Smicha with a twist

Jerusalem’s alternative rabbinic programs usher in ‘post-modern Orthodoxy’

Rabbi Herzl Hefter (second from left), rosh yeshiva of the Har El Beit Midrash, with the recent graduating class. (photo credit: SIGAL KRIMOLOVSKI)
Rabbi Herzl Hefter (second from left), rosh yeshiva of the Har El Beit Midrash, with the recent graduating class.
(photo credit: SIGAL KRIMOLOVSKI)
Jerusalem has long been home to a host of yeshivot and myriad options for men wanting to attain smicha, or rabbinical ordination. But in areas such as Nahlaot and Baka, a revolution in rabbinic studies is quietly brewing.
Tucked away in one of Nahlaot’s many alleys is the Simchat Shlomo yeshiva. This fall, it will begin the first smicha program to be infused with musician and Torah scholar Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s teachings.
Founded in 2001 by Rabbi Sholom Brodt and his wife, Judy, Simchat Shlomo was built on the legacy that Carlebach left: to teach and learn Torah with joy. Both the classes and the yeshiva environment are filled with the ideology that inspirational Judaism needs to be in constant dialogue with the modern world.
Simchat Shlomo employee Tsipi Gottesman seems to embody the yeshiva’s philosophy: She is both a free spirit and Torah scholar, a Nahlaot earth-child and a devoted daughter of hassidism. When she speaks about Carlebach, it is as eternal teacher and mentor.
When she speaks about the yeshiva’s new smicha program, her eyes beam with blissful intensity.
The program is two years long and shares some commonalities with traditional smicha programs, such as an emphasis on the practical halachic areas of kashrut and Shabbat, and in-depth Talmud study. But there is an equal emphasis on the teachings of Carlebach, as well as on the participants’ inner development.
“They won’t be sitting and memorizing Shlomo [Carlebach] stories,” explains Gottesman. “If they’re reading about Reb Shlomo’s hassidut [hassidic teachings] and he cites [hassidic masters] Rebbe Nachman of Breslov or the Baal Shem Tov, they’ll go and learn that. They’re going to learn Shlomo’s verses and see how he put it all together; that will be the hassidut aspect. Then we’ll be simultaneously offering some electives. The guys will choose a topic that they want to cultivate, such as music, writing, public speaking, meditation or counseling. These are obvious skills that someone would want to have to be a community rabbi.”
Simchat Shlomo is also working in conjunction with Nahlaot’s Shalev Center – which offers classes and workshops on personal development through Torah – so program participants can develop their leadership skills via personal growth. While traditional smicha programs place more importance on intricate kashrut questions that most rabbis will never have to confront in this day and age, Simchat Shlomo’s focus is on joy and leadership, without sacrificing serious study.
The yeshiva is not offering its own private smicha, however. What it offers is a program that will provide the graduates with the skills, knowledge and inner fortitude to go before the rabbinate. The men who complete the two-year program will be prepared to take the rabbinic exam at the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.
Considering that Carlebach died 21 years ago, why a Reb Shlomo-inspired smicha program now? “I think there is a need now more than ever,” Gottesman responds. “We are the only Shlomo Carlebach [smicha program]; we want to be taking our students to the next level, so that they can give back to the community and spread his Torah. It’s a love-filled, compassion-based, joy-oriented Torah. A lot of people know Shlomo the musician or the hippie, but he was also a serious scholar. Everything he did was really rooted in Torah learning.”
SIMCHAT SHLOMO is not the only yeshiva in the capital offering what could be called an alternative approach to the traditional smicha program. There is also Har El Beit Midrash, whose recent graduating rabbinic class boasted two women alongside two men.
Har El has been running its egalitarian smicha program for two years now, and the program is one piece of a much larger vision.
Rosh yeshiva Rabbi Herzl Hefter explains that his goal is “to impact modern Orthodoxy. A lot of modern Orthodox people live in a certain state of conflict between what they think the Torah tells them to believe and the modern values that determine how they live their lives, like equality and fairness. This conflict is very scary for people, and it makes them compartmentalize.”
In Hefter’s opinion, this conflict exists particularly in the realm of male and female roles in religious practice. While men and women are not the same and should not be treated as such, he believes, they should expect to be treated with equal respect before the law – and certainly before God. As Hefter puts it, “Men would not be happy davening [praying] on the other side of the mehitza [partition].”
Ordaining women as well as men is his way of showing that anyone who is a Torah scholar and has the knowledge required to gain rabbinical status should be eligible to do so, regardless of gender.
The two recent women graduates from Har El are both seasoned Jewish educators: Rahel Berkovitz TORAH STUDY