Make for yourself a (new) rabbi

Bar-Ilan University initiative seeks to combine study for rabbinical ordination with a courses in math, psychology, and physics.

maimonides_311 (photo credit: Dr. Manuel/WikiCommons)
(photo credit: Dr. Manuel/WikiCommons)
Last week’s “emergency meeting” held by the leaders of the haredi community – hassidic admorim, Lithuanian yeshiva heads and United Torah Judaism Knesset members – was held in bitter protest against the “breakers of the covenant.”
The targets of this verbal thrashing were Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and his welcome initiative to ensure the adoption of a core curriculum by schools in the “independent education” network. The possibility that pupils in these institutions will be exposed to subjects essential for integration into society-at-large, and into the workforce, unfortunately intimidates many rabbis.
Against this background, it is worth noting a new initiative at Bar-Ilan University, one aimed at training rabbis unfazed by the aforementioned dangers. Indeed, the intention is to produce rabbis whose feet are firmly planted on the ground and in the reality of contemporary Israeli society, and who are resolutely persuaded that secular “Japhetic” wisdom has a place in the tents of Shem – the beit midrash – that such wisdom is capable of enriching the world of the religious believer.
This initiative has a guiding light in the form of Maimonides, the preeminent halachic decisor about whom it is said that “from Moses to Moses there were none like Moses.”
It is well known that Maimonides was both a rabbi and a physician of the first rank. He held claim to the honorific “rabbi doctor” more than 600 years before Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch formulated his Torah im derech eretz philosophy, once again making the case against rabbinical detachment from reality within the ivory tower of Halacha.
The envisioned program also has roots in Yehoshua ben Perachia’s teaching in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Aseh lecha rav” – “Make for yourself a rabbi.”
IN THE Jewish world, and for the past several years in Israel, there has been a growing trend toward the creation of religious communities based on voluntary membership and on an aspiration to turn the synagogue into something more than a house of prayer – to make it the center of a communal commitment to study, comradeship and social responsibility.
Such communities, by their very nature, have to “make” rabbis for themselves – to choose leaders who will be involved in their lives and who will expand their horizons. And by their very nature, such communities need “rabbi doctors,” talmidei chachamim with halachic expertise and rabbinical ordination who also possess a strong background in the world of general knowledge. Such rabbis understand the language of modern science and know how to face the challenges that it poses – particularly those of concern to the young generation – and how to enlist its benefits in the service of Torah and ethics.
The interplay of ideal and need, of feasibility and necessity, led, after a five-year process of deliberation, to the development of a new track, the first of its kind, within Bar-Ilan University’s Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. The 70 students currently enrolled in the program combine intensive study for rabbinical ordination with a full academic course load in various departments of the university. They are training to be rabbis who are also mathematicians or physicists, biologists or psychologists, to give just a few examples.
Not only that, but the rabbinical model on which the program is based means, in the words of the institute’s rosh beit midrash, Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, that “every sugya [talmudic passage] is studied from an openly-acknowledged community-based orientation, in keeping with the public responsibility borne by the rabbi as a major factor within the community.”
For this reason the curriculum is characterized by a multidisciplinary approach, in which case studies are used to shed light on current issues facing society – in medicine, ethics, the workplace and in family conflict management. It also includes course work in psychology, a specialization in community initiatives and group study of rhetoric and other communication skills.
In addition to all this, the track offers intensive training for spouses and a placement program that aims to put its graduates in touch with interested communities.
These graduates enter their communities as spiritual and social leaders with solid academic backgrounds and, most importantly, with open hearts and minds. There is good reason to hope that they will not only enrich those communities that have “made” them their rabbis, but will help to heal the rifts that plague our society as a whole.
The writer is president of Bar-Ilan University.