Elleh Ezkerah Sheet Music

I wrote a melody to sing the refrain of Elleh Ezkerah as presented in Mahzor Lev Shalem a few years back but couldn’t find this on my site anywhere. Now it is free for the world. Audio at this link.


Piyyutim from Rabbi Shemu’el III for Parashot Mattot Mas’ey

Would you like to view this file I’ve titled “Piyyutim 5775 Parashot Mattot Masey With Sheet Music?” In it you can find sheet music and text for two piyyut excerpts for the Shabbat of Parashot Mattot Mas’ey–words originally by Rabbi Shemu’el III, with texts based on יוצרות רבי שמואל השלישי: מראשי ההנהגה בירושלים במאה העשירית מהדורת יוסף יהלום ונאויה קצומטה יד יצחק בן-צבי ירושלים כרך שני |The Yotserot of R. Samuel the Third edited by Joseph Yahalomand Naoya Katsumata (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2014: Jerusalem, Israel), Vol. 2, pp. 632-642. Click away, and sing this Shabbat–and whenever you’d like.

NOTE: In “Shim’u Omer Bey’ur Misgavkhem,” all of the non-worded notes can be sung to “ya la lai,” “yum
bum bai,” “ya da da dai,” or any other nonsense syllable(s) effective for congregational singing. Also note that the first and last 8-measure sequence of nonsense syllable(s) are intended be sung as many or as few times as desired.

Raising An Inverted Flame: Minyan M’at Devar Torah on Beha’alotekha Graduation Shabbat (June 6, 2015)

Click here for a formatted version of the devar torah I delivered on Parashat Beha’alotekha at Minyan M’at yesterday morning (Graduation Shabbat) at Ansche Chesed in New York City.

Below unformatted.


Shabbat Shalom!
Before I share any words from Beha’alotekha, our Torah portion today, I would like to say a special yishar ko’ah and todah rabbah to Suzan Rosen who worked hard on coordinating today and making Graduate Shabbat such a special celebration. And, of course, I would like to wish a mazzal tov to all those who, like I, are completing this spring with celebrating the achievements we’ve attained in our education. Of course, Minyan M’at is not a crowd that needs to be reminded of the importance of education. In fact, Minyan M’at is a space where sometimes it’s also good to remind ourselves of all the wonderful parts of life that might fall outside the realm of education—has veshalom, God forbid! Of course, were I to give a devar torah today that had no educative component, I would have redefined what a devar torah is, given that it is literally a devar, “an utterance of” or “a matter of” torah. The word torah, which has the shoresh, or root, of vav-reysh-yod, or, better yet, weak-reysh-weak, comes from the same root of the word moreh—a teacher—or a horeh—a parent—or a yoreh—one who is shooting forth something. Although I realize it might not be intuitive, and it certainly isn’t popular, I like to translate the word torah as meaning “projection.” Torah is not something static, but something that is a truth or value with a progressive trajectory that moves forward. Because a devar torah is “a matter of projection,” a devar torah is effectively a projectile. In the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, from which I recently was ordained as a rabbi, I was encouraged in my Communications class to try start off divrey torah with something other than “Shabbat shalom.” So I’d like to start over. Keeping in mind that a devar torah is a projectile, when I say “Incoming!” you say “Run!”
<Space for congregation to respond “Run!”>1
Anyway, while we’re on the subject of motion, I want to consider the titular upward motion of beha’alotekha. Now, if I were to look exclusively at the Hebrew, I would translate the term beha’alotekha as something like “as you raise up.” The text reads: “בְּהַֽעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת:,”2 which I’d translate as “Let the seven lights of the Temple’s candelabrum illuminate as you raise up the candles each facing the center.”3 But I want to turn our attention away from that candelabrum4 and turn our focus towards the trajectory of beha’alotekha: both its physical and its spiritual velocity. Even though I know how I would translate the term beha’alotekha were I composing a literal translation of the Torah that were informed by zero exegetical commentaries, I want to be careful to note that beha’alotekha means far more than merely “as you raise up.” James Kugel—towards the end of How To Read The Bible5—advocates that when we read the Torah, we do the best justice to the text by reading it through the lens of what Kugel has termed “the pre-Bible.”6 That “pre-Bible” comprises the entirety of the oral and the written traditions of the Israelites and their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors. It is from our ancient Israelite ancestors and their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors to whom we can attribute many, if not all, of the mythoi (which is the plural of mythos) that stand at the foundations of our TaNaKh, our so-called Hebrew Bible7. Rabbi Louis Ginzberg preceded Kugel in noting the canonical import. Ginzberg, who passed away when James Kugel was a mere 8 years old, highlighted that the early rabbis and the early Church Fathers shared many similar, if not identical, exegetical interpretations and eisegetical creative readings of their common text of the Old Testament (not that the Jews really needed a New Testament).8 Kugel would argue that Midrash—the classical process and corpus of exegetical, eisegetical and non-diegetic (or, effectively tangential) law, lore, values, visions, and speculations of the rabbis of old—must contain traces of that sacred pre-Bible. That is to say, in order for us to understand the ambiguities of the Bible’s text, we need to study the Bible in its context. For the religious seeker, reading the Bible alone in order to understand the Bible’s context falls short of the goal of finding underlying meaning. Understanding the Torah must transcend any one moment in time. In order to study the pre-Bible, we have to read post-Biblical interpretations. And in order to understand the post-Biblical words of the rabbis and of other religious leaders, we need to investigate the textual, physical, and orally alleged artifacts of several millennia of the diverse Ancient Near Eastern cultures who funneled and filtered to our ancestors an ever-changing torah.9
All of this is to say that we must expand our understanding of the word beha’alotekha; it means far more than just “as you raise up.” That is why Targum Onkelos chooses the word בְּאַדְלָקוּתָךְ (be’adlakutakh), “as you kindle,” ergo, “Let the seven lights of the Temple’s candelabrum illuminate as you kindle the candles each facing the center.”
What the Torah saw as a raising up of candles becomes the act of kindling candles for Onkelos. The eleventh century French commentator, Rashi gives us several glosses for the term beha’alotekha. First, he clarifies for us what this menorah has to do with anything. He notes the non-sequitur that proceeds from the dedication of each of the heads of the Israelite tribes at the end of last week’s parashah as this week’s parashah opens with Aaron lighting a candelabrum. Rashi notes that it the Levite tribe, to which Aaron the High Priest belonged, had no head who was initiated in the sacrificial rituals that concluded last week’s parashah. God, says Rashi, has designated that Aaron’s work and standing as a tribal leader to be even higher, above and beyond, the service and status of any other Israelite tribal chief. Aaron’s super-sacred status will be demonstrated in his caring for the menorah on a tamid—daily—basis: Aaron’s attention to the container of the mysterious but sacred light that will illuminate the entirety of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. That’s what we would learn from Rashi’s gloss. In his second gloss, Rashi seems to agree with Onkelos’ translation of the term beha’alotekha. Rashi sees Aaron’s assigned action of raising up candles as synonymous with “kindling.” Of the word beha’alotekha, Rashi says “שֶׁהַלַּֽהַב עוֹלֶה,” “for the flame itself has to rise”—from the candle itself. When Aaron the High Priest is raising up candles, he’s raising the flame out of the candle itself.
The hasidic master Kalonymos Kelman HaLevi Epshtein was very interested in Rashi’s commentary, both here and in general. His homiletic commentary on the Torah Ma’or VaShemesh—Luminary & Sun—highlights Rashi’s use of the term להב, lahav being the “flame” that is subsumed and presumed—the unspoken product of Aaron’s kindling or raising of the candles. Ma’or VaShemesh argues that Rashi is introducing to us the unsung hero of the Temple rite surrounding the High Priest’s lighting of the menorah. In the spirit that knowing the word keves and the word kesev both mean sheep,10 Ma’or VaShemesh follows the great rabbinic tradition, an especially mystically-inclined rabbinic tradition to be more precise, of believing that two words composed of the same letters, arranged in different orders in the two words, must be on some level synonymous. Ma’or VaShemesh therefore notes that the letters lamed-heh-vet, lahav (flame) can be rearranged as heh-vet-lamed, hevel (vapor).11 It is worth recalling that Ecclesiastes says that everything is hevel—which we could translate as: vaporous, airy, vain: the vanity of vanities: hakkol havel:12 all in the world today is vain.
But Ma’or VaShemesh sees a different breath of life inhabiting the word hevel, for Ma’or VaShemesh chooses to rearrange the letters of the word again. He refers us to gimatriyyah, the Hebrew numerological system whereby every letter of the alphabet is equated with a number.13 Samuel Sambursky has written about gimatriyyah as a rabbinic corruption of the Greek term from which we get geometry: literally the measuring of the earth.14 When the rabbis cite gimatriyyah, they are not coming up with random equations that have peripheral meanings to the words in question. The rabbinic turn to gimatriyyah is a serious calculus that seeks to discover the formulae that uphold God’s universe as made manifest through the letters that compose our speech—especially the speech of what is to the rabbis, the most sacred tongue, leshon hakkodesh, Hebrew.

Let’s rewind though. Ma’or VaShemesh notes that the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, heh, which is the first letter of the word hevel, is representative in gimatriyyah of the number five. The number five has many sacred meanings to the Jews, but the one that is of greatest import here to Ma’or VaShemesh, is the meaning of five in a section of the addendum to the Zohar, the Zohar Hadash’s commentary on the Book of Ruth, where the rabbis present their own analysis of Hebrew linguistics. They identify five sources of the sounds the human can produce when speaking the sacred tongue of Hebrew. There are the guttural sounds (אחה”ע); the labial sounds (בומ”ף); the palatal sounds (גיכ”ק); the lingual sounds (דטלנ”ת); and the dental sounds (זסצר”ש15)16. So, we understand the heh of the word hevel as representative of the full plenum of Hebrew letters that can be spoken in order to design the sacred reality we discuss in Jewish language. But what do we make of the last two letters of the word hevel? We see the letter vet—which is numerologically equal to bet—and the letter lamed. Ma’or VaShemesh thoughtfully reminds us that the letter bet is the first letter of the torah, and the letter lamed is the last letter of the torah. The vet and the lamed of hevel, of vapor, contain within and between them the allusive and elusive ideals of our Torah. When we speak of hevel therefore, we are speaking of the holy reality we construct through speech and the holy ideal that is described within the sacred mystery of the Hebrew language as codified in our Torah. The word hevel alludes simultaneously to the mechanics of the human production of the Hebrew language, and to the magic of the divine revelation of the Hebrew Bible. Hevel is the nexus of human thought and Divine thought: the process of the human vocal cords trying to sing along to the unknown song of the Divine spirit.

When we take a step back, we can consider hevel as the air that penetrates the inversion of itself: the allusive flame we call a lahav. To the best of my understanding of how fire works, fire is hardly composed of the same chemicals as air. Fire, in terms of the red-yellowish glow we might seek, is not so much a stable compound of which we can speak. Fire’s glow is the unstable process of red-heated soot working its way towards the decomposition—or affecting change—of other material and the yielding of combustion products—or new outcomes. And the fire of lahav needs air of hevel. That which will sustain the fire is actually hevel, for if air, along with gravity, were not present to keep the flame flickering, the fire would merely extinguish, and the inspiration we might draw and the warmth we might feel from the fire would be nought.17
So, on Graduation Shabbat, I am actually thinking a lot about the interplay between and the intermingling of hevel and lahav: the intangible supporting the unstable, the ineffable pronouncing the verbal, the sacred word bespeaking the sacred spark, the human tongue burning with the passion of the flammable, and the scribal graft of torah that cuts the wick just right—letting loose a fire whose mystery is sustained cyclically and sickly by our own breath, even though we could extinguish what we’ve worked so hard to build and so hard to burn—only in order to create something new.
Since graduation is the moving from grade to grade, rising from gradation to gradation, going from degree to degree; in Jewish language, this upward motion is a kindling of yet another flame along the candelabrum in the Temples of our lives. At Minyan M’at, we are—like all Jewish communities—a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary—and we know well that there is always more to know well. Graduation should never be confused with completion or consummation. Graduation should always be construed as rising to the occasion, rising from one occasion to another, and seeking a higher da’at Adonai—knowledge of the Divine—than the one with which we woke up yesterday. We have to let the seven candles that each light up the seven days of our week shine forth, with a reminder that we are always facing inward towards an unknowable, unfindable center of mystery that is the locus and focus of our menorah. We have to light the Divine spark and let its hevel-spirit carry us into worlds of knowledge, of divrey torah, of projectiles of indubitable yet ineffable truths that are yet to be revealed.
Yehi ratzon millefanayikh, May it be Your will, Nishmat Kol Hai, the Breath of All Life: that new discoveries in our Torah be revealed at the liminal moments of transition when we transition from mystery to mystery: in times of instability, in times of stability, in the times when we long to rise higher to yet another gradation: in the inevitable and ever-sacred times of graduation.

1. It could be that if we say “Run” in response to “Incoming,” we are better representing the way some people feel towards divrey torah. Though there are those who would run away from opportunities to learn Torah, there are those who run towards opportunities of learning torah.
2. Numbers 8:2.
3. I am sure there are other meaningful ways to translate “אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה,” which feels awkwardly worded to me—literally something akin to “towards opposite the face of the candelabrum.”
4. For what it’s worth, “candelabrum” is a word that is only slightly more useful to conversations about a menorah than the word “phylacteries” is to conversaions about tefillin.
5. And elsewhere.
6. See, for example, Benjamin Sommer, “Two Introductions to Scripture:James Kugel and the Possibilityof Biblical Theology” in Jewish Quarterly Review 100 (2010), 153-82, fn. 1 on p. 153; whereat Sommer cites James Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), 894–95.
7. Even though it records words and phrases in Aramaic and other languages
8. Sommer, pp. 154-155.
9. Just as the pronunciation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have undoubtedly changed over the last four millennia, so too, the words, the phrases, the literary structures, and the lessons of the Torah have evolved for as long as there was ever a Torah of which to speak. These changes were perhaps the most dramatic before the Torah was first written down, and changes became continually less drastic once the Ben Asher school of Masoretes created the highly detailed Masorah—or transmission—of our Projectile—our Torah. The Masorah—the so-called proper vocalization, the so-called correct grammatical ta`amey hammikra (literally, the “tastes of the Scripture,” that figuratively now serve as the grammatico-musical stops and starts of our cantillation) is a work of tremendous creativity. The Masorah is the gramaticization and the aesthetic intoning of a previously unpunctuated, sometimes unspaced, collection of letters on parchment. But the Masorah is on the other hand the dulling of utter static—the cyrogenic freezing of a once-living religious text, the tight clasp of a scribal tradition holding captive written letters that used to stretch and to be stretched as the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud in Berakhot 10a debated whether the line between the tzadi and the reysh was condensed as a short yod or enlongated a long vav: whether God was tzadi-vav-reysh a tzur (an unmovable Rock at the foundation of the completed earth), or tzadi-yod-reysh, a tzayyar (an ever-moving and an ever-moved Artist whose universe is but a work in progress).
10. Which Ma’or VaShemesh does not mention.
11. These teachings in Epshtein’s name are drawn from near the beginning of the commentary in Ma’or VaShemesh on Beha’alotekha.
12. Ecclesiastes 1:2 and elsewhere.
13. Ma’or VaShemesh, ibid..
14. Samuel Sambursky, “מקורו ומשמעותו של המונח ‘גימטריה”” (“The Term Gematria: Source and Meaning”) in תרביץ מה: ג/ד (Tarbiz 25:3/4) (ניסן-אלול תשל”ו) (Nissan-Elul 5736 A.M.; spring-fall 4/1976 C.E.), pp. 268-271.
15. By the way, it seems that for the authors of the Zohar Hadash, the reysh must have been a rolled r like the one in Spanish, which just goes to show that Argentinian Jewry is speaking good Hebrew!
16. מדרש רות מאמר כמו שיש הוי”ה בז”א כן יש באדם
17. All misunderstandings here of how fire work are entirely my own. Any sense I’ve gotten for how fire does in fact work can be credited (in no particular order) to Karla Worrel, Lake Kubilius, Brian Albert, Kristine Dizon, Ben Dreyfus, and Kenneth Chan, who each chimed in upon my request for assistance.

Leval Yimmot Netzach (Let It Never Fall) – לבל ימוט נצח (A New Melody)

I have composed a new melody for a song that can be sung at the beginning of the Passover seder to describe what is about to happen. Or, you might want to sing it at the end to describe what exactly happened. In any event, it is a description of the order of the Passover seder, but in rhyme!

Check out this sheet music for “Leval Yimmot Netzach.”

Check out the “Leval Yimmot Netzach” text.

Check out this recording of “Leval Yimmot Netzach.

See if you can memorize it before the Seder begins tonight!*

*But only if you have really nothing else to do and/or have discovered a kabbalistic meaning to this song such that the cosmos depends on your memorizing this before the Seder begins tonight.


Fixing What Ain’t Broke (Fekudey 5775)

Below is the non-formatted version of this formatted Devar Torah for Vayyakhel Fekudey 5775:


Shabbat shalom,[1]

You might be familiar with that saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’ fix it.” This is not a Jewish saying.

In this week’s double-Torah-portion of Vayyak’hel Fekudey (וַיַּקְהֵל-פְֿקוּדֵי), we come across a curious phrase that appears only twice in the Torah. The phrase lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ), meaning “shall not rip” (as in “it shall not rip”) appears in only two places: once, in our portion a few weeks ago, when discussing the efod (אֵפוֹד)—that special tunic worn by the High Priest; and once, in the portion we will read tomorrow morning, also when discussing the efod (אֵפוֹד).[2] In fact, these two verses of the Torah are nearly identical in their description of the efod. It could be that whoever wrote the Torah just said the same thing twice unconsciously. Or, it could be that whoever compiled the Torah as we have it now deemed this phrase lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ) so important that they needed to repeat this. Yet another possibility is that, if we believe, as many biblical scholars and many liberal Jews do, that the words of the Torah are written by more than one person, we have reason to believe that the different schools of thought and the different Jewish thinkers who are responsible for our Torah felt that our religion must be based on a text that emphasizes that the efod of the High Priest lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ) “shall not rip.”

So, nu, what’s so important about the efod not ripping?

If we look back at the earliest words that our sages say about what lo yikka-REY-a (לֹא יִקָּרֵֽעַ) means beyond its literal meaning, we turn our attention to the Jerusalem Talmud. You might know that the Jewish people have not one Talmud but two Talmuds: the Babylonian Talmud, and the Jerusalem Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is a collection of rabbinic teachings written in exile, in the Jewish Diaspora of Babylonia, in present-day Iraq. The Jerusalem Talmud on the other hand, being both an earlier collection of rabbinic teachings and being a product of the Holy Land, is concerned with a variety of laws that weren’t as much of interest to Jews who lived in Exile. For Jews in the Exile of Babylonia, there was little hope that the Temple in Jerusalem would ever be rebuilt and that the Temple would be back to employing Kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים)—that is, the priests—and the Leviyyim (לְוִיִּים)—that is, the Levites, the assistants to the priests, the members of the tribe of Levi who did not merit the priesthood. But, in the Land of Israel, there was more optimism that the Temple could be rebuilt after its destruction in the year 70 C.E.. Though centuries went by without any progress, the authors of the Jerusalem Talmud still were preoccupied with how best to preserve the rituals, laws, and lore of the Temple of old—with the hope that the Temple may be rebuilt.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, we learn that, as much as the rabbis of the Land of Israel still wanted to hold onto the memory of the Temple and as much as they wanted to stay on top of Temple law as described in the Torah, they could not remember why there was a commandment that the efod not rip. The rabbis, in reading and rereading about the efod not ripping, determined that ripping is something that can ruin the purity of certain ritual objects: including, but not limited to the efod. But they still wanted to understand the basis of the original statement, which they even interpreted to be a law, such that someone who ripped the efod would have been flogged. They asked: Did the Torah state that the efod shall not rip because it would be a violation of the law if somebody ripped the efod? Or, did the Torah state that the efod shall not rip because it would be that the efod must be made so that it shall not rip?

Further, the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud asked: If the efod is by definition something that cannot rip, then why did some rabbis come along and determine that there was actually a punishment for someone who would rip the efod? And, conversely, if the Torah intended to make it a law that the efod shall not rip, then why is this stated in a passive voice, that the efod “shall not rip,” rather than an active voice of “you shall not rip the efod?”[3]

As the rabbis are often wont to do, they ask some pretty good questions about this, but they come to no real answers in the Jerusalem Talmud. Nearly a millennium later, around the 13th Century, we read more of an answer in an anonymously written book called Sefer Ha-Hi-NUKH (סֵֽפֶר הַחִנּוּךְ), which attempts to list the 613 mitzvot that make up Jewish living. In Sefer Ha-Hi-NUKH (סֵֽפֶר הַחִנּוּךְ), we read that the law that the efod not rip so that the High Priest understand the gravity of his job, such that even a small rip to his garments would be a sin.[4] But beyond this, the rabbis teach us very little about the religious significance of this sinful rip for the next few centuries.

If you’re familiar with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, then you might also know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who lived in the 20th Century had an ancestor also named Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Hasidic master who is now known by the name of his central work Ohev Yisra’el (אוֹהֵב יִשְׂרָאֵל), “The Lover of Israel”. That senior Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the no-ripping law was symbolic of another part of Jewish life that would be easy to violate: speaking ill of others, and spreading lies about our peers. For Ohev Yisra’el, splitting that sacred tunic with the smallest tear was symbolic of the spreading of malice through just a few wrong words.[5] Another Hasidic master, Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir taught, pertaining more to the spiritual and ephemeral, that the tearing of the High Priest’s garb paralleled the split we can experience when we feel that we are no longer at one with God—that our mouths are no longer speaking sacred, kind and true words: a manner of speech that he would consider God’s very Presence speaking through our mouths.[6] Turning more inward towards the corporeality of this law, the Hasidic Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoye taught that the prohibition on ripping didn’t apply to the efod itself, but to the garb of our souls: which is to say, our own bodies. For Jacob Joseph of Polnoye, we were commanded to take care of our bodies, for they are the very precious vessels that house our holy souls.[7] And, because it is mostly the Hasidic masters who took interest in the spiritual significance of these laws, it is worth our considering the words of yet another Hasidic teacher, Sh’lomoh HaKohen Rabinovich. Rabinovich suggested that the prohibition on ripping the efod was put in place so that the entirety of the High Priest’s garb, which included ringing bells, would stay in place. Wherever the High Priest would walk, people could hear the jingle of the bells. Those bells raised others’ awareness—including God’s awareness—that the High Priest was ready to participate in the Temple service and to pray. The bells that rang as he prayed could help the High Priest make sure that his prayers resonated on a higher level.[8]

It is a beautiful treasure to have a tradition that provides so many different, thoughtful and sometimes even inspiring answers to one question. But it also comes at a certain cost, which is: we still might not have figured out why we have opted into a religion that for some reason emphasizes that the efod not rip.

For us tonight, it might be worth our considering that the efod is symbolic of something far greater than the tunic of the High Priest, and even greater than the entire garb of the High Priest, and even greater than our speech, and even greater than our bodies. The efod is perhaps symbolic of the fabric of our religion. The rabbis were careful to state that we must build fences around our Torah: buffers that guard us from getting too close to the intent of the Torah so that we never violate the Torah. It is better that we violate a law designed by humans than a law that must have been decreed by God. The efod is a garb envisioned by God but fashioned by humans, just as the Torah on its own is a system that has its origins in the divine inspiration that moves us towards greater sacred altruism, but it is we who ultimately must make the choice to buy into the system of the Torah.

When we choose to accept a Torah that says we may not rip the efod of the High Priest, we are choosing to accept a religion that says that we are accepting the full Torah with all of its inner weavings. We might add to it some layers of interpretation and some security measures that keep us far from violating Jewish law, but we never destroy the Torah itself so much as we find ways to re-envision and to reread the layers we add to the Torah.

The way that we practice the Torah today might be different from the way our ancestors wore their religion 200 years ago or 2000 years ago. We may have taken the Torah, our efod to the tailor who has reinterpreted our Torah so that Jewish law can respond to the ever-changing questions of modernity, but we have never asked the tailors of our tradition—our laypeople and our scholars—to throw out the Torah and replace it.

This thing we call Judaism is something that we have to come around to and get fixed from time to time. Sometimes it doesn’t fit right, but the truth is that our Torah has never broken; it has never been a broken system. We have had to add new layers to our efod of Torah, so that our Torah fits the fashion of the times.

When it comes to Judaism as an evolving religion, we must know that—because our efod of Torah shall not rip even at the times when the Torah doesn’t fit right—even when our Torah ain’t exactly broke, through the historical layers of interpretation, we can find a way to fix it.

Shabbat shalom.

[1]   Written to be delivered by a congregant on one Shabbat when I was unable to show up due to my attending to a family member’s health.

[2]   Respectively Exodus 28:32 and 39:23.

[3]   Megillah 12a.

[4]   Mitzvah 101/מצוה קא.

[5]   Tetzavveh.

[6]   Or HaMe’ir, Tetzavveh.

[7]   תולדות יעקב יוסף שמות פרשת תצוה.

[8]   תפארת שלמה על פקודי.

JTS Purim Se’udah 5775 Roundup (Part 1 of 5-ish)

Sincere thanks go out to Student Life for assembling this year’s Purim Se’udah, and major props to Chaya Bender for fantastically and awesomely co-chairing the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Purim Se’udah with me this year.

More evidence of this year’s Se’udah will be coming soon to the internet, but for the meantime, the text of A Prayer For the State of Our Library Purim 5775 and Eyn Tenu’atenu and the following 5 films!

1. Children Reacting to Wissenschaft des Judentums 
A film by Jonah Rank. Starring Jonah Rank, Nava Simring (child of Mia Simring and Jimmy Taber), Danya Tabick (child of Roni and Shoshi Tabick), and Zach Sitkin. Camerawork by Ezra Burke, Amram Altzman, Jimmy Taber, Mia Simring, and Yoni Nadiv.

2. Who By Fire? Who By Water? A JTS Library Commercial
A film by Jonah Rank.

3. PSA: Speaking With Kids About The Sheva Na
A film by Jonah Rank, with great assistance from Prof. Benjamin D. Sommer.

4. If Men Rabbis Were Spoken To The Way Women Rabbis Are Spoken To
Written by (alphabetically, and not in order of percentage of contribution): Chaya Bender, Jonah Rank, and Dr. Raysh Weiss. Edited by Jonah Rank. Starring Katie Greenberg, Rory Katz, Bronwen Mullin, Jonah Rank and Dr. Raysh Weiss.

5. Where Have All The First Years Gone?
By Warner Ferratier. With assistance of the following: editor Jonah Rank; actors Zohar Atkins, Margie Cella, Warner Ferratier, Jeremy Fineberg, Aliza Goldman, Shayna Golkow, Daniel Graber, Rav Dr. Yehudit Hauptman, Sam Hollander, Rory Katz, Leora Kling Perkins, Sharyn Perlman, Jama Purser, Rav Dr. Mordy Schwartz, Lauren Tuchman. Special thanks to Irina Gritsevsky and Rafi Spitzer.

Until the next time, happy Shushan Purim!

Shiv’im Panim: 70 Faces of a Rabbinic Education

For my introductory piece to Shiv’im Panim, see “Seeking 70 Faces In Rabbinic Training” at Rabbi Hayim Herring’s blog.

For a PDF of the full piece, click this link.
Otherwise, read below…








Shiv’im Panim: Educating Towards Diverse Rabbinates

“What can you do that no one else can?”[1]

I did not know at first how to answer my friend’s question. Although he knew a few rabbinical students aside from me, he did not know exactly what it is that makes rabbis different from other Jews.

The truth is that, to officiate at a Jewish wedding, you don’t have to be a rabbi. To officiate at any other Jewish life cycle event—even to serve as the mohel who circumcises a newborn Jewish boy—you still don’t have to be a rabbi. Synagogues do not need to be led by rabbis. And history has witnessed many great posekim (decisors of Halakhah—Jewish law) who were not rabbis.[2]

After stumbling over my words for some while, I responded, “We each bring our own personality to our rabbinate.” The answer fell a bit flat, both to his ears, and to mine. Five years of education—give or take—is a long time to develop a personality.

As I write these words, I am entering my tenth of ten semesters of my own studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School.[3] During this time, I have taken a few courses that will obviously relate to the rabbinate of anyone who works with people: a course on pastoral care and counseling, and a course on behavioral health issues. My curriculum has required I study material that relates to the work of a schul rabbi: Talmudic analyses of prayer, marriage, divorce, and mourning; a seminar on life cycle events; and a seminar on homiletics. At the same time that I have taken courses that will enrich my ability to serve as a spiritual leader, I have taken courses that—no matter how they have fascinated me at times—focus so deeply on picayune parts of Jewish history or Jewish literature I can’t imagine ever arising in my day-to-day rabbinate. (“Rabbi, I hate keeping secrets. Should I tell my kids the truth about the Iberian literary influences on medieval Hebrew rhymed prose narratives?”)

It could be that, in an ideal Messianic world, every Masoretic note, every Medieval Hebrew literary work, and every ancient method of dream interpretation will be spiritually meaningful to all Jews. But, until the Messianic era, I’ll occasionally worry that getting caught up in the cultural minutiae of Jewish history deceives me into neglecting those immediate challenges that often face the non-Orthodox Jewish world. In the exclusively Jewish sphere—beginning or weak knowledge of Jewish languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, etc.), weak motivation for furthering personal Jewish engagement, unfamiliarity with the Jewish calendar and Jewish practices, and disarray in the “organized” Jewish community prevent many Jews from uniting in the project of digging deeper into Torah—in the broadest and in the narrowest senses possible. And if Jewishly-built barriers weren’t enough, Jews have also been afflicted with the obstacles of being human: economic struggles, identity politics, the search for personal meaning, wrestling with psychological conditions, problems with work and with relationships, health issues and more.

Rabbis who work with people (as opposed to rabbis who work with books and books alone) must be prepared to address infinite aspects of the human condition; rabbis must work towards healing the intangible Jewish soul. Simultaneously, rabbis are transmitters of Torah. It is through the language of Judaism that emerges in the peratim peratim—the finer details of our tradition—where we find the words to couch even the most mundane of human affairs in sacred speech: teachings that inspires us to act with greater lovingkindness towards the world, towards each other, and towards ourselves. Rabbis in training need time for Torah study, but at what cost? Isn’t the whole point of the Torah that we must love each other as we love ourselves? Isn’t the rest commentary?[4] Marginal even? Still, I believe that my own rabbinic education—during and after rabbinical school—must include a humbling depth of material: content that makes me discover every day just how much broader and how much more nuanced Torah is than I could ever imagine. To me, a good education should always teach me more about how little I know today—while still not belittling me.

But, how much can one learn about how one knows so little? Even a lifetime is not long enough for me to study all of the works in just my own Seminary’s library. So how much time can we spend in this thing we call Rabbinical School?

Some rabbinical students sign up for a 5-year plan; some spend less time than that in the halls of their seminaries, and some might be seminarians for closer to a decade (and some journeys exceed even that).

One might question both the length of rabbinic studies, and wonder if there is such a thing as the perfect curriculum for a rabbinical training program. As an experiential learner, I personally might not feel 100% “ready” for the Jewish professional world by the time I graduate, but no greater amount of classtime will make me feel readier. I am tempted to guess that no rabbi has learned by ordination everything that a lifetime of a rabbinate can teach. Rabbinic education simply does not end with rabbinical school.

As far as schools go though: Five years is both a long time, and not long enough a time. In the summer of 2013, I conducted an informal survey over social media, phone, e-mail and in-person conversations, connecting with perhaps 30 prospective, future, present, and past rabbinical students of JTS and other rabbinical schools to see what they felt should go into a rabbinical school curriculum. Were any one curriculum to include everything that had been suggested during these talks, a rabbinic education would not be possible to complete in fewer than eight years. Since the standard five years of a rabbinic education can interfere with other life plans of rabbis-to-be, I was not interested in imagining or promoting anything that would extend rabbinical school nearer to a decade of school.

Because of the breadth of knowledge that is needed to prepare students best for a rabbinic profession, I am in favor of all rabbinical schools developing means to permit students to test out of nearly all requirements. I would hope that rabbinical schools could offer students who test out of certain requirements the opportunity to “compensate” the exempted time with further advanced learning (electives, independent studies, “field”-experiential mentorships and rabbinic positions, etc.). Yet, I would want rabbinical schools to be able to permit that curricular exemptions not always be replaced with other requirements, for some advanced students might be seeking to spend fewer than 5 years in school for a whole variety of reasons (second career students looking to resume working life; students for whom a full education is a compromising or impossible expense; students who previously worked as rabbis but “without the title;” students who have had to be absent from school due to prolonged care for themselves, for family members, or friends; etc.).

When a school’s culture relies on financial aid for the continual support of an institution—because students need to pay tuition on time, and administrators need to guarantee that expenses and salaries are paid on time—financial aid complicates the length of rabbinic studies. For programs that offer their students Federal Student Aid, a certain number of credit-hours can be required by the State or Federal government to ensure that governmentally sponsored schools meet governmentally regulated standards. These standards often define education for students quantitatively (the amount of time spent enrolled in classes, and the mathematics of Grade Point Averages) rather than qualitatively (spiritual, professional, intellectual or personal growth). While the system of governmental financial aid helps guarantee that students and administrators can afford to keep their rabbinical schools afloat, financial aid simultaneously requires typically that rabbinical students stay in school longer than they often can afford.

Technically, rabbinical schools do not need State accreditation in order to offer ordination to its candidates;[5] however, the commonality of accrediting rabbinical programs has guaranteed that non-Orthodox rabbinic membership organizations comprise mostly professionals trained at accredited institutions. In the end, there can be something almost unusual, if not suspect, when a privately ordained rabbi seeks to join such a membership organization. (“Does this rabbi ex nihilo know what we learned at our rabbinical school?”) Yet, all formalized rabbinical schools have histories and traditions that go back eventually to exceptional teachers and inspiring principles formulated in a world without accreditation, without MAs and PhDs—degrees that were prohibited from Jews only a few hundred years ago and invented not too long before that. (Rabbi Akiva may have had thousands of students, but he never even applied to grad school.)

In some instances, and more fervently in the Orthodox world than outside of it, generous private donors can sponsor rabbinical schools that do not always offer any State-sponsored degree or State-sponsored financial aid. Before such a change would be able to apply to schools outside of the Orthodox world, we would have to be witness to a major revolution in non-Orthodox Jewish philanthropy. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges facing Jewish communities is discovering the philanthropic model that can finance and incentivize a revolution in Jewish education. Honoring that, I am not yet seriously exploring the option of federally funded rabbinical students in ~5-year programs losing all federal funding in favor of gaining full financial support from kind, dependable donations. Yet, doing so could permit a rabbinical student to opt out of meeting the State’s requirements, and instead meet the requirements of a rabbinic program designed entirely and mutually by the student and that student’s individually hand-picked team of rabbinic mentors. And still, there are other methods by which we can work towards incorporating some of that idealism into a 5-year education (or however long it may take).

I recommend that those with the power to rebuild rabbinical education for the 21st century do design programs that attempt to cap near the minimum the number of credit hours necessary per semester in order to meet whatever accreditation standards permit the school to be supported as needed by federal financial aid. Beyond that, I suggest that there be an overlay of personally customized training goals that students and rabbinic teachers can set together. I would like to suggest that rabbinical schools should view their curricula’s academic cores as a lead melody that all students must sing, but students and their mentors must work collaboratively and creatively to arrange a suitable orchestration to accompany the song of a rabbinic education. The number of musical arrangements that can be composed around a single melody is infinite, and a good jazz musician also knows how to make slight strategic adjustments to a melody, to make the melody more moving in surprising ways, yet still recognizable.

I sometimes wonder if the number of required academic courses I have taken in my time in Rabbinical School exceeds the number of academic courses required by New York State,[6] especially since the State is not the authority who ordains new rabbis. I speculate that, with fewer academic credits than I will have completed by May 2015, my peers and I would still have acquired a different, but still deeply meaningful rabbinic education that echoes the lessons of several years’ worth of wisdom.

So, the question remains: What should surround that enduring academic nucleus? Some students have told me that they want more time studying rabbinic texts in the beit midrash (house of study). Others seek the interpersonal intelligence attained when studying for a MSW. Still others strive mastering a Jewish artistic practice, or honing their skills in a Jewish craft. From an academic center, a variety of divergent rabbinic paths naturally emerges.

JTS students typically choose a MA concentration from either the Graduate School or the Davidson School of Education, a Masters in Sacred Music, or a Certificate in Pastoral Care and Counseling. I propose that rabbinical schools continue to move in this direction of inviting students to be partners in designing their course of study—especially in expanding this educational direction beyond the formal walls of the academic institution.

First, I’d like mentors and students to determine a vocational path for a student. Is this a student who would like to concentrate on training for a synagogal rabbinate? For a job in Jewish education? Chaplaincy? An academic career? The intellect of the beit midrash? The pursuit of justice? How about organizational and administrative skills? I would like to refer these potential paths for a rabbinic education as Darkhey Torah (“the paths of Torah [i.e. study]”). I do not expect that every rabbinical student will know throughout one’s schooling (or even at the end of one’s schooling) what sort of rabbinate to expect upon graduation. But I believe that having the student decide together with rabbinic mentors how best to be educated for any of the aforementioned Darkhey Torah (or a hodgepodge of the above, or even another Derekh Torah—“path of Torah”) can increasingly help students see a positive correlation between their studies and their prospective careers.

Beyond a Derekh Torah, I would love to see a world in which rabbis each can offer a handy—and unique—answer when asked, “What do you do?” I want to see rabbis who are a whole range of experts. I like to envision rabbis who are adept at a social trade: chaplaincy, counseling, spiritual direction, life coaching, or shadkhanut (match-making). I hope to see rabbis who use their hands for the craftwork of Jewish ritual culture: the architecture of mikva’ot (ritual baths), the precisions of milah (circumcision), the art of ethical shechitah (ritual slaughtering of animals), soferut (scribal arts). I look forward to seeing a class of rabbis who revive Jewish artistic culture: maggidim (Jewish storytellers), payyetanim (liturgical poets), Jewish arts curators, Jewish songleaders, Jewish culinary artists. And I want to see rabbis emerge well-versed in highly technical subjects: hashgachah (Kosher supervisory), earning a MBA, intense familiarity with a particular Jewish literary genre, or a talent for pesikat halakhah (the rendering of Halakhic decisions). For this category, I would recommend the terminology of “trade tracks” in English, or, in Hebrew, Mesillot Mumechiyyut (“Ways of Expertise”). Advantages of rabbis being trained in Mesillot Mumechiyyut are at least twofold. First, several of these trades are trades over which Orthodox Judaism currently holds near-monopolies (shechitah, soferut, the operation of mikve’ot, pesikat halakhah, etc.). The expansion of these trades beyond Orthodoxy can help create a more multifaceted Jewish world. Second, many (though not necessarily all) of these trades provide services that are somewhat profitable (especially if marketed the right way). During hard economic times, and due to a variety of personal circumstances that arise, five years of rabbinical school cannot guarantee eternal job security—especially for a job rooted exclusively in old models of the rabbinate. It can only come to a rabbi’s advantage to have mastered a trade outside of that which could be identified heretofore as something that only a rabbi would do. Though many of the great rabbis of old earned livings outside of their exclusively rabbinic endeavors,[7] we need not ask rabbis today to earn money outside of rabbinic work; we can widen our net and rethink what the daily work of a rabbi can look like.

I write all of this from the vantage point of a rabbinic student who has spent about a decade at JTS, spoken at length with students from other rabbinical schools, ruminated at length on the benefits and disadvantages of different rabbinical programs’ curricula, but never had the experience of serving as an administrator or a full-time rabbi. Though I am not unusually “qualified” to think through an ideal curriculum, I have nonetheless attempted to assemble what an ideal rabbinical school curriculum might look like, if (almost) everything I have heard or considered could somehow add up. In some ways, the resultant curriculum is not all that different from the curriculum of which I have been privileged to be a part at JTS, and in other ways JTS and this vision differ dramatically.

The following outline is an attempt at constructing what might have been an ideal rabbinic program for me and hopefully for others, to intensify the student’s focus on certain subjects and skillsets: perhaps permitting every rabbinical student to answer without hesitation, “What can you do that no one else can?”


Towards a Rabbinic Curriculum of Shiv’im Panim

Though rabbinical students may be united in pursuing the same title (“Rabbi”), and they may all say they want to make lives of Torah more easily accessible to others, those who study to become rabbis differ dramatically from one another. Every rabbinical student set foot onto a path of rabbinic education carrying different personal stories, different beliefs, different strengths, different weaknesses, different intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, different spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities, different learning styles, different motivations, and different goals.

It is said that the Torah has 70 faces (shiv’im panim).[8] Just when we think we can encounter God face-to-face through the veil of the Jewish life we have chosen, we discover that we could have enlivened a different Judaism and still encountered the veiled countenance of the Divine. More simply: There is more than one way to be Jewish. When it comes to over 90% of Jewish practice, we can find no singularly correct answer that applies to all Jews. It might be obvious that Jews differ on their understanding of what constitutes work or rest in making Shabbat a day of rest, and Jews will differ on the minutiae of proper prayer etiquette, and what words we should or should not say in our worship. And going deeper, Jews who have never held a weapon can be quick to forget that the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on shedding blood is not commonsense for all. “Thou shalt not kill” alone feels too broad a law to comfort Jewish soldiers who seek a Jewish military ethic to assure them that their national service may be bloody but sacred. For one Jew, any blood spilled may be an abomination, and for another Jew in other circumstances, a military strike may be a mitzvah. We might not love each of the Torah’s 70 faces, but we inherit the Torah in its entirety, and the Torah is now ours to teach as we see most fitting. Unfolding the layers of the Torah in the ways that enable us to transmit most meaningfully that same Torah to laypeople is vital to the development of religious leaders. Rabbis-in-training, including my classmates and I, come from the same starting point (Torah) but eventually go their separate ways. By structurally reflecting both the commonality and the diversity of our paths to rabbinic formation, we can only emerge wiser, better-equipped rabbis.

Below is an outline of the flexibly designed curriculum of an idealized, fantastical rabbinical school, hereafter called “Shiv’im Panim.” Shiv’im Panim is designed to train both a rising sector of non-professional rabbis through the S’tam Semikhah program as well as professional rabbis (eligible for membership in rabbinic organizations) through the Semikhah Mukhsheret program (the curricular and practical distinctions of which are to be discussed in greater depth below, in Section C). Below, Section A covers the Darkhey Torah that would typically serve, over the span of 7 courses, a thematic “Path of Study” for students choosing to highlight different types of rabbinic careers. In Section B, we will explore the Trade Tracks that Semikhah Mukhsheret students might select in order to hone certain individualized skills that are relevant to their rabbinate. Section C itself is a complete breakdown of how students will be engaged with new Torah throughout the ~5 years it takes to complete one’s studies at Shiv’im Panim, and Section D will touch upon what renders candidates ideal for Shiv’im Panim.


SECTION A: Paths of Study / Darkhey Torah

Rabbinical students at Shiv’im Panim’s Semikhah Mukhsheret program select a Path of Study that will help center the student’s training. (Notably, the S’tam Semikhah students may only select the Beit Midrash Path of Study.) A student’s chosen Path is not expected necessarily to be the “path” of a student’s future rabbinate; however, it is expected that each Path of study can enhance each student’s rabbinate and enable students to specialize in varied rabbinic fields.

Students, with the approval of their academic advisor, can substitute 3 of any Path’s 7 required courses with courses deemed appropriate for the range of a student’s personal or professional rabbinic interests.

The Curricular Schedule Outline in Section C demonstrates how the course of study for any of these Paths temporally fit into the grander program of Shiv’im Panim. (Note that the numbers below each of the Paths listed do not intend to imply that these courses must be taken in a certain order.) Courses whose titles might not obviate necessary content are described briefly in footnotes at the first appearance of such course titles.



  1. Theological, Historical & Practical Dimensions of Jewish Leadership[9]
  2. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models[10]
  3. Crisis Management & Trauma Care
  4. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  5. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities[11]
  6. Innovation in the Jewish World[12]
  7. Elective



  1. Crisis Management & Trauma Care
  2. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  3. Pedagogic Skills
  4. Development of the Human Brain & Psychology for Clergy
  5. Innovation in the Jewish World
  6. Moral & Sexual Development
  7. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities



  1. Crisis Management & Trauma Care
  2. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  3. Development of the Human Brain & Psychology for Clergy
  4. Moral & Sexual Development
  5. Creating Mentoring Relationships
  6. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models
  7. Elective



  1. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities
  2. Non-Hebrew Language Elective I[13]
  3. Non-Hebrew Language Elective II

4-7. MA/Concentration Electives


Beit Midrash

  1. Survey of Jewish Legal Literature I[14]
    2. Survey of Jewish Legal Literature II
  2. Independent Beki’ut Study
  3. Parashat Ha-Shavu’a through Classical Commentaries[15] I
  4. Parashat Ha-Shavu’a through Classical Commentaries II
  5. The Post-Biblical Jewish Canon I: From the Apocrypha to Arba’ah Turim
  6. The Post-Biblical Jewish Canon II: From Arba’ah Turim to Contemporary Jewish Writing


Social Justice

  1. Keyruv, Community Organizing & Organizational Behavior
  2. Theological, Historical & Practical Dimensions of Jewish Leadership
  3. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models
  4. Disabilities, Mental Illness & Aging in the Jewish World
  5. World, National & Local Politics & Activism Through a Jewish Lens[16]
  6. Survey of World Jewish Ethnicities
  7. Elective



  1. Keyruv, Community Organizing & Organizational Behavior
  2. Theological, Historical & Practical Dimensions of Jewish Leadership
  3. Synagogue & Jewish Community Models
  4. Innovation in the Jewish World
  5. World, National & Local Politics Through a Jewish Lens
  6. Communal Economics: Skills & Philosophies in Jewish Fundraising & Philanthropy
  7. Elective



(Exact program to be determined in collaboration with Academic Advisor)


SECTION B: Trade Tracks / Mesillot Mumechiyyut

Prior to ordination, Semikhah Mukhsheret students (but not S’tam Semikhah students) master one trade listed below (grouped together by category for ease of reading) or another trade of which the student’s academic advisor has approved; or have a professional, Masters, or Doctoral degree or certificate in a field approved by said advisor. Certain subjects may require additional study either at another institution or with the independent study of an approved private instructor. If the Shiv’im Panim cannot provide adequate related training through its own offering of courses, students may expect to spend 1-3 summers concentrating on this trade. A beit din (“court”) of 3 faculty members must approve a student’s completion of studies for a selected trade. Section C’s Curricular Schedule Outline details how training for these Trades may fit into the grander scheme of Shiv’im Panim.

Social TradesChaplaincy Certificate | Counseling, Spiritual Direction, MSW | Shadkhanut Jewish Hand TradesMikveh Architecture | Mikveh Guidance | Milah | Shechitah | Soferut
Jewish Art TradesJewish filmmaking/storytelling/theater | Jewish creative writing | Jewish culinary arts/nutrition | Jewish liturgical arts, Payyetanut | Jewish musicianship, Chazzanut | Jewish visual artistry/arts curating Knowledge TradesHashgachah | MBA | Mumechiyyut in 1 Jewish literary genre (such as Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Mesorah, Midrash, Pesher, Qumran texts, Halakhah, Chasidut, Kabbalah, Musar, Apocrypha, etc.) or written work | Pesikat Halakhah

SECTION C: Curricular Schedule Outline

Below are five charts: each chart detailing the course of study for each of Shiv’im Panim’s standard five years of study. Although personal circumstances will find certain students with reasons to complete the program in shorter or longer lengths of time, these five years are intentionally cumulative in their coverage. Students, with the approval of their academic advisor, may be exempt from any required course in the material of which the student has been deemed proficient. Students might therefore complete the program in fewer than five years, proficiency and fortuitous scheduling permitting. Except under unusual circumstances, no student may be ordained from Shiv’im Panim with having been a full-time student for fewer than 6 semesters. With the exceptions of students transferring from another rabbinical school who are exempted from courses the material of which was proficiently completed elsewhere, for every two course credits from which a student has been exempt, a student will enroll in one elective course credit, which may be a credit towards an independent study designed for the student’s Trade (as described in Section B).

Students will be well-advised to consult regularly with their academic advisor to ensure that they are successfully set on a trajectory of meaningful learning towards a personalized rabbinate. Additionally, it is recommended that students regularly volunteer time during rabbinical school, as a commitment to both tzedek (justice) and chesed (charity). Separately it is strongly encouraged that students regularly attend therapy sessions, to help students better, continually, and compassionately understand themselves and others. Shiv’im Panim is able to provide counseling services for students seeking therapy.

Liturgical leadership and handy skills—though occasionally practiced in the series of Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah courses that appear throughout most of the schooling—will be covered more intimately over the course of special Workshop days, as outlined below.

Shiv’im Panim’s program begins in Israel—enabling students, after the Israel year, to reside afterwards in the same locale for 4 years without interruption caused by the schooling itself. The program begins with a focus on daily tefillah, and then kashrut. While in Israel, various courses will enable students to experience various sites and communities in Israel firsthand. Towards that end, the first year also attends to matters of Israeli history and the religions of the Land of Israel. Students will study Hebrew and Biblical criticism amidst their Torah study. Upon students’ agreements to attend Shiv’im Panim, the Rabbinical School administration will be in touch with any significant others of students to support them—as appropriate—in obtaining work visas in Israel; MASA or other applicable grants; registration at an Ulpan or other Hebrew language immersion opportunities; and assistance with career placement, financial aid, and medical support.

Students who seek a rabbinic education that results in Semikhah (ordination) but no accompanying professional degree (as opposed to Shiv’im Panim’s Semikhah Mukhsheret [“Certified Ordination”] rabbinical students who will graduate with professional degrees for having completed an accredited educational degree, such as an MA or MHL) can enroll in Shiv’im Panim’s S’tam Semikhah (“Just ordination”) program, ordainees of which would not be granted permission—and would not be supported by Shiv’im Panim’s administration in an ordainee’s efforts—to join a rabbinical membership organization. Notably, Shiv’im Panim’s design as such of both a professional rabbinical school and a non-professional rabbinical school, with profound overlap between the two, is intended to fill a sociological gap in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. In 2015 C.E., the population of an Orthodox synagogue along much of the urban centers of the East and West Coasts of the United States can expect to count among its minyan a gaggle of ordained rabbis who work in non-rabbinic professions: law, business, medicine, and beyond. The intensive training of, essentially lay, rabbis in the Orthodox world guarantees that Orthodoxy will be supported from the ground up with knowledgeable laypeople. The creation of a rabbinically educated laity outside the Orthodox world can help inspire a new generation of highly Jewishly-educated liberal Jewish laypeople who can be assured that Torah study is richest when understood as a communal enterprise, and not an exclusive jargon reserved for functioning clergy. Shiv’im Panim’s S’tam Semikhah program is inherently designed for people who have no intentions of serving as a rabbi, but who want to deepen their knowledge and share it informally with their families, friends and communities. Whereas Shiv’im Panim’s ~58-course (~5-year) Semikhah Mukhsheret program vouches for its ordainees’ membership in rabbinic membership organizations, the S’tam Semikhah’s ~36-course (3-year) program omits certain courses related to professional skills as well as the academia of Jewish intellectual and linguistic cultural history. Moreover, the S’tam Semikhah program, in which students do not select a Trade Track, is open only to students who select the Beit Midrash Path of Study (described in Section A). Should a S’tam Semikhah ordainee decide to continue their rabbinic studies at Shiv’im Panim’s Semikhah Mukhsheret program, the ordainee may re-enroll at Shiv’im Panim, excepting unusual circumstances, only after one academic year since the S’tam Semikhah date of ordination has passed. All course credits completed while a S’tam Semikhah student had been a student at Shiv’im Panim would count towards the completion of the Semikhah Mukhsheret program—namely, every requirement from which S’tam Semikhah students are exempt (unless said ordainee had, while still a S’tam Semikhah student, enrolled anyway and been evaluated as proficient in courses from which the ordainee had previously been exempt). S’tam Semikhah ordainees who had not previously studied as part of Shiv’im Panim’s program in Israel are encouraged to spend time studying in Israel nonetheless at some point prior to their ordination in the Semikhah Mukhsheret program.


YEAR 1 FALL (in Israel) YEAR 1 SPRING (in Israel)
Survey of Torah**** History of Israel*****
Varieties of Tefillah in Israel (incl. field trips)**** Religious Sites in Israel & Abrahamic Faiths*****[17]
Contemporary Hebrew I***** Contemporary Hebrew II*****
Talmud: Berakhot and Megillah**** Talmud: Chullin and Avodah Zarah****
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Weekday Tefillah****[18] Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Kashrut****[19]
Over the course of the Israel year, 3 days each semester includes Workshops on leading Weekday Tefillah (including Torah trop). Attendance as learners and/or sharers is to be required for all students.In the summer upon returning from Israel, students are encouraged to complete 1 CPE unit and to fulfill their CPE requirement. This requirement must be fulfilled before the summer preceding Year 4. Notably, the 5-year curriculum is designed so as to provide time during the year for CPE.****Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) must be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student is unable to be part of the Israel program.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.


In their second year, students will return from Israel and study at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base. Throughout this year, students will study different Jewish philosophical approaches to age-old questions about belief, practice and identity. The fall semester will cover the books of Prophets and Writings, and the Spring will see to the first of rabbinical students’ required history courses (ancient Jewish history) and be introduced to the great project of Jewish exegesis.

As this year may witness students beginning to accept part-time paid rabbinic work, the focus of this unusually heavy year simultaneously explores Shabbat, some holidays, and a full gamut of life cycle events. Such knowledge and skills, when acquired, will help students serve later on in different rabbinic roles and help make the rabbinical school education more affordable.


Jewish Thought & Personal Meaning I[20] Jewish Thought & Personal Meaning II[21]
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Shabbat[22] Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Yom Tov & Chol HaMo’ed[23]
Talmud: Shabbat and Eruvin Talmud: Sukkah and Pesachim
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Life Cycle Events Part 1[24] Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: Life Cycle Events Part 2[25]
Survey of NaKH (Prophets and Writings) Ancient Jewish History*****
Aramaic & Old Hebrew Grammars*****[26] Introduction to Jewish Exegesis[27]
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include Workshops on leading Tefillah for Shabbat & Yom Tov (as well as Haftarah/Ruth trops). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 2 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a required lecture or workshop on the subject of social justice. Attendance for either learning or sharing is to be required for students in the Year 2 Cycle; optional for all other students.****Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) must be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student is unable to be part of the Israel program.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.


Halfway through their education, students will begin training in certain professional skills of the rabbinate. With homiletics and education fieldwork and Talmudic studies of life cycle rituals, students will complement their studies from the previous year with sugeyot especially focused on marital and divorce law, plus halakhic discussions of holidays not covered during the 2nd year. Focusing on interpersonal spiritual concerns, students will study Jewish mystical traditions, focusing on both the supernatural and the personal. Concurrent with these traditions, stemming predominantly from the Middle Ages, come a Medieval Jewish History course and a survey of Medieval Jewish Literature. The latter half of the year will introduce students to elements of the modern Jewish world: modern history, modern literature, and the formation and philosophy of contemporary Jewish denominations.

Talmud: Kiddushin and Gittin Core Elective #1*
Education Fieldwork Seminar*****[28] Core Elective #2*
History & Texts of Jewish Mysticism & Personal Meaning History & Philosophies of Contemporary Jewish Trends
Medieval Jewish History***** Modern Jewish History*****
Homiletic Speaking & Writing In Person & Via Technology***** Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: The Jewish Calendar & Non-Yom-Tov Holidays[29]
Survey of Medieval Jewish Literature I*****[30] Survey of Modern Jewish Literature II*****[31]
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include Workshops on leading High Holiday services (including shofar blowing & High Holiday morning Torah trop). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 3 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a lecture or workshop on the subject of neurotheology. Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 3 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.*Over the course of the curriculum, 4 Core Electives must be selected, one from each of all but one of five categories: (1) biblical literature, (2) midrashic literature, (3) halakhic literature, (4) history, and (5) professional development. Under circumstances approved by the student’s academic advisor, students may select other electives for other purposes, including substituting Trade or Path studies with these course credits and/or time slots.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.


In their fourth year, rabbinical students will study the High Holidays and—having studied life cycle events and all the remaining holidays—will be able to take on most tasks asked of a year-round synagogue rabbi. Students will begin taking electives of their choosing, in accordance with the Paths and Trades selected for their studies.

Synagogue Internship Seminar I***** Synagogue Internship Seminar II*****
Core Elective #3* Core Elective #4*
Path Course #1** Path Course #2**
Talmud: Rosh Hashanah and Yoma****** Path Course #3**
Laws, Contemporary Practices and Halakhah: High Holidays******[32] Path Course #4**
Trade Course #1*** Trade Course #2***
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include Workshops on leading non-Yom Tov holiday services (including Esther and Eikhah trops). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 4 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a required Lecture or Workshop on the subject of interfaith and/or interdenominational work. Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 4 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.*Over the course of the curriculum, 4 Core Electives must be selected, one from each of all but one of five categories: (1) biblical literature, (2) midrashic literature, (3) halakhic literature, (4) history, and (5) professional development. Under circumstances approved by the student’s academic advisor, students may select other electives for other purposes, including substituting Trade or Path studies with these course credits and/or time slots.

** Students may forego the slots set aside for Path Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Path requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Path Courses over the course of each semester. Meanwhile many other students will be able to fulfill their Path requirements over the course of the time set aside for Path electives.

***Students may forego the slots set aside for Trade Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Trade requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Trade Courses over the course of each semester. Meanwhile other students may be able to fulfill their Trade requirements over the course of the time set aside for Trade Courses. Note that S’tam Semikhah students do not take Trade Courses.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.

******Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) may be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student intends to graduate after 3, rather than 5, years of study at Shiv’im Panim.

Nearing graduation, rabbinical students will become teachers and will study modern issues of Halakhah. Students will study philosophies and approaches to communal and personal development, and complete their studies of their personally chosen Paths and Trades. The final semester is designed to be a lighter load for students who are interviewing for new positions, who are writing theses, or who may have otherwise remaining academic responsibilities for their rabbinic studies.

Trade Course #3*** Graduating Seminar*****
Trade Course #4*** Trade Course #5***
Responsa & Halakhic Vacuums******[33] Trade Course #6***
Moral Development & Jewish Ethics***** Path Course #7**
Path Course #5**
Path Course #6**  
Over the course of the year, 3 days each semester include workshops on tying tzitzit and tefillin knots, and other handy trades. Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 5 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.During this year, students are expected to deliver a Senior D’rashah or equivalent form of offering personalized Torah with a chiddush in a format in accordance with a potential career Path (i.e. shi’ur, theatrical play, original song cycle, etc.).In addition, 1 day each semester will provide a required Lecture or Workshop on the subject of meditation and contemplative rituals (emphasizing rituals outside of the exclusively Jewish realm: i.e. yoga, chanting, expectant waiting, etc.). Attendance, in order either to learn or to share, is to be required for students in the Year 2 Cycle; however, attendance will be optional for all other students.

** Students may forego the slots set aside for Path Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Path requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Path Courses over the course of each semester. Meanwhile many other students will be able to fulfill their Path requirements over the course of the time set aside for Path electives.

***Students may forego the slots set aside for Trade Courses if such students have completed, or plan to fulfill, these Trade requirements at another time. Note that students, for example, pursuing a MA will require more time-slots than currently allotted for Trade electives over the course of each semester. Meanwhile other students may be able to fulfill their Trade requirements over the course of the time set aside for Trade electives. Note that S’tam Semikhah students do not take Trade Courses.

*****Course not required for the S’tam Semikhah program.

******Comparable course (independent study, parallel course at Shiv’im Panim’s home-base, or relevant course approved by academic advisor) may be taken in its stead if a S’tam Semikhah student intends to graduate after 3, rather than 5, years of study at Shiv’im Panim.


SECTION D: Admissions Requirements

Prior to acceptance, students must demonstrate their ability to read Torah and Haftarah, as well as to lead weekday tefillah. Students are required at least one year of a yeshivah-style education with Talmud (or 1 year’s worth of college-level Talmud study), with the ability to decipher Rashi script, before acceptance to the program. Shiv’im Panim shall provide, or collaborate with, a yeshivah-style learning program in which prospective students or conditionally accepted rabbinical students may enroll for at least 1 year prior to acceptance into the rabbinical school. The purpose of this year of preparatory education is to increase familiarity with classical Rabbinic argumentation, topics, laws and language, plus Hebrew and Aramaic grammar and vocabulary. Although not required, it is recommended that students have worked in a field not related exclusively to the Jewish world for at least one year prior to entering The Rabbinical School.

Students must act ethically and make Jewishly informed decisions about their speech patterns (i.e. hakkarat hattov—acknowledging the good—and shemirat halashon—guarding one’s tongue—etc.) and human behavior. Moreover, students must express their personal commitment to Jewish continuity. Students must have observed Shabbat, have kept kosher and have had a daily-regulated relationship with prayer for at least 1 full year prior to acceptance to Shiv’im Panim, and must continue to do so regularly during their schooling.

[1] I thank Rabbi Hayim Herring for encouraging me to write this piece as part of the project surrounding the book he recently edited with Ellie Roscher, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education (Avenida Books: USA, 2014).

[2] In the middle ages, when rabbis were few, cantors often functioned like posekim (decisors of Halakhah) for certain communities. Notably, their functioning as posekim was not always taken well. For a brief overview, see Landman, Leo, The Cantor: A Historical Perspective, Yeshiva University (New York, NY: 1972), pp. 15-20.

Israel Meir Kagan, the author of such major works of Halakhah as the widely read Mishnah Berurah commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, was never ordained as a rabbi—until he received the title by telegram in a time-sensitive situation when the Polish passport control required that he name his profession something that they could understand. For one version of this story, see Frand, Yissocher, Listen To Your Messages: And Other Observations On Contemporary Jewish Life, Mesorah Publications (Brooklyn, NY: 1999), p. 89.

Even more controversially, as of this writing, the Orthodox institution Yeshivat Maharat has not explicitly bestowed the title “Rabbi” on any of its women graduates. Still Yeshivat Maharat’s homepage notes that its women “graduates are authorized to be poskot ([the plural feminine Hebrew word for] legal arbiters).” See Yeshivat Maharat | Confirming Orthodox Women as Halakhic and Spiritual Leaders at http://yeshivatmaharat.org/, accessed on May 27, 2014.

[3] I would like to note here that much of the information in this essay represents my understanding of what I have learned largely from my own experience as well as speaking with rabbinical students and rabbis affiliated with different rabbinical schools—including a few, though not many administrators. Although I hope that I am accurately able to represent the reality of rabbinical school policies and curricula discussed here, incorrect information presented as factual here is a result of my own misunderstanding.

[4] A paraphrasing of Hillel in Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

[5] See for example, “What Does Accreditation Mean?” at http://www.50states.com/college-resources/accreditation.htm#.VLw1ii7F_oh accessed on January 18, 2015. Notably there is also no single Jewish law that would require State approval of one’s ordination.

[6] As of this writing, JTS’ Graduate School often requires 30 academic credits directly related to the MA, plus the fulfillment of (or the demonstration of proficiency in) several prerequisites, and attendance at a special seminar for first-year graduate students during their first semester. Other requirements might ensue, including comprehensive exams or another form of standard test or project that summatively concludes the student’s work towards the MA. The totality of this work towards the MA could be completed over the course of two years’ time. Meanwhile, during the past 8 years during which I have been a student of some form at JTS (where I was an undergraduate), it has been a reasonable expectation that—with the possible exception of slightly smaller course-loads usually during the penultimate or final years of rabbinical school—full-time rabbinical students could be expected to be enrolled in approximately 18 credits per semester while possibly fulfilling the requirements of a field rotation or other professional work.

[7] Rav Chiyya bar Yosef sold salt (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzi’a 48b), Rav Huna was a farm laborer (Ketubbot 105a), and the legend goes that Rashi was a winemaker.

[8] Bemidbar Rabbah 13:16.

[9] Such a course would explore theological dimensions of leadership, along with crash courses in relationship-building, fundraising, intrafaith and interfaith collaboration, time management, self-care, and boundaries; as well as reflections on models of leadership throughout Jewish history: Moses, the Sanhedrin, the Geonate, the tzaddik of Hasidism, and more. Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[10] Such a course would explore logistics surrounding founding and maintaining (socially, financially, spiritually and beyond) chavurot, independent minyanim, synagogues, JCCs, Jewish day schools, afterschool Jewish educational programs for children, and more. Such a course would explore intrafaith and interfaith collaboration between individual Jewish communal models and other communal models. Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[11] Such a course might cover populations of Jews whose identities are rabbinically acknowledged (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Romanite, Yemenite, Moroccan, Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, etc.) as well as people whose Jewish identity is, or has been, contested (Karaites, Samaritans, Igbo Jews/Hebrews/Israelites, Messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus, Black Hebrews). Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[12] Such a course would outline a history and prospectus of revolutionary technological, pedagogical and otherwise practical (e.g. liturgical, communal, etc.) innovations in Jewish history—ancient, medieval, modern, as well as what is being developed, and what is to come.

[13] Options might include languages integral for the study of Jewish thought and Jewish history (for example, Akkadian, Ethiopic, French, German, Greek, Latin, or Spanish) or languages that have been largely spoken by Jewish populations (for example, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, or Ladino).

[14] Several surveys could focus on Mamonot (Civil Law), Nefashot (Criminal Law), Terumot (Temple Law), Tohorot (Purity Law), or Kelalim (Principles of Jewish Law), from their ancient origins through their treatment in contemporary Judaism.

[15] Classical commentaries include works of midrash, medieval and modern mefareshim (Biblical commentators), Chasidic and Kabbalistic teachings (including Zohar), and Talmudic and legal citations of passages from the weekly Parashah.

[16] Such a course might cover current events and political systems relevant to Israel, to the locale of Shiv’im Panim, to the students’ own areas of residence areas; as well as theological reflections on Jewish activism. Such a course would benefit from guest speakers and field trips.

[17] To include field trips & guest speakers, including religious leaders of different faiths & denominations.

[18] To cover topics including use of lu’ach and creative approaches to tefillah.

[19] To cover topics including shechitah, kashrut for Passover, the categories of milk and meat, and modern additions to Kashrut—including Tav Hayosher, Magen Tzedek, eco-kashrut, and Tav Chevrati.

[20] Topics of inquiry to include God, creation, religion & science, revelation of Torah, self & other, gender, and peoplehood. Course will include surveys of various historic and contemporary primers to Jewish thought and Jewish living—ranging from Maimonides to Joseph Telushkin.

[21] Topics of inquiry to include chiyyuv, minhag, creative spirits, rabbinic identity and authority past and present, and the afterlife. Course will include surveys of various historic and contemporary primers to Jewish thought and Jewish living—ranging from Maimonides to Joseph Telushkin.

[22] Subjects to include Tefillah, Melakhah, Sh’vut, Pikku’ach Nefesh and Eruv.

[23] Subjects to include Tefillah, the 4 Species, Sukkah, Chametz, and the Seder.

[24] To include trips or observations of berit millah, zeved/simchat bat, pidyon habben, wedding, and sheva berakhot ceremonies; also covering questions of kohen/levi identities and responsibilities, and gender-non-specific birth ceremonies.

[25] To include trips or observations of ceremonies related to disunions of partnerships, levayah, shiv’ah, conversion, prayers for healing, b’nei mitzvah, and taharat hammishpachah; also covering creative contemporary rituals: e.g., coming out ceremonies, sex-transition ceremonies, etc..

[26] Topics of inquiry to include Biblical Hebrew, rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic of the Targum, and Aramaic of the Talmuds.

[27] Course to cover the history of midrashic literature, as well as a brief survey of medieval and modern mefareshim (Biblical commentators), as well as Chasidic, Kabbalistic, and contemporary Biblical exegetical collections.

[28] Through this course, each student will works as a Teaching Assistant with, and observe, an experienced Jewish educator in a setting where the educator serves as both the setting’s main educator and the rabbinical student’s mentor. During this time, the rabbinical student will be expected to teach certain sessions, or parts of sessions, in the mentoring educator’s class.

[29] Subjects to include Tefillah, Purim, Hosha Na Rabbah, Tish’ah BeAv, the Three Weeks, minor fast days, the Sefirah, and Israeli national holidays.

[30] Including Medieval Hebrew rhymed prose narrative, piyyut, and secular poetry.

[31] Course to cover Haskalah literature, Zionist Hebrew poetry & fiction, Yiddish poetry & fiction, and Jewish poetry & fiction in English.

[32] Subjects to include tefillah, shofar, Tashlikh, Teshuvah, Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, and Kol Nidrei.

[33] Topics of inquiry to include both a review of rabbinic responsa throughout the ages as well as questions regarding Jewish thought or action that are not yet answered in rabbinic legal literature.