Rabbi Arthur Green deserves our admiration for his pioneering venture in establishing a non-denominational rabbinical program at Hebrew College in Boston. As the school’s founder, he is certainly entitled to express his opinion about that school’s decision to admit candidates for the rabbinate who are married to or partnered with non-Jews. However, in his just-published essay entitled “Are American Rabbis Giving in to Assimilation?” he surprisingly linked Hebrew College’s decision on intermarriage to the revamping of the curriculum at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies to bolster his perceptions about assimilation. Unfortunately, this attempt at linkage both misunderstands and distorts the motivation behind our new curriculum and its reality.
Among his many comments, Rabbi Green states that the new Ziegler curriculum does not want to “bother” students “… with the burden of mastering classical sources in the original.” For example, he asserts, incorrectly, that Ziegler students will no longer be studying texts (read: Talmud) in Aramaic.
So, let’s set the record straight. The following are the primary features of the new curriculum, including the motivation for the changes:
1) The program can now be finished in four years instead of five. Our original program required five years, with long vacations between semesters and no studies during the summer. The new program now includes mini-mesters between the fall and spring semesters and includes at least one full summer of study. Given the increased average age of our rabbinical students,
we feel that condensing most of the five-year curriculum into four years makes good sense.
2) The new curriculum replaces the study of modern Hebrew with a two-year course sequence that emphasizes classical (biblical and rabbinic) Hebrew. As a result, our students have an even greater exposure to traditional texts in Hebrew than was the case under the old curriculum.
3) While Talmud in Aramaic continues to be an integral part of our program, we have reduced the number of courses in Talmud while increasing the number of courses in other rabbinic texts. We have come to understand that our almost exclusive emphasis on Talmud meant that students were not sufficiently exposed to the full range of classical rabbinic texts and concepts. All texts are still read in the original languages whether Hebrew or Aramaic.
4) Our new program includes a senior year spent in residency off-campus. To make room for the residency, we reduced somewhat the number of credits in practical rabbinics. Why? We were influenced by the example of residencies in medical training programs. Courses in practical rabbinics are fine as far as they go, but they cannot hope to accomplish as much as a reflective, mentored, hands-on residency experience. Although students are not on campus during their final year, half of their academic curriculum involves text-based courses delivered online.
5) Sending our students to Israel for a year has not always served its stated purpose of helping them create a strong relationship with the Jewish state. In reality, yearlong rabbinic programs in Israel generally mean that students spend most of their time studying precisely the same texts, in precisely the same way, as they would in their home communities. They reside in Jerusalem’s “Anglo-Saxon” bubbles and don’t always experience the realities and challenges of modern Israel. We are convinced that a carefully curated, experiential, full-summer program in Israel is a more efficacious means of accomplishing our goal, and we are working with Israeli thought leaders and organizations to achieve success.
Much more can be said of the advantages of our new curriculum. However, what cannot be said is that it in any way contributes to American Jewish assimilation, is a capitulation to student pressure or represents a dilution of our commitment to training highly knowledgeable and well-prepared leaders for the American Jewish community. PJC
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti rabbis for Europe. This first appeared on The Times of Israel.