Case Study in a New Paradigm for Rabbinic Training

ordinationBy Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.d.

Last month my student of six years became ordained as a rabbi. The ordination took place in the wood paneled Braun Room at Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Hall – as far as anyone knows, the first time there ever has been a rabbinic ordination on the school’s grounds. He was not ordained into any denomination of Judaism, and he didn’t attend a Rabbinical School. My student, (now Rabbi) Jeremy Sher, besides studying privately with me, had also attended Harvard Divinity School in an “M.Div.” (Master of Divinity) program. I would have been much more leery of ordaining him simply on the basis of our study together, and I also wouldn’t have ordained him only if he had come to me straight from receiving an “M.Div.” from a multifaith graduate program, but the combination of the two worked extremely well. I am confident he is going to be an excellent rabbi.

Together we studied rabbinic texts: Mishnah, Midrash, and Gemara. We studied Jewish thought, Tanakh, and Halakhah, and we discussed issues of contemporary relevance. At Harvard Divinity he studied in excellent Hebrew classes; he studied biblical texts with one of the premier scholars of the Bible (Dr. Jon Levenson). He was able to do an internship in hospital chaplaincy and also a pulpit internship at a synagogue. He won a fellowship to study for a year in Israel. He attended classes with students from Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and other faith traditions. He formed and led a weekly Talmud study group which he whimsically named “The Talmuddlers” because the mixed group of Jews and non-Jews, students and faculty who attended were simply and enjoyably muddling through these fascinating, difficult and lively texts. The name also refers to the way the Talmud is often perceived as “all muddled up,” because of its non-linear composition. However, when one doesn’t try to force it into a straight-jacket but instead goes with the “muddled” or perhaps organic mode of composition, it starts to make more sense. He not only learned homiletics but he won an award in a sermon contest.

I remember some casual conversations over fifteen years ago in the hallways of CLAL, where I was a rabbinic intern, about the idea of combining an M.Div. at one of the major divinity schools (Harvard, Yale, G.T.U. and others) with rabbinic ordination, similar to the way Christian denominations work with these schools and then ordain their ministers, but it never went past that – casual conversations. And my work with Jeremy was more a case of “necessity is the mother of invention” than any pre-determined plan.

Jeremy came to me looking for a way that he could study for the rabbinate. He was a graduate of M.I.T. (B.S. in Math with a minor in Philosophy), had worked for many years as a political technology executive, and had been in a business of fundraising technology. He had been a board member and active participant at his Reform synagogue in Seattle. At the time he did not believe that he could in good conscience attend a rabbinical school which did not ordain rabbis who may be in a committed relationship with a non-Jew. (Aleph and now Reconstructionist programs now do, but at the time he couldn’t afford the one and the other didn’t yet have this policy).

His start-up business wasn’t going so well and he didn’t have money to pay me. But he had a lot of skills with computers, social media, marketing and more, which I needed for my fledgling nonprofit organization, Organic Torah. In fact, it would be more true to say that there wasn’t any organization called Organic Torah when I first met Jeremy. He helped me get the 501c3, he designed the first website and generally gave me the tools to start a nonprofit where I would have been clueless on my own.

This model which emerged with Jeremy, Harvard Divinity School and me has allowed a wonderful rabbi to emerge when he couldn’t find a spot in the mainstream seminaries. We are no longer so locked into the 20th century institutions. It is not insignificant that along with his rabbinic training he helped me to launch my own entrepreneurial venture, Organic Torah. The synergies of two outsiders working together created something new for both of us and for the world.

Jeremy’s training managed to be deeply ecumenical, sharing much more of his learning with non-Jews and with believers in other faith traditions. His training looks more like the 21st century world that rabbis will live in in America. He had exposed those non-Jews to Jewish thought more deeply than they would have otherwise (one of his HDS student friends started coming to my classes, and eventually converted. We weren’t the only influence in her spiritual journey, but we were a significant part of it). He has deep understanding and lasting relationships with his non-Jewish clergy, academic and other colleagues; much more than would be the case with a traditional rabbinical school training.

I don’t write about this wonderful experience as an example of a hyper-individualistic, anti-institutional idea of education. It’s not “anything goes.” We were part of institutions and used existing ones in new ways. We need institutions and, like all living things, we need boundaries. But we are in a time when new structures and new types of structures are needed. Emergence of new structures generally takes the form of this playing with existing ones, making adjustments out of necessity rather than ideology. In nature, boundaries are always porous, letting energy and matter flow in and out. This is as true of a cell membrane as it is of a community or an institution of higher learning. We are finding ourselves in a time of greater openness, rapid change and mixing of people and ideas. Our ideas and institutions of learning need to reflect these changes by becoming more open and more flexible. Jeremy, Harvard Divinity School, and Organic Torah created one example. New life emerges in a dynamic and unpredictable process from the old. But it helps when we are aware and open to the changes, and ready to see an opportunity when it comes along.

Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D is Founder and President of Organic Torah Institute, a nonprofit which integrates holistic thinking and Judaism.