[If you’re not singing the headline, you’re not as tickled as I am.]

When Al Gore invented the internet, no doubt even the great visionary who used to be the next President of the United States never imagined the information superhighway’s great spiritual potential. There’s a website for everything, and the internet has brought enlightenment to people of many religions in far-flung areas, providing them opportunities to enhance their knowledge and connection to spirituality. (Beliefnet and MyJewishLearning are two sites providing rich and diverse content, and then there are the myriad outreach organizations designed to reach spiritual click-and-seekers…)

But rabbinical ordination in Germany via Skype was a little off my radar until I read it in the JTA:

Benzion Dov Kaplan, Donnell Reed and Yitzhak Mendel Wagner received their ordination Jan. 2 from the Jerusalem-based Shulchan Aruch Learning Program of Pirchei Shoshanim. The Orthodox smicha ceremony, which also included several other candidates, took place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

But since Kaplan, Reed and Wagner couldn’t leave Germany to study in Israel, the program enabled them to complete their training via Skype, the Internet telephone service, and other Internet sites, Reed said.

[…] Benzion Dov Kaplan, Donnell Reed and Yitzhak Mendel Wagner received their ordination Jan. 2 from the Jerusalem-based Shulchan Aruch Learning Program of Pirchei Shoshanim. The Orthodox smicha ceremony, which also included several other candidates, took place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

But since Kaplan, Reed and Wagner couldn’t leave Germany to study in Israel, the program enabled them to complete their training via Skype, the Internet telephone service, and other Internet sites, Reed said.

But how kosher is it really to study over the internet? Wasn’t the internet supposed to be some sort of den of iniquity, giving “adult content” an epicenter and a reach that can serve to ensnare young Torah minds? Of course, but there’s also a way to find shelter from the porn. Er, storm. And true to rabbinic form, where there’s someone who’s machmir (more stringent), there’s also a more maykil (lenient) position:

Though it may seem somewhat unorthodox to learn over the Internet, Reed said several noted rabbis have endorsed the idea. Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, once told him that since Jews are urged to learn “while you sit in your home and while you walk on the way,” they ought to take advantage of modern technology to do so, Reed said.

About the author

Esther Kustanowitz

For more posts by Esther, see EstherK.com, MyUrbanKvetch.com and JDatersAnonymous.com.

21 Comments

  • Unlike other faith communities, the Jewish community (theoretically) affords relatively little significance to ordination. A Jewish community can function perfectly fine without a rabbi. Services can be run, animals shechted, marriages, b’nai mitzvah, and bris’ performed, etc… There is really very little that a rabbi is actually necessary for. The title merely denotes that, according to the one who has confered the title, the individual has demonstrated sufficient profiency in a specific area of halachah. One may be a rabbi with semicha in issur v’heter (kashrus, which is probably the most common), or shabbos, or really, anything ones heart desires. To judge whether or not one should trust a rabbi, merely look at what semicha the rabbi has, and from whom. If the giver is trusted, then the rabbi recipient is hopefully trustable as well.

    It functions largely the way that the bar functioned in the US many decades ago. If one wanted to be a lawyer, one didn’t go to law school, rather one learned the relevant law and took the bar exam. If the individual passed then they were a lawyer. It didn’t matter where they acquired the knowledge, just that they had the knowledge. For semichah, it doesn’t matter where one acquires the knowledge, as long as one can pass the tests.

    That being said, why should learning over the internet make a difference? If the information learned is sufficient to convince a trustworthy semicha-confering rabbi or institution to confer semicha on the student, then terrific. If the course is shvach, then they either won’t get ordained or will be ordained by institutions or rabbis with very little authority, and thus their ordinations will have very little authority.

    Whether or not the system is a good one is another discussion, but in the current system, Pirchei Shoshanim is as kosher as anybody else!

  • NO, NO, NO!

    A community without a rabbi goes to gehenna in a basket!

    Having even a lackluster rabbi is vastly better than having none at all.

    You know, a real rabbi. With hands-on ordination, from down the centuries, back to Moses himself.

    Don’t carry on about lost records in the Middle Ages. The back of my hand to medieval data storage problems.

    You can study distance, but those hands have to touch the head. Why? Because the giver must know the guy. Must know he is cool. A holy person. Like that. You can’t do that over the phone lines.

  • I meant, a community needs a rabbi as a focus of spiritual life, as a leader to keep the focus on a high level, and to answer questions in a way that is final about spiritual and moral matters.

    It is hard enough to keep it between the ditches WITH a rabbi. Without, it’s hopeless.

    You are procedurally right, but that’s not how life is lived.

    The exact point of being a rabbi, instead of someone who is just well read, is that ability to maintain a focus on the high level. Few can do that. Ordination is not handed out like academic degrees, where more or less anybody can get one who can pay, read and write, nicely, for some years.

    No, a rabbi is another thing.

  • The best thing about the internet study program is that they can “learn” in one window and open another for the “visuals” …incase a debate about tzniut arises.

    Yes, they are stuck in the stone ages… Ortho. women still can’t be witnesses or sit on a Bait Din. When a segment of the population has no voice in the legal process, that process is de facto flawed. That’s why women and African Americans fought for the right to vote in this Democracy, now we have a Woman Speaker of the House. An Ortho woman can’t stand in front of crowd to speak. At a bal tshuva benefit I attended in 1997, women who wanted to speak to the mixed crowd to thank their parents for giving money to the Jewish Heritage Center of Queens & LI had to speak from behind a screen out of modesty…give me a break.

    Not to open this can of worms again, but the internet study program is probably more thorough & comprehensive than the Fast Track program Aish turns uses to turn out McRabbi’s faster than McDonalds turns out Happy Meals.

  • Wow, you better tell Nahama Leibowitz, Avivah Zornberg and all the other orthodox women teachers, professors, lawyers, activists and politicians I know about that no standing in front of a crowd to speak rule!

  • I think Yaakov brings up a very interesting point on the Orthodox view of what is a ‘rabbi’, which is in sharp contrast with how C & R Jews view it. A rabbi is just “one who knows how to learn”; can study and argue Talmud & halakha. What JM is really getting at is a Rebbe; a rabbi that acts as a spiritual leader to a congregation. C & R Jews expect their rabbi to be a mix of rebbe & rav. Not just one who can learn Torah, but can work behind a pulpit and within a community.

    Do (modern?) Orthodox rabbinical programs teach their students about ethics, counseling, public speaking, and community building? Or is it purely “hitting the books”?

  • Well, I can tell you that the majority of people I know who get orthodox smicha do it like a degree program and never intend to be practicing rabbis. For them, the question is moot.

    For those who want to practice, sadly there are no requirements like you mentioned, but at least around here where you can’t spit without hitting a rabbi and there’s a healthy sense of competition, the ones who “make it” tend to have cultivated those qualities on their own or with the help of a mentor.

    Ultimately it is up to the community to pick a Rav/Rabbi who meets their needs. That having been said, I have long been a supporter of making ethics, psychology etc required.

  • I think one of the issues here is semantics. Over time, the term “rabbi” has become synonomous with “musmach” (please, somebody correct my Hebrew here… I’m trying to say the Hebrew word for “one who has recieved semicha). However, the term rabbi doesn’t technically mean this. A rabbi is a teacher. I find it incredibly liberating and inspiring that Judaism doesn’t require an ordained religious figure for most of daily religious life. Educated lay-leaders are entirely capable of running a community.

    The fact is, however, that most communities are stuck in the Rabbi=musmach model. As such, I have to agree with Laya, that the lack of non-halachic knowledge required for ordination is a primary weakness in the system. The reality is that a huge number of people who work as “Rabbis” have semicha only in kashrut, which, for a community leader, is an almost entirely irrelevant subject. We no longer approach our LOR to find out if our chicken is shechted correctly or if we salted the side-of-cow enough. What does knowledge of kashrut halachah do to prepare one to council partners in a marriage that’s on the rocks?

    There are a number of organizations who aim to change this, both in the Modern Orthodox and charedi worlds, but I’m too buzzed on bleach fumes from squeegeeing my apartment (ahhh, the Zionist dream is realized) to go into it right now.

  • A woman with children, and little family, or money, could be horribly pressured to witness to falsehood. Including by a possible rascally husband. Wouldln’t be easy to say no to him. (Or some dude down the street, either, who decided she must have seen him do, or not do something.) Not letting women witness spares Mommy becoming entangled in Daddy’s business problems. Yes, this has a big cost to her, but it has benefits too, that are worth mentioning. And benefits to children, whose mothers are immune from this kind of claim on their scarce time.

    Just saying. I have not been through this.

    I don’t think it means women are lesser beings, just busy beings. And beings who cannot always say no. Coerced witnessing is utterly worthless.

  • As Susan B. Anthony stated:
    For any state to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people, is to pass a bill of attainder, or, an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land. By it the blessings of liberty are forever withheld from women and their female posterity.

    To them this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. To them this government is not a democracy. It is not a republic. It is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor. An oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters, of every household – which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.

    Webster, Worcester, and Bouvier all define a citizen to be a person in the United States, entitled to vote and hold office.

    The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void, precisely as is every one against Negroes.

    Susan B. Anthony – 1873

    You- Jewish Mother, with your kitty heels and lipstick and perfume, are not a citizen or a person. You are chattel and a subject. You allow yourself and your daughters to be owned my men. You are perhaps more dangerous than the terrorist. You are a self-hating woman and I pity you for believing that you women are “too busy” to speak the truth. Are you so “busy” to think you are coercable and therefore worthless as a witness. I think my testimony is valid and believe in my own credibility, I’m sorry you don’t trust your. For this, above all, to thine own self be true. You are deluding yourself on a daily basis to justify you status.

    • I want to have a baby. Why should half the population of the United States be denied that right? Rafael.

  • Laya,

    Those great women leaders are much too “modern” for the B.T. crowd to “hold by”.

  • Not the B.T crowd I know, Chutzpah.

    Nonetheless, you of all people should know better. I know you don’t like that world but you were a part of it enough to know that a statement like “An Ortho woman can’t stand in front of crowd to speak” is a totally false generalization of the Orthodox community at large. Painting the picture to be worse than it is doesn’t help change it.

    Remember also – the idea that sexual equality is even a goal is a relatively new one in the secular world, and that world has by no means achieved it. Judaism is a 3,000 year old religion, it’s only been a couple of decades since the Women’s Lib movement. By your definition, the “stone ages” in America was less than 100 years ago. I see Orthodox Judaism moving towards a more sexually equal place all the time, just at a slightly slower pace than secular society, but that’s no reason for unnecessary Ortho bashing and false generalizations.

  • Laya,
    You can call any Rabbi at the JHC in Queens and ask them if they had a Journal Dineer where the women spoke from behind screens in Flushing at the Sephari Shul and they will verify it. They are Chofetz Chaim trained Rabbis and very kind, well-educated, experienced and open minded, but this is the way they choose to run one of their early fundraisers. Women where given the option to use the screen or not. 718-575-3100 and instructed that the “modest” way was to use it, some did not. They do not use agressive recruiting techniques and do wonderful work.

    Second, my Ex’s female frum attorney, Margo Zemel Esq. testified to our civil Divorce Judge that she could not stand before him in a Court of Law unless her brother, Freddy Zemel was present, out of Ortho. law. I believe it was just a delaying technique, because she was busy fighting to prevent an autoposy on a dead baby from the Satmar community who had been shaken to death, in the same Court at the same time, before another Judge. When the Judge said the brother should litigate one case and she should do the other, this was her claim.

    True that Ortho bashing is unnecessary but my generalizations were not false, the women you cited are notable exceptions to the norm, as is Reb. Jungreis.

    My new conclusion is that JM is actually a male because her “helpless little ‘ol me, I’m too busy raising children and making tea” routine isn’t flying over here. I think he/she has conned us all.

    By definition “orthodoxy” implies a resistance to change. The problems with a woman’s status regarding divorce and leadership is not going to change before Moshiach comes in “Black Hat” Ortho. circles.

  • Chutzpah –

    Neither of the examples you mentioned, while having odd religious quirks, was actually an instance in which women were prima facie not allowed to speak publicly, and in fact, seemed to prove that your generalizations were in fact less that accurate.

    While in the ultra orthodox Haredi sects it is certainly much more true, in every normative orthodox community I know women speak publicly all the time; at shabbat tables, in courts, at PTA meetings, teaching classes etc.

    Orthodox may imply resistance to change, but as you know from the gym resistance, after all, is what builds strength.

    That having been said, I see more and more women in religious leadership positions, I hear the rabbi at a local orthodox women’s yeshiva hoping they will be among the first institutions to ordain female orthodox rabbis, I see the Coalition for Arguna rights working tirelessly to end this problem in accordance with halacha
    I see the effect of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. I could go on.

    Are they all the exceptions and not the rule? Of course. So were the early feminists in the US not all that long ago. Big changes always start small.

    I guess it’s either that we can yell and scream about it not being where we want it to be, or we can emphasize, promote and encourage the good changes that are happening. Obviously, I prefer the latter.

  • Laya, those right wing Frummies will never invite a modern Rabbi or woman. Let me see them in Lakewood invite a YU Rabbinical leader who knows as much Gemara as they do. It won’t happen. But of course the modern invite the Yeshiva leaders to speak more and more. And worst of all, the dam aish movie department is now churning out crap that they are showing in all the frum neighborhoods.

    And there is a point that they will never allow and you know it so you both have valid points.

    It take years for an Orthodox synagouge to merely allow a woman to make a Dvar Torah on Shabbat, AFTER it must be AFTER the davening, Even this, you wont find in the majority of Orthodox shules.

    And this is still very second class citizen, that it should be after the davening.

    But if you want to call this progress, I guess you can, I dont.

  • I am a real Jewish Mother. I vote, and like to.

    The old way of life should not be denigrated because it does not always work. It works a lot of the time. NO method or way works ALL the time! I favor a variety of ways of life, all staying out of each other’s way, so there is a choice. But that does require leaving the traditionalists alone!

    It’s not like they are chopping girls’ bodies. They are not doing anything barbaric. Keeping house may bore some, and limit economic advancement, but is very far from real barbarism.

    I bet you look nice at work! And elsewhere too. Your heels are higher than mine! You very likely cook better than I do, too!

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