Must A Rabbi Know Anything?

Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner writes an opinion piece lamenting the lack of scholarship in the Rabbinate across all denominations. Protocols covered the editorial and it was met with some criticism from the Elder Avraham. I quickly posted a comment, but I feel this topic deserves some extra attention.

First, consider the different perspectives of Prof. Neusner, and Avraham. Prof. Neusner is an academic and so he thinks like an academic, valuing the formative intellectual development a PhD provides. (Although he has ordination from JTS, he is more known for his numerous writings than his pastoral skills). Second, Professor Neusner comes from a different generation where almost all Rabbis had PhD’s or equivilant degrees. Nowadays, they are a rarity. (As I mentioned in my comment, R. Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff made a similar observation in one of his classes in Gruss). Today’s Rabbis – or at least from what I’ve seen of those leaving YU – are as a whole less knowledgeable, less worldly, and less thoughtful than the rabbis of the previous generation.

Avraham’s response (aside from the dig at Neusner’s own acceptance in the academic field – a debatable point in its own right) is that it doesn’t really matter for the average pulpit rabbi. Most congregations would not want to sit through an hour long dissertation comparing Sir Isaac Newton and Maimonides. Many congregants are either unable or unwilling to concentrate on complex ideas before mussaf, especially if their tired and/or hungry. Assuming people are paying attention, you also have to be careful in terms of how far you can interpret. I once got flack for interpreting Leah as in some ways superior to Rachel. My sense is that most congregants are not interested in serious intellectual stimulation, or at least not at the level which requires a PhD education.

Consider the following quote from Neusner’s editorial: “But they stand for a religious system and are woefully unprepared to carry out their intellectual tasks.” [emphasis mine] It is this point where the divergence occurs. Neusner’s concept of the role of the Rabbi is different than Avraham. While at one point the Rabbi was looked upon as an intellectual as well as a religious leader, today most rabbis are simply pastors (although many would like a larger role). Perhaps Neusner is also lamenting the diminished role of the Rabbi as well (ignoring for the moment the question of causation).

Avraham is correct in that academic credentials are not essential for many pulpits. I’m sure many rabbis can go through their careers and not be seriously challenged intellectually. However, I think Neusner is correct that to some extent Rabbis do still stand for a religious system. I say this because as a Rabbi, I get questions about every aspect of Judaism – halakha and hashkafa. On some level I’m expected to know everything – otherwise people wouldn’t think of asking the Rabbi. I am viewed by others as someone who has, or more importantly should have all the answers. As I’m sure Avraham will agree, the RIETS education is hardly that thorough.

For a more specific example, assume a congregant goes off to a secular college and is exposed to bible criticism for the first time. The bewildered student then turns to his/her rabbi for some reconciliation. How can the rabbi respond effectively? Telling the student to drop the heretical class will not be helpful as it doesn’t answer any of the arguments. Nor would resorting to blind faith quell the student’s conflict. In order for an Orthodox rabbi to seriously answer this question, he must know the bible criticism as well as the critics, and know enough to formulate an intelligent response.

PhD’s are not magic pills which bestow knowledge – rather it is the culmination of a process of intellectual growth. Although the topic of one’s dissertation might never come up in one’s pulpit, minimally, the analytical skills will assist the Rabbi in formulating and articulating intelligent responses to the most difficult questions.

I’d like to add that I am turning into my father. Not that this is a bad thing, just a little scary.

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One Response

  1. Max Weremchuk
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