On a balmy September night in Jerusalem, 16 new rabbis ordained one another at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
They came from varied Jewish backgrounds and spoke 10 languages. Already leaders in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Sephardic, Ethiopian and secular communities, this disparate group now calls itself the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis.
In a country where the Orthodox-controlled Rabbinate keeps a tight grip on Jewish ritual life, and where recognition for non-Orthodox Judaism is an ongoing struggle, this first nondenominational group of Israeli rabbis is more than an anomaly. It’s a quiet revolution.
The beit midrash is a joint effort between the Shalom Hartman Institute (a cutting-edge Modern Orthodox research and leadership hub in Jerusalem) and HaMidrasha at Oranim (a Jewish renewal educational center). It’s an egalitarian two-year program that trains existing Israeli community spiritual leaders to embrace a pluralistic, inclusive vision — no matter their denominational background.
The first cohort of what the partnership deems a new Israeli Rabbinate is working to “catalyze a process of spiritual rejuvenation for the Israeli public sphere and its emerging Jewish communities,” according to the group’s website.
While preparing for the ordination celebration last month, Rabba Noga Brenner Samia, the deputy director of Bina (also known as the Secular Yeshiva), talked about changing definitions alongside changing roles.
“On the one hand, becoming a rabbi has always been a dream of mine. I looked into one of the liberal rabbinical colleges, but it never was possible, and so I had kind of given up on the dream,” Brenner Samia said.
The Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, however, provided an opportunity for becoming a rabbi to serve her community — on her own terms.
“At Bina, a big part of what we try to do is to ‘redeem’ Judaism, reclaim ownership of Judaism, reclaim terms and language and concepts, but while reinterpreting and redefining, also finding new meanings,” she said. “We’ve done that already for yeshiva — taken a word that’s been used for serious Jewish learning for generations, and redefined and expanded the definition to include our kind of yeshiva.” That is, men and women learning together, with a social justice bent.
“I see this as another example — redeeming and redefining rabbi,” said Brenner Samia.
For her and the other secular leaders ordained alongside her, becoming a rabbi involved questioning the essence of what it means to be a secular spiritual leader.
“We don’t look upon it as a title of authority,” she said. “The title is a statement of redefining the role. It’s more of a responsibility, a commitment to a certain kind of leadership.”
Innovations in the past decade have shown that it’s a kind of Israeli secular leadership that is slowly reaching critical mass.
Across Israel there is a growing proliferation of secular synagogues and yeshivas, or houses of Jewish study. From traditionally nonreligious kibbutzim to thriving centers in major cities, these grassroots communities are finding increased interest in religion and Jewish culture among a secular public that, unlike in generations past, feels neither threatened by nor obligated to classical religious texts.
Israel’s first secular rabbi, Sivan Maas, was ordained in 2003. Now the dean of the Jerusalem-based wing of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Mass was ordained in Detroit by the late Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, who founded Humanistic Judaism in 1963.
In a 2001 article in the New York Times, Wine explained that Humanistic Judaism is based on two principles: “The source of power for solving human problems lies within human beings” and “Judaism is more than a religion … it is the culture of the Jewish people.” Today in North America there are some 10,000 Jews who belong to secular humanistic communities, according to Rabbi Adam Chalom, the dean of IISHJ in North America.
In 2004, Maas founded Tmura-IISHJ, an institute for training Humanistic rabbis and other Jewish leaders in Israel. In the past decade, it has ordained 32 secular rabbis who now work throughout the country, officiating at hundreds of lifecycle events each year as educators and, slowly, as congregational rabbis.
According to Maas, her fellow Israeli secular rabbis are fulfilling an ever-growing need that is now recognized by funding from the Israeli government.
“Most Israelis live a secular way of life,” Maas said. “They don’t depend on any higher power to make their choices.”
Increasingly, she added, they are choosing to conduct their lives removed from the Israeli Rabbinate, which is controlled by the Orthodox movement and which does not recognize Jewish rituals officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis, including weddings or conversions.
Maas emphasized that she and her colleagues are not part of any denomination. “We’re there to cater to Israelis who live a Jewish Israeli way of life,” she said. A strong Jewish identity, she said, is as essential to secular Jews as it is to the religiously observant. It is only when secular Israelis understand their unique place in society that they will feel empowered to dialogue with others.
For many, the term “secular rabbi” is an oxymoron.
At the reception before last month’s Jerusalem ordination ceremony, Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman explained that the notion requires a redefinition of the words “rabbi” and “secular.”
“It’s a double movement: It enriches the image of the rabbi, but the more important movement is the enrichment of what it means to be secular in Israel,” Goodman said.
“I think a very dominant secular identity in Israel is the ‘angry identity’ based on a rejection of Jewish tradition. And now we see a secular identity not founded on rejection, but based on inspiration from Jewish tradition,” he added.
He continued: “People are saying, ‘Oh this move is changing religion.’ They’re wrong. It’s more interesting than that. It’s changing secularism. It’s not that secular Israelis are becoming religious, the seculars themselves are going through a paradigm shift.”
In many ways the kibbutz movement, the traditional bastion of secular Israeli culture, is also the crucible of its new spiritual wing. The “secular” half of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis initiative, HaMidrasha at Oranim, was founded in 1951 by the United Kibbutz Movement. Also, as an academic college where Jewish prayer and classical Jewish texts are taught, HaMidrasha in itself is representative of the shift in secular thinking towards religion.
This transition within the secular kibbutz movement has aided a “blurring of definitions” within Israeli society, said Rav Rani Jaeger, one of recently ordained Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis cohort. He is also the co-founder and chairman of Beit Tefillah Yisraeli, a “secular” congregation in Tel Aviv.
Initially there was a rebellion against religion by early secular kibbutz pioneers, Jaeger said. “I think that the challenge of Israeli society is how to come out of that rebellion and again affirm something, not just reject,” he said.
The kibbutz movement has indeed moved beyond what he calls its “adolescent” anti-religious attitude and has begun to take ownership of its Jewish tradition and rejuvenate it.
One example is a redefinition of Jewish texts and rituals, he said, citing the multitude of Passover haggadahs generated by the kibbutz movement.
The mix of democratic and egalitarian principles so essential to the kibbutz movement is reflected in the leadership of HaMidrasha at Oranim, said Moti Zeira, the institute’s CEO.
“We are convinced that, as Israeli rabbis/rabbas, our graduates will create a strong foundation of Israeli-Jewish spiritual leadership committed to Jewish sources, social responsibility, solidarity, justice, camaraderie, human rights and mutual responsibility,” Zeira said.
In taking this “leap of faith” and ordaining rabbis, Zeira added, “We believe with all our hearts that they will extend the benefits of community life to an Israeli society eager for spiritual engagement, and become driving forces toward building the country as a Jewish and democratic state.”
A longer version of this piece originally appeared at the Times of Israel. Reprinted with permission.