Rabbinic Education in the 21st Century

Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel commented that, “the goal of life is … to know the God of the universe, to walk in God’s ways, and to cling to God.” That threefold agenda encapsulates the purpose of human existence and the goal of rabbinic education at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

To Know God

Most Jewish authorities have affirmed that true piety requires the active life of the mind – ein am ha-aretz hasid. In our age, such an affirmation involves extensive mastery of the sacred corpus of Jewish writings – Torah, Tanakh, rabbinics, philosophy, parshanut, Kabbalah, hasidut. To be a Rabbi today requires more than even this extensive literacy. It also involves competence with, among others: Jewish literature, history, sociology, philosophy of religion, feminist thought, Israelstudies, and gender studies.  It was Rabbi Solomon Schechter who noted that, “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.” That remains the Rabbi’s desideratum.

Yet even that broad sweep isn’t the final word. In his Yesod Mora, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra noted that, “One who possesses knowledge of the tradition but has not studied any other wisdom is like a camel that carries a load of silk. It is of no use to the silk and the silk is of no use to it.” At the end of the day, we seek to help Jews become human in the fullest and deepest possible way. That means that the ideal Rabbi must be at home with the study of humanity and the world. Rambam had it right – we come closest to knowledge of God only after a solid study of human culture and the social and natural sciences.

The Ziegler Schoolcurriculum attempts to stimulate our students to revel in the spirit of inquiry and of learning. 60% of our curriculum involves the study of rabbinics (Mishnah, Talmud, Codes, Parshanut, Halakhah). But our offerings also include Bible, philosophy, history, literature, psychology, chaplaincy, and education, preparing our students to be sources of illumination for the Jews they will serve as Rabbis.

To Walk in God’s Ways

Learning is more than merely a tool – Talmud Torah is itself an expression of deep spirit, the act of thinking God’s thoughts, of merging our mind with the Divine.  Yet scholarship by itself is not a sufficient expression of Jewish spirit. “The ultimate of knowledge is teshuvah and good deeds,” says the Talmud. At the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, we understand walking in God’s ways in two senses – obeying God’s mitzvot and repairing God’s world through acts of social action and social justice.

At the Ziegler School, we are dedicated to living in the presence of a caring God, to putting God at the center, and to habituating ourselves to lives of holiness. Halakhah remains the essential path for these qualities, hence obligatory in our age as in ages past. Without a commitment to obeying God’s commands as a system, Judaism risks being reduced to a spiritual smorgasbord for satisfying personal spiritual urges. To retain the power to elevate us above suffocating solipsism, halakhah is both commanding and encompassing.  A prism for reflecting the best of Jewish values and contemporary insight, halakhah remains dynamic and responsive. At the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, we remain students and practitioners of halakhah, the dynamic implementation of God’s mitzvot, both in our curriculum and in our lives.

Halakhah and mitzvot, essential as they are, are not the totality of Jewish deeds. In fact, we are the heirs to a long tradition of gemillut hesed, deeds of lovingkindness. To live in the world but to harden our hearts to the needs of our fellow creatures, to blind our eyes to the call of justice, to deafen our ears to the cries of human anguish would constitute nothing less than relegating Judaism to a hobby, or worse, a distraction. The service of God requires a commitment to social justice, social action, and ethical rigor. At the Ziegler School, Jewish ethics are studied (for the sake of practice) as a central expression of Jewish life.

To Cling to God

Talmud Torah, sh’mirat mitzvot, gemillut hesed – these are the abiding needs of the Jewish people. Our people crave rabbis grounded in these virtues – capable of guiding others to lives enriched through learning, mitzvot, and goodness. Common to all these expressions is an encompassing sense of God and God’s love. Devekut, clinging to God, undergirds and sustains Jewish life – shivit HaShem la-negdi tamid. Without a presence living and compelling, addressing us through Torah and mitzvot, it is hard to justify the effort, investment, and distinctions that Jewish life entails. But there is a living and compelling Source beckoning to us from the start: “I, the Eternal, am your God.” Through our weekly Shiur Klali, our daily minyanim, our periodic rebbe’s tisch and yemai iyun and shabbatot, Ziegler School works to foster a consciousness that was shattering in antiquity, one that disturbs complacency even today. By offering connections with members of the faculty and administration (diverse and passionate Jews), we hope to ignite in our students a love of God that they, in turn, can light in the communities and congregations blessed to call them “Rabbi.”



Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).