With the previous ramblings about rabbinical schools and the rabbinate, I feel it’s only fair that I explain my own rationale for not only becoming a rabbi, but why I chose to the path I did.
I might be reaching far back with the story of why I went to Gush, but it’s a nice precursor of things to come. Also, it’s pretty funny.
May main choices for Israel yeshivot were Gush, Sha’alavim, and Mevasseret. My Gush interview was with R. Aharon Lichtenstein himself and I went with one other person from my high-school who was much better than I was. Perhaps because of nerves, he completely tanked the behina and for some reason I did extraordinarily well – to the point that 4-5 times R. Aharon himself told my friend, “Nu? You hear what Yuter said?” My friend went to KBY and right now is doing very well for himself in Israel. Not surprisingly, I got into Gush without any problems.
I hadn’t heard from the other yeshivot to which I had applied at all. My grades were the same, and I thought the behinot all went ok. Eventually, I found out that I was rejected from Sha’alavim and on the night of a Gush information meeting, I got a letter from Mevasseret saying that I was placed on their waiting list.
Those familiar with the reputations of the yeshivot would find it strange that I would get into Gush and yet be rejected from Sha’alvim and wait-listed from Mevaseret. My father, being one of them, asked my high-school principle a few years later what happened.
What did me in with Sha’alavim was that I had told the interviewer that I liked to think for myself and not blindly follow the crowd. Apparently, he didn’t like that.
The Mevaseret thing was much more comical. In the interview I was asked with whom I wanted to room when I was there. I responded that I couldn’t answer that if I didn’t know who else was definitively going. The interviewer took that to mean that I didn’t have any friends and I’d be a social problem.
In the end, I did get into Mevaseret and had I wanted I could have pulled strings to get into Sha’alavim. At that point, it just didn’t seem worth it, and I had an eventful year in Alon Shevut – the details of which might come at some other time.
Yeshiva University – Undergrad
This was a no brainer. I never considered going anywhere else for college. A better question would be why I took the Rabbeim I did.
After initially being placed in a shiur I really needed to avoid (name not necessary), R. Bronstein suggested I go to R. Simon’s. It had the reputation of being a text-based shiur, but with only 30 students, it was much smaller than the others.
I enjoyed the shiur and R. Simon’s patient and personal style, but I also felt that I “had shiur” halfway through seder and I didn’t see myself being able to grow in that shiur in the long-term. The semester after I left, the shiur size doubled, and is now one of the larger shiurim at YU. This is well deserved and a testament to R. Simon’s abilities as a teacher and talmid hacham.
Before the next semester I went to R. Bronstein to switch shiurim to R. Tendler. My father and uncle had both studied with him in the past, and both agreed that I might find it more fulfilling. Initially, R. Bronstein tried to discourage me from going to R. Tendler’s shiur. The reputation was that, “he didn’t attract the best guys” and I’d have trouble finding a havrutot. After convincing him of my seriousness, R. Bronstein relented, and allowed me into the shiur.1
However, R. Bronstien’s warning was warranted. Most of the students in the shiur were interested in either having off Sundays, getting a recommendation for med school, or holding down a part-time job during the day. Of the 30 or so registered for the shiur, about there were only 15 students in attendance on a typical day. Of those, roughly 8 actually paid attention and cared about the shiur. I remember for the first final, R. Tendler jokingly stood by the door saying, “Hello, my name is R. Tendler, welcome to the shiur, here’s an exam.”
I had two different havrutot who bailed on me and started coming to shiur sporadically, if at all.2 At that point, I gave up on havrutot, prepared gemara on my own and even had the chance to read most of Rambam’s teshuvot, much to my immense enjoyment.
In terms of actually shiur learning, I was hardly disappointed. The first month or so of Kiddushin I was blown away by R. Tendler’s presentation of the masechet as a whole, especially the Talmudic view of slavery. Thursdays, he would give the best shiurim in Midrash Rabba I have ever heard. While the “cloned, brain-dead, tuna fish,” as R. Tendler would say, basically got out the way, the rest of us were fortunate enough to develop personal connections with an important and extremely learned figure.
Shiurim by R. Tendler were rarely uneventful. For just about every sugya we covered, R. Tendler provided an example from his personal experiences. Furthermore, R. Tendler was rarely shy about expressing his opinions of the state of Judaism. Over the 2.5 years in his shiur, I heard a worldview which one cannot glean from his one line sound-bytes.
Granted, I didn’t always agree, but the candor was refreshing. R. Tendler was clear, straight, and if one desired, was able to make someone think.
Contrary to popular opinion, I was not forced into smikha, nor did I feel the need to follow in my father’s footsteps. The main reason for smikha was pragmatic: the halakhot I learned in smikha are laws which apply to every Jew on a daily basis. Knowing that I wouldn’t always have a Shulhan Arukh handy, I wanted to study so I would know what practical halakhot would be. While I could learn on my own, I needed teachers to study from, and to tell me that I knew the laws well enough to at least have a decent chance of getting the halkha right.
The next question was where to go. Israel would have been the first choice. By reputation, the Rabbanut ordination is the only one which is fully accepted worldwide.3 However, I didn’t feel ready to make aliyah at the time – and had I done so, I believe it would have failed miserably.
Why YU – Short Version
I had a familiarity with the YU system, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah was not in existence yet so there wasn’t any competition. This is not to say that YU was a choice by default. There are plenty of positive qualities to YU’s smikha program and will be discussed momentarily.
Why Revel / Talmud MA?
YU smikha requires a co-requisite with ordination. In addition to smikha, all students must be enrolled in a graduate program of some sort, or participate in the Kollel. For graduate schools, most students chose between Revel for Judaic Studies, Azrieli for Jewish Education, Wurzweiler for social work, and occasionally Ferkauf for psychology.4
I chose Revel, having little to no interest in the other fields and no desire at all to join the Kollel, but Revel itself has several graduate programs – Jewish History, Jewish Philosophy, Bible, or Talmud. I had no idea what I’d wind up doing after smikha, so I chose the program from which I could learn the most. I figured that my skills in Tanach were fairly decent – and I would later take (and enjoy) Dr. Steiner’s Biblical Hebrew class – and that if I wanted to learn more of Jewish History or Philosophy, I could always find syllabi and read the books. Academic Talmud, however, was more of an enigma. I felt that to adequately learn the field, I couldn’t simply pick up books and learn how to do Talmud and that I would need to learn from a teacher.
Why Not Chovevei
In my first year of smikha, I participated in a program called MeORoT. Run by R. Avi Weiss, this was supposed to be a think tank of sorts attracting the center/left of YU.5 The program didn’t work as planned my year, mostly due to an inappropriate selection of students, and I’m certain R. Weiss was somewhat frustrated with the result.
The difficulties in my year probably had no effect on the creation of Chovevei Torah, other than to reinforce R. Weiss’ pessimism with YU’s smikha. Toward the end of the year, R. Weiss approached me with the idea of joining his new school. I politely declined for several reasons. I had already completed one year at YU. Academically and politically, it would not have made sense for me to jump to a different program, especially when there were so many unknowns. Even after the school started, there were several revisions to its four year plan for its students. Based on the tentative course schedule I saw, it would have been difficult if not impossible to continue my degree at Revel.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there were too many questions as to the nature of their ordination. I had heard rumors that Chovevei smikha would be a full rabbanut. Then I heard it would be partially Rabbanut, with the option to take the other behinot. Had I been guaranteed that I would have been trained for all of the Rabbanut exams, I would have been more likely to switch. Since they couldn’t, I had no reason to assume that I would be better trained at YCT than I would at YU.
Why YU – Slightly Longer Version
Despite what people may think about YU’s smikha program, it is possible to be well trained from brilliant people.
You just have to know where to look.
When I graduated and went into smikha, both R. Tendler and myself agreed that it was time to move on. I needed someone else to learn from, and he needed a break from having me in his shiur. I wanted an shiur in Hebrew, which narrowed my choices to R. Meir Goldvicht and R. Eliyahu Ben-Haim. I chose the latter due to my experiences with Haham Faur and I thought I would be more comfortable in a Sephardi shiur.
In doing so, I also found one of the most underrated unknown Geonim in the world.
Having the rare mixture of wisdom and understanding, R. Ben-Haim not only knows all of Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Rambam, Shulhan Arukh, and Ramo by heart, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything else, but he has a clear understanding of how all these sources work together. Like R. Tendler, he emphasizes the real world applications of halkahot and different opinions. For example, he once brought in two gittin, one Sepharadi and one Ashkenazi, and we went line by line explaining the differences between the two and how those differences came to be.6
I then studied with R. Katz – who has been teaching in the YU system for over 50 years, and over 30 of those has been Hullin. At the same time, I learned Niddah and Aveilut with R. Zevulun Leiberman who combined his knowledge of the written halakha with his abundant experience in applying the halakha. In Gruss, I studied Yoreh Deah with R. Miller and halakha lema’aseh with R. Daniel Mann. These names might not mean anything to you, but for those fortunate to have learned by them in Gruss, their erudition and pedagogy are exemplary.
Learning from these Rabbis, combined with my experiences in Revel, allowed me to fully maximize the resources of Yeshiva University. Furthermore, I would even venture that YU might even be more pluralistic than YCT. Chovevei has its agenda, and to some extent so does YU. However, if you’re willing to seek out the various corners of YU, you will find a more diverse student body, and even Roshei Yeshiva, than you will elsewhere. You may only see a certain type – perhaps because they are in the majority – but that does not mean that what you see is all YU has. Even if you disagree with a particular hashkafa propounded by a segment of YU’s population, you still have first-hand experience which will hopefully allow for more refined and intelligent critiques.7
While YU is hardly a perfect institution, it still offers the widest range of teachers and hashkafot in American Rabbinical programs. True, few students take advantage of their opportunities, but I suppose that’s their own decision. It is the responsibility of the school to provide the best education for as many students as it can. From my limited experience, YU’s smikha program is unparalleled in its educational, and yes even social opportunities. (At least in America).
1. Unlike many in YU’s faculty at the time, R. Bronstein looks out for the students interests by actually listening to them. I said that I learned better from better rabbeim as opposed to havrutot.
2. You know who you are.
3. Believe it or not, I have heard stories of rampant cheating for these exams. A friend of mine who sat for a few of them observed cheat sheets, people looking up things while on a bathroom break, and he was personally offered and advanced copy of the exam by his local Rabbanut office.
4. While still president, Rabbi Norman Lamm used to preside over a dinner for the first-year smikha students. Maybe he still does – I have no idea. My year someone asked R. Lamm which graduate program was preferred or better? With all the choices, which should he pick? R. Lamm jokingly commiserated how terrible it was that YU offers so many choices for people with different interests and skills.
5. I should note that we were mixed with a similar women’s program called “Torat Miryam,” the women being involved in academia, education, or other Jewish social areas. When R. Michael Miller – brother of R. David Miller and son of the late R. Azriel Miller – spoke to us, he consistently called the joint program Meorot. R. Weiss corrected him once, saying that technically only the men’s program is Meorot, the women’s program is Torat Miryam. R. Miller responded, “Funny. Here of all places, I didn’t think there’d be a difference.” This is why I love the Miller family.
6. Not surprisingly, the Sephardi one made a whole lot more sense.
7. Of course, ad hominem attacks are unfortunately the primary discourse in some areas, but the point is that the options are there if you want it.