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Grade inflation strikes the Rabbanut

11 December 2003

Hebrew fluency liberates the Jewish mind. Almost every document in the Jewish canon, from Genesis to the responsa, and almost every significant commentary on these documents, is written in Hebrew. Many have never been translated. When they are translated, the translator is not always interested in making the whole text accessible, or in showing the reader all the possible readings of an ambiguous line. The better your Hebrew reading skill, and the broader your experience with classical Hebrew texts, the clearer the window between your mind and the minds of Rebbi, Maimonides, and the Vilna Gaon.

OK, not every Jew has the time or ability to become so fluent. You might think, though, that any Orthodox man who aspires to the title of “Rabbi” would also want to learn the Hebrew language — well enough, say, to pass an examination given in Hebrew — before accepting the title. You might think that even if some aspiring rabbis fell short of this standard, a rabbi with the power to ordain others would not grant the title to a complete stranger who was not fluent. You would be, alas, mistaken.

The Shema Yisrael Torah Network of Israel through its worldwide learning network partner Pirchei Shoshanim is developing a plan with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel which will allow those who desire to take the Israeli Rabbinate Semicha exam to do so in English….

Pirchei Shoshanim’s incredible staff of talented Rabbanim and writers have developed a process where one can learn Shulchan Aruch in a very methodilogical [sic] manner explaining each and every point and then having it be able to be applied in a practical manner. This has allowed those who have not had the opportunity to study the Shulchan Aruch and work full time to learn as if they have learned these areas their whole life and not disturb their daily routine. Moreover, the project allows those without a traditional Yeshiva or Torah education to now learn and understand as if they had always learned.

My rabbi tells me that back in the day, the Rabbanut gave these tests in Yiddish, so I suppose you could spin this news as a return to tradition. But if they’re looking for leniencies of past generations to reauthorize, I could come up with some better candidates than giving rabbinic exams in the vernacular.

It would be a wonderful thing for the Rabbanut to offer the analog of an associate’s degree, to recognize people who had a considerable amount of Torah knowledge but fell short of the requirements for semichah. I could also understand a school relaxing the traditional semichah requirements for individual students who were outstanding in other respects. But this … why?

Fortunately, the sages of Israel have a few standards left. Hebrew fluency has become optional, but a penis is still mandatory. Priorities….