Sunday, March 07, 2010

I finally figured it out

It was obvious from the first time that our current rabbi officiated at a religious service that he had difficulty reading any text that he didn't already know. (As time went on, it became clear that his social skills were not what one might expect from a person over 30 years old, either. See here.)

So when we heard that he had refused the chazzan (cantor's) offer to teach him how to lein (chant from a sefer Torah) and how to chant a haftarah on the grounds that "it's not in my contract," I didn't believe that that was the real reason.

And when he claimed that he never corrected the leiner/baal koreh (person who chants the reading from a Torah scroll) because he didn't want to embarrass him in public, I didn't believe that, either, especially since he not only never objected when my husband, serving as a gabbai (assistant), corrected the leiner, but also never objected to one of our Israel-American members calling out corrections from his/her m'kom k'vua (customary place) in the back of the room.

But there were some rather odd occurences.

There was the rabbi's initial insistence that he should refrain from teaching the laws of Jewish observance, on the ground that it would be better if we sinned out of ignorance than if we sinned willfully. A few of us gave him quite a lecture about his attitude, stating that it was his responsibility to teach and ours to observe (or not). He later eased up on this.

And there was the rabbi's statement, when asked whether he'd looked for another job to supplement the meager salary that we pay him, that he couldn't job-hunt because looking for work would take too much time away from his studies. Never before had we had a part-time rabbi who showed so little interest in getting another job.

Then there was that interesting conversation about Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals). Someone pointed out that Birkat HaMazon was based on the verse "You will eat and be satisfied and bless HaShem your G-d for the good land that He gave you." So the rabbi piped up and said that that verse was part of the Sh'ma. I was flabbergasted. I'm not even a yeshiva graduate, much less a rabbi, and even I know that that quote does not come from the Sh'ma, a series of quotations that appear in both Shacharit (Morning Service) and Arvit/Maariv (Evening Service) every day. The Sh'ma consists of three biblical quotes, the first paragraph being from D'varim, Parshat Va-etchanan/Deuteronony 6:4-9, the second paragraph from D'varim, Parshat Ekev/Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and the third paragraph from B'midbar, Parshat Sh'lach L'cha/Numbers 15:37-41. The quote on which Birkat HaMazon is based is D'varim, Parshat Ekev/Deuteronomy 8:10. Not only did I have to tell the rabbi that he was incorrect, I had to find the correct quote for him in the Chumash.

What really got me thinking, though, was the response to my post about our then-new Shabbos lamp, in which I happened to mention in passing that the rabbi had been unsure about a matter of Sabbath observance, and asked my readers about it. The comments were real eye-openers, ranging from a straightforward answer to my question to a statement that, if the rabbi couldn't answer such a question, we should get a new rabbi. Even more of an eye-opener, however, was the off-blog response than I received via e-mail from an Orthodox rabbi. First, he asked why my rabbi had still not responded to my question. When I wrote back that my rabbi had said that he had to ask his rebbe (teacher), my correspondent responded that, when he'd been a yeshiva teacher, some of his more-advanced 10th-grade students (16-year-olds?) could have answered my question. And he asked me, in polite but pointed terms, whether my rabbi was really the Talmud scholar that he claimed to be. I had to admit that, given the knowledge level of most of the congregants, myself included, the rabbi could make just about any claim he wanted, and most of us wouldn't know the difference.

After that, I began to pay closer attention to the rabbi's actions.

I noticed that, when I asked him a question about halachah/Jewish religious law that he could answer immediately, he answered immediately, but that, when I asked a question for which he didn't have an immediate answer, he would promise to let me know the answer, but would not do so.

I noticed that there were several additional instances in which I was able to locate a quote in the Chumash that he was not able to locate.

And I noticed something that I considered quite unusual for a pulpit rabbi--of all the rabbis in whose synagogues I've worshipped often enough as an adult to have heard many of their sermons, he was the least likely to base a sermon on the Parsha (weekly Torah reading) and/or haftarah.

It was the Shabbos Goy who held the key to understanding my rabbi.

On several occasions, he pointed out that, every year, before the Yamim Noraim/High Holidays, the rabbi took home a Machzor/Holiday prayer book. The Shabbos Goy was convinced that the rabbi did so in order to memorize the English readings that he was expected to lead.

I had not realized that the rabbi's learning disability had such a pervasive affect on his rabbinate.

Here's my current theory:

Since the rabbi clearly has difficulty reading, he's been forced to rely on memorization. Therefore, he's limited his studies to those texts that he believes he needs to know in order to impress the people whom he believes he needs to impress. And those texts come almost exclusively from the Gemara. He studies and memorizes what he needs to know to impress his chevrutas (study partners) and the rabbis who give shiurim (lectures). He studied and memorized what he needed to learn in order to earn a Yoreh Yoreh Yadin Yadin rabbinical ordination/S'michah.

But there are two areas of Jewish knowledge in which he's limited, because he's never needed to memorize material from these areas in order to impress the people he considers it important to impress.

One is Tanach, Bible, which, in the yeshivish circles that he prefers, is considered an appropriate study subject for women and children only. This accounts for his unwillingness to learn to lein or chant a haftarah, his inability to correct the leiner, and his inability to find quotes in the Chumash. It also accounts for his penchant for discussing the Holocaust, Israel, and/or current events rather than the Parsha in his sermons--he doesn't need to read and memorize an entire Torah reading every week to give a sermon based on what he learned from his parents and teachers, from his own life experiences, and from what he hears on the radio.

When I explained this theory to my husband, he was taken aback. "You mean I know the Chumash better than the rabbi does?"

"Yes, and so do I."

The other area in which our rabbi's knowledge is limited is Daat for Dummies--he has little interest in, or talent for, teaching those of us who are not Gemara scholars.

What really strikes me now, re-reading my "Shabbos lamp" post, is my statement that my rabbi "readily admits to not being an expert on hilchot Shabbat (the laws of Sabbath)." That admission of his should have served as a "red flag." How on earth can any rabbi who isn't an expert on hilchot Shabbat and has no interest in becoming one serve in good concience as a pulpit rabbi?

Our rabbi's contract will come to an end before the Yamim Noraim. I sincerely hope that he never accepts a position as a pulpit rabbi again.

[Daat, Da'at, Da'as = knowledge]

I actually published this post on April 7, 2010, but had second thoughts about leaving it at the top of my blog. Given the fact that my current rabbi and I have not always gotten along very well, to say the least, as you can see if you click on the first link here, I'm not sure how visible I want this post to be.


Anonymous Miami Al said...

Dumb question, has anyone pulled his resume and checked references? Is it possible that he doesn't "travel in Yeshivish circles" but rather just dressed the part for the gig?

Not knowing Chumash quotes as opposed to Gemara quotes, sure thing... Chumash isn't quite "for women and children," but certainly not an area of advanced study. That said, if the Rabbi is truly observant, he's reading the Parsha multiple times a week...

i.e. he claims Orthodox Semicha, anyone verify it, and is it from a legitimate source, or someone gave it to a frum looking guy that needed it to get work?

Sorry to by cynical, but your hypothesis is an extreme stretch.

Thu Apr 08, 12:32:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...

I'm with Al. I'm sorry, but you can't get Yoreh Yoreh, let alone Yadin Yadin without learning hilchot shabbat.

In the old days, the best talmidim in a yeshiva stayed on to be rebbes. The lesser ones got sent out to be orthodox rabbis, The even lesser ones became accountants and lawyers, and the worst became rabbis of conservative shuls (that's an old joke, but there's some truth to it).

either this guy is a complete fraud, or he's the dummy from his class, and I tend to think that there was some resume inflation for job purposes. Yadin Yadin requires extensive knowledge of both ritual aspects as well as business dealings knowledge, since he can act as a dayan.

I think y'all have been had.

Thu Apr 08, 07:58:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

. I'm sorry, but you can't get Yoreh Yoreh, let alone Yadin Yadin without learning hilchot shabbat.

The Pirke Shoshanim program will give you yoreh yoreh smicha in Issur v'Heter (laws of permitted and forbidden foods) for mastering the 3 areas of melicha (salting meat), basar b'chalav (laws of meat and milk), and taaruvot (laws of mixtures of treif and kosher). Hilchot Shabbat is an entirely separate course there.

I believe that getting yoreh yoreh smicah solely for knowledge of issur b'heter is traditional.

One can also receive private smicha for general knowledge without taking any specific courses at all. I personally know two rabbis who got smicha this way, and perhaps the most famous example is the Chofetz Chaim who received smicha in his 70s or 80s in order to attend a conference for rabbis only.

Thu Apr 08, 10:11:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"Dumb question, has anyone pulled his resume and checked references?" Miami Al, I wish I could agree that that's a dumb question, but I must confess that I don't think anyone did "due diligence" and checked. We'll get the egg off our collective faces eventually. :(

" . . . if the Rabbi is truly observant . . . " In the beginning, the rabbi gave us the impression that he was Orthodox, but, over time, it became clear that his observance standards were lax, particularly in certain areas. In recent years, he has stated publicly that he's not Orthodox, but "traditional," whatever he means by that.

"either this guy is a complete fraud, or he's the dummy from his class . . ." JDub, I have reason to believe that the second half of your sentence is closer to the truth. From the beginning, our rabbi has claimed family ties to the higher echelons of the Chareidi world. This has led me to wonder whether the reason he was admitted to and allowed to remain in the well-known yeshivot in which he (claims to have?) studied despite his obvious learning disabilities is that he has what Israelis call "protectzia," connections. I think he got his s'michah because someone pulled strings, not because he'd actually mastered the required material. So I agree that we've "been had," in that we thought we were hiring someone more knowledgeable than our rabbi appears to be.

Thu Apr 08, 10:51:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous Miami Al said...

Larry, the Chofetz Chaim situation was a little different, IIRC it was a Visa application, might have been to attend a conference, where he needed to list occupation. He didn't want to list "Rabbi" without formal Semicha, since his understanding of the term required Semicha, but the secular authorities meant "worked as a Jewish minister."

The world has changed a bit in regards to Semicha.

Semicha is a relatively broad area in Orthodoxy, but the English translation of Ordination has a different meaning in the non-Orthodox Judaism world.

As Shira pointed out, he "gave the impression" that he was Orthodox, but what does that mean? He dressed Chareidi and speaks Yeshivish? He "claims" to have Semicha, but no clue from who/where.

To the board of her congregation, they probably heard "Orthodox Semicha" and thought "wahoo, better than JTS, it's Orthodox," not thinking that "Orthodox Semicha" ranges from several years of post-graduate study at YU at PhD levels or 6+ years in Kollel after 13 years in Yeshiva on one extreme, to 18-19 year old that needs a job so his neighbor gives him "Semicha" and he goes and works as a Kashrut supervisor in a Conservative Temple's kitchen, but they can call him Rabbi.

Reform and Conservative Jews have very particular ideas about ordination from their relatively academically rigorous programs (5-6 years of post-graduate study). They may not be strong in Talmudic studies, but they have extensive Judaic studies and pastoral requirements. Orthodox "Semicha" comes in all stages.

One of the strange things I saw in the Jewish Day School world, PEJE has salary guidelines, that treat "Rabbinic Ordination" or PhD as a top level academic credential. While a YU REITS degree, a 6+ year Chareidi Kollel Ordination path, or Israeli Rabbanut Semicha all provide similar amounts of education as a PhD program, I have a letter from my neighbor is "Semicha" in the technical sense in Orthodoxy, but not in the sense that most are thinking.

The pay scales for male teachers in schools ramping up absurdly if you have "Semicha," plus the non-Orthodox willingness to pay top dollar for an Orthodox "Rabbi" for event supervision has led to Semicha inflation.

Thu Apr 08, 01:24:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...


The Pirke Shoshanim program is the equivalent of a diploma mill. It's not a credible yeshiva. Nothing against it in terms of their efforts to get people learning, I think that's great, but I don't consider that "smikha".

At a minimum, rabbis are expected to have mastered Orach chaim as well as Yoreh Deah. While one can get private smicha, this guy sounds like he's touting real yeshivishe smikha, which would not be a "Pirke Shoshanim" kind of thing.

Let's put it this way: You wouldn't get smikha from YU or even Chovavei without learning hilchot shabbat, and while it's been many years since I perused the JTS course catalogue, I think it's unlikely you'd graduate from JTS without some knowledge of shabbat either.

Thu Apr 08, 03:13:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Mike said...

jdug - I think you should learn more about the Rabbanim that are involved with Pirchei Shoshanim and decide if they are qualified or not. Check out:

Thu Jun 24, 05:10:00 PM 2010  

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