by Rabbi Daniel Seigel
I remember reading an essay written around the beginning of the 20th century in which the author proposed a new way of establishing criteria for rabbinical ordination. Until the emancipation, what Jewish young men did was to choose a rabbi or a yeshivah where they felt comfortable and whose teaching was in harmony with their souls and they went to study. They began their learning wherever the other students were “holding” at that moment. Somewhere along the way, a particular man might be tapped by the rosh yeshivah / the head of the academy. At that point, he might review particular parts of the Shulchan Aruch and, after an oral exam in those sections, would be given a document that showed that he had the confidence of his teachers to be someone who could himself teach the basics of Judaism and resolve disputes according to halachah / Jewish “law” and practice.
For the author of the essay, this was an unacceptable practice. The title “rabbi” or even the words of the document didn’t really contain important information about what this rabbi had actually studied and where his competencies really lay. So he proposed the establishment of a single, world-wide curriculum for rabbinical seminaries so that the content of the title would be obvious to everyone. Ordination should indeed be the same as graduation, and the right to graduate should be earned in the same way as in other institutions of higher learning. Some years later, I had a conversation with a retired Conservative rabbi in the Boston area who lectured me about the inadequacy of “private semicha” as he imagined we practiced it in Jewish Renewal, arguing strongly for this universal model of graduation upon completion of a curriculum.
I established my relationship with Reb Zalman precisely because this new model didn’t speak to me. I saw rabbinical schools training rabbis for a Jewish community that already was changing into something else. Where rabbinic training was focused on prophetic sermonizing or the minutiae of halachah as recorded in the various codes or asking the rabbi to be the resident intellectual expert on Jewish history and practice, I saw congregations in need of a post-holocaust and truly spiritual renewal of Judaism. The rabbi needed less to be a Ph.D. and more to be an intelligent articulator of a Judaism which is a spiritual practice enhancing the quality and meaningfulness of people’s lives.
And so it began, with Reb Zalman laying his hands on me in the basement of Neal and Carol Rose’s house in Winnipeg. And so it has continued and grown until now, and ALEPH’s ordination ceremonies are personal, beautiful, joyous, and creative. For us, ordination is not a graduation but a renewal of semichah, the bond of trust symbolized by the literal laying on of hands.
Some years ago, it came to me that the creativity of our ceremonies needed to be anchored by at least one element which is continuous from year to year. And so I composed a lineage, a reading to be repeated at every ceremony as we lay the hands of our trust on our new rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors. I acknowledged that there was an earlier lineage of men who traced their ordinations all the way back to Moses at Sinai and which had become both broken and diffused. I affirmed that we have started a renewed lineage of spiritual teachers entrusting their students which begins with Reb Zalman but traces its origins to the Baal Shem Tov and the Eastern European Hassidim. This lineage includes both men and women and embraces the many variations of sexual identity which we now recognize. And it also originates in a women’s transmission which also has been broken and/or had to go underground, now surfacing in a new partnership with the lineage of men.
I have been reading this lineage for several years now. Some years the moment passes without fuss and in others people hear it (as if) for the first time and want to bring it home with them. This is one of those years and so I share it with you all. I’ve put my name at the bottom so that you can attribute it and I also ask that you not make changes in it. From the first time I shared it, people have come up with “Why didn’t you include…?” My purpose was to highlight a lineage and I limited my choices to women whom I saw as directly contributing to our lineage. So, for now at least, I ask you to honour the text as I have it, make suggested changes directly to me, so that the annual reading remains as it was intended.
PS: We are making the next round of improvements to this site. I will keep only the most recent post in full on the “writings” page. The rest, ten per page, now have only the first paragraph or two and then you can click to read the rest. This will also allow the comments to appear only underneath the post to which they refer and I’m still hoping that we’ll have some real discussions. We’ve also increased the size of the font and reduced the spacing between lines. If you have other ideas for improving the site or adding items to it that you think might be helpful, please do let me know.