provide, but people aren’t prepared to study for four years with obtaining ordination. Actually, the program is five years, if you include the internship in a North American high school.”
Those few who are ready to commit to a rigorous multiyear course of study “want to carry the title ‘rabbi,’ and rightly so,” Rabbi Hartman said. “‘Rabbi’ is the highest title for a teacher.”
Rabbi Hartman insisted the program will provide much more than a rabbinical title, important as that is.
“The rabbi is the leading educator in the school and needs to be trained to meet the challenges. You can know all about Shabbat and kashrut or Talmud, but that doesn’t mean you know how to stand up and inspire young people to be Jewish. Working with adolescents, developing curriculum is its own area of expertise. The high school setting presents an entirely different world of halachic and philosophical questions.”
Rabbi Hartman emphasized that his program is designed solely to train “rabbi teachers,” not pulpit rabbis who will serve in congregations. “The idea is to train a master rabbi educator” whose mission will be “to provide students the tools to want to choose to be Jewish. We are not interested in competing with HUC, JTS, YU or the Reconstructionist college,” Rabbi Hartman insisted, referring to the official rabbinical schools run by the various denominations.
“We’re not claiming we can ordain someone to be a Reform rabbi. The Reform movement does this through its own institutions. There is no need for the Hartman Institute to enter into a sphere where the established rabbinical schools are more than adequately dealing with [training pulpit rabbis].”
The issue of semicha, Rabbi Hartman conceded, “is always a question of who accepts which rabbi. It is a political thing, a denominational thing. But we are convinced our rabbis will be accepted into community high schools.”
The institute’s ordination process, though still in the planning stages, will work something like this, Rabbi Hartman said: “The [ordaining] rabbis will be Hartman Institute faculty with rabbinic degrees. The idea is that one type of ordination will be given out, but if someone is, say, a Conservative Jew, they will see themselves as a Conservative rabbi. I am perfectly willing to ordain people to be whatever kind of Jew they want. Once ordained by us, the rabbi will be a part of whatever movement he or she chooses. Just as I don’t believe there is just one way to be or become a Jew, I don’t believe there is just one way to become a rabbi.”
As to whether the institute’s Orthodox rabbis — including its aging founder, Rabbi David Hartman — will perform the ordinations, Donniel Hartman said, “the answer will be determined by which denomination the rabbinical student wants to be ordained in. We might have one beit din [rabbinical court] that may apply to all. The makeup of the beit din has not yet been resolved. I don’t think there has to be a direct correlation between the denomination of the beit din and the denomination of the rabbi. But I can accept that an Orthodox rabbinical student will request that all members on his or her beit din be Orthodox.”
Rabbi Hartman expressed frustration at a recent Jerusalem Post article whose headline read, “Hartman Institute to Ordain Women Rabbis.”
“This is not a program whose aim is to change the status quo in Orthodoxy,” he said “We don’t make gender distinctions and as a result, women are welcome. We’re not changing the gender status; we’re providing outstanding educators for the Jewish people. Doing so, we believe women, just as men, have to be tapped equally if we’re going to give the best to our students.
News of the Hartman initiative spread like wildfire over the weekend, following the publication of the Jerusalem Post article last Friday — a story that “failed to focus on the essence of the program,” Rabbi Hartman said.
“Hartman is an excellent institution but my first reaction is that bringing together Jews from different denominations for a rabbinical program is problematic,” said Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa. “Doing so could give legitimacy to non-halachic practices.”
Rabbi Einat Ramon, dean of the Masorti/Conservative Schecter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, said the Hartman rabbinical program will not compete with her movement’s long-established rabbinical school.
“We educate our students according to the tenets of classical Conservative Judaism. We define our boundaries and our theologies very clearly. Those who study at Schecter are people who identify with this theology,” Rabbi Ramon said.
Rabbi Ramon called the creation of any new rabbinical program “a blessing,” but wondered how students from different streams could receive joint ordination.
“I’d like to know what halachic parameters are required to get into the beit midrash. The Reform movement doesn’t have any halachic parameters to be a rabbi.”
Despite some initial criticism from some quarters, Donniel Hartman he has received “a lot of positive feedback” from many of his colleagues in North America.
“Ultimately,” he said, “the marketplace will determine whether or not this program is important.”