Category: Rabbis

…the content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation. This was particularly true between the World Wars in New York City, where Leo Jung on the West Side and Joseph Lookstein on the East Side—self-proclaimed ‘modern Orthodox” rabbis—drew upon the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Freud, Goethe, Ibsen, William James, Macaulay, Shaw, Tennyson, and Whitman, as well as on the vast body of rabbinic literature, to craft sermons much like those of American-born Reform and Conservative colleagues. Keeping in mind the warning of a contemporary Conservative rabbi, Israel Herbert Levinthal, that his printed sermons were often delivered ‘extemporaneously” and written “out a long time after their delivery,” the historian looks for typescript sermons or sermons reprinted in synagogue bulletins and the Jewish press immediately after delivery. They are abundant, and, by the 1930s, Orthodox rabbis in various places turned a Latin phrase, digested a German book on philosophy or literature, or followed the scientific arguments of the leading writers of their time as easily as they could quote from the Talmud.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 89-90.


The denominations, and the seminaries where they train their rabbis, will have to recognize this and take a more holistic view of their role in Jewish life. Rabbis need to see themselves as teaching Judaism, not as upholding the tenets of a particular movement. …
What’s more, the denominations, themselves, are no longer the most relevant force in shaping our synagogues. Instead of the large denominational divisions, imagine an entrepreneurial approach to synagogue life, one that encourages the growth of vibrant communities….

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 169.

…today, the rabbi’s position as a consultant on halachic matters is not very relevant. How many people turn to rabbis with questions about kashrut? Today rabbis are being asked to solve totally different problems: husband-wife or parent-child relationships, and sometimes also issues of faith. As such, the rabbi, who is not a trained marriage counselor, psychologist or philosopher, is forced to answer them. Consequently, nowadays rabbis are, unfortunately, dealing mainly with issues for which they have not been properly trained, and rarely are they dealing with those areas for which they did receive the proper training.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “The Rabbis of Today“, (9 January 2014).

Ordained rabbis were rare before mid-century. The first arrived in Baltimore, in 1840, and even after they began to come over from Europe, congregations frequently used laymen or minimally trained leaders for the basic ritual services, such as reading the liturgy, providing music for worship, and chanting the Scriptures, as well as for running the synagogue or supervising the dietary regulations (especially for meat). When rabbis (or, as they were sometimes called, especially when they were not ordained, ministers or reverends) cantors (hazzanim), whether trained or not, were hired by these reforming congregations, they were usually given, in writing, the synagogue’s expectations about how they would lead (reading or singing or both) the liturgy, how frequently they would deliver sermons, in which language they would deliver them, their obligations with respect to life-cycle events such as confirmation ceremonies, weddings, and funerals (including compensation), their responsibilities with the choir, which ages they would teach, and even the precise order of the liturgy. At Rodeph Shalom, for example, the Ritual Committee instructed the service leader to begin the Friday-evening service with L’chu n’ran’na (Come let us sing) and then gave sentence-by-sentence orders. Shaarai Shomayim, a small synagogue in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (with an 1855 German constitution), hired its first ordained rabbi, Morris Ungerleider, in 1884 as “Chasan, Minister, Teacher, and Schochet.” Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, in 1857, hired the Reverend S. Berman as “chasan, Shochet, and Shammes,” and twelve years later it sought someone who “can perform the duties of Chasan, teacher, and Shochet,” is “capable of teaching in the Hebrew, German, and English languages,” and could deliver sermons. The larger the congregation, that is, the greater the budget, the more likely these roles would be divided up among a rabbi, a cantor, a ritual slaughterer, a teacher, and a sexton.

In Atlanta, Abraham Jaffa, shochet, mohel, and hazan – slaughtered chickens in the rear of his home. Washington Hebrew Congregation, in the district of Columbia, hired two salaried officials in 1867, one to serve as lecturer and the other to serve as hazan or reader and teacher. In 1871, the congregation replaced the two two with one man, Michael Goldberg, “reader and teacher,” and explained to him that it no longer wanted sermons. He was to “read” the service, “keep” the religious school (twice during the week and on Sunday), and “educate” a choir, but he was not to preach during the Sabbath worship service. At the same time as the congregation was steadily introducing reforms, it returned to a centuries-old European tradition of eschewing weekly sermons and, instead, hiring someone to preach on occasional festivals and holy days.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 35-36.

While the status of women was quite similar from branch to branch, the salaries of rabbis were not. Generally, with very few exceptions, rabbis of Reform synagogues received salaries, paid monthly, which provided a reasonable standard of living for them and their families. In contrast, rabbis of Orthodox synagogues everywhere struggled to make ends meet. Many of these rabbis, in the 1890s and early 1900s, earned less than $1,000 a year in salary, and they were forced to sometimes collect the money themselves and to charge Jews for each rabbinical service. They frequently supplemented their small salary by overseeing kashruth (especially supervising animal slaughter); serving as an arbitrator in questions of Jewish law; performing marriages, divorces, and other life-cycle ceremonies; selling wine for ritual purposes (including later, during Prohibition, legally, because of provisions that allowed the sale of wine for religious use); and selling collections of their sermons. For example, Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone, of Orthodox Tifereth Israel in Washington, D.C., claimed to have sold 4,000 copies total of three of his privately printed books. Rabbi Abraham Schapiro, of Portsmouth, Ohio’s Orthodox B’nai Abraham, was paid $600 annually in 1896 (he was offered $500 additional salary if he would close the bookshop he owned for supplemental income on Jewish holy days), while Rabbi Abraham S. Braude of Chicago, in 1916, received the same salary from his synagogue. Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno hired Rabbi Henry W. Schneeberger in 1876 at $1,200 annually; when he sought a raise after nine years, his appeal was rejected (“no way of increasing revenue: he was told); after sixteen years of service, the trustees raised his salary to $1,600, but, when there were “not enough” funds, they reduced it to $1,500. In contrast, when Portland, Oregon’s Reform Beth Israel hired the newly minted rabbi Stephen S. Wise in 1899, they paid him $5,000 a year.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 54-55.

To draw people back into the synagogue, we…need to train rabbis in the art of running engaging services, certainly on the High Holy Days but also all year round. We responsibly fill our students with great Jewish texts and ideas, but we irresponsibly pay scant attention to teaching them how to use those texts and ideas to enliven services. We place great emphasis on the Saturday morning sermon, but ignore the rest of the service. Since people are looking for meaning, we need to unlock the liturgy for them. Therefore, instead of making the “senior sermon” the rite of passage for future rabbis, we should instead ask them to run a complete Shabbat morning service. They would pass only if the assembled participants found it intellectually engaging and spiritually uplifting.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, “Growing The Conservative Movement”, The Jewish Week (18 October 2013), 27.

As a rabbi, I spend most of my time reading writing, talking, discussing and arguing about Jewish things. There is a lot to argue about, a lot to talk about. From our perspective, these issues can seem not just important, but overwhelming, more important than anything else could possibly be. The divisions and politics of the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox world are important – but only to a point. The question of the differences between Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, between this group and that group, this rabbi’s statement and that rabbi’s counter statement – these are all important issues. But, for too many of us, for me, personally, they are given far more prominence than could possibly be justified.

Rabbi Shaul Robinson, “Priorities: Inside the Tent and Outside“, Lincoln Square Synagogue Blog (11 November 2013).

Rabbi Avi Weiss can be a bit of a controversial figure that very few people, I think, take seriously, for two major reasons, that I think may be related.

The first is by reputation. He’s not known for being a למדן – he’s not known for being a learner; not known for being a תלמיד חכם, which I find very unfortunate. Having heard him numerous times – my grandparents go to his synagogue in Riverdale often – and other interactions, I can tell you that Rabbi Weiss is a lot more knowledgeable and a lot smarter than just about everyone gives him credit for. It might not come across because he might act like a Carlebachian hippie, but there’s a great deal of substance under there that’s very easy to overlook.

The other issue that I think comes up is that leads people to make either irresponsible or just flat-out wrong assessments is they focus too much on conclusions; by which I mean What is the conclusion? What is the statement that Rabbi Weiss says?  If you agree with it, you agree with what he’s trying to accomplish: “Oh, how great, how courageous he is”.  And if you’re predisposed to not liking what he says: “The guy’s a כופר – he’s a heretic, and he’s not really Orthodox”.  And neither one of these responses addresses the issue of method; meaning, you could be right, but for wrong reasons,  you could also be right for wrong reasons.  But no one actually addresses the arguments on their merits. People get so worked up in the emotional reaction of “Do we like what he says or do we dislike what he says?”  And I think that, too, is unfortunate, because I think there is a system here and I think it’s worth unpacking.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, “Halakhic Process 25: Open Orthodoxy“, Yutopia Podcast #119 (27 October 2013).

Just like the idea of Chovevei has grown out of a specific need, the mission of YCT struck a cord with a unique set of students. The students applying to our rabbinical school feel a calling to serve. They are caring and learned, each a leader in his own way. They are our centerpiece, wishing to change the very face of the Jewish community and world. So refreshing is YCT’s approach that many of our trainees would not be in any rabbinical school were it not for Chovevei.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, “A Message from Our Founder and President,” Fourth Annual Gala (New York: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2007), 13.

YCT has, to date, consistently and, perhaps, fanatically adhered to the Maimonidean rule forbidding responding negatively toward others. YCT’s curriculum is not only a course of professional study; the quality, quantity, subject selection, and orientations of its instructors provide the discerning reader with a quantifiable and unified ideological self-definition of the kind of Orthodox Judaism that it fosters and offers. As a self-consciously modern (YCT prefers the adjective “Open”) Orthodox Yeshiva, it requires commitment to Jewish law in both theory and practice as a pre-condition for acceptance as a student. But, as an Open Orthodox institution, YCT is open to the insights of non-Orthodox rabbis who can make what it believes to be serious contributions. Academic Talmud is taught by an observant Orthodox rabbi who happens also to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, revealing an openness that violates no rule in the classical canon but does deviate from the insular political discipline demanded by Haredi religion. Critical methodology actually empowers the student with the tools to make an autonomous reading of the canon. Since, in Haredi religion, the communal rabbi is authorized only to echo the views of the official “rabbonim and poskim” but not to render an autonomous opinion, however reasoned or defensible within the canons of talmudic hermeneutics, the democratization of independent learning is fraught with danger and is, therefore, off-limits to all but the Haredi gedolim elite. For this reason, academic Talmud undermines “the sanctity of Torah,” precisely because it affords its practitioners the power to render defensible readings and judgments – the original sense of “criticism” – of the canon with unfettered autonomy. Furthermore, Haredi rabbis are, by habit, conditioning, and education, disinclined to speak to the concerns of Conservative synagogues. By founding an institution that trains virtuosi who do not regard the Haredi elite as the ultimate source of rabbinic authority, YCT cannot be deemed to be legitimate to the Haredi elite.

Rabbi Alan J. Yuter, “The Two Contemporary Varieties of Orthodox Judaism,” in Mishpetei Shalom: A Jubilee Volume In Honor of Rabbi Saul (Shalom) Berman, ed. Rabbi Yamin Levy (New York: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, 2010), 583-585.