Symbols of Ordination

A young woman slips out of her jeans and t-shirt in the dressing room and steps into a white satin gown. All attending her stop whatever they are doing, and the room becomes suddenly quiet. Changing clothes has symbolized the transformation of a young woman into a bride.

So it is with the rabbinical student who has labored years studying ancient text, learning history and law, and memorizing liturgy. Along the way the student strains to see the progress of an emerging spiritual leader within, but other moments bring profound doubt. Questions of authenticity cannot be pushed away: am I worthy of being called rabbi?

The day of ordination finally comes, the day dreamed of, the day for which the student may not feel entirely ready. We search for the right expression, the ritual to create the liminal moment that will do more than mark what has occurred but will say to all who participate as actors and witnesses in the event–Here is a rabbi, one who has made a committment to serve in a specific way.

What symbols will speak for the effort made to become a rabbi, what ritual will celebrate and mark the new identity, and what ceremony will express the hopes of the ordainee? Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman writes in his article, “The Origins of Ordination,” about the the liturgical ceremony for ordination with special emphasis on the laying on of hands, perhaps because the Reform movement includes this ritual in its ceremony. In the article, he searches for historical evidence to support the practice and concludes, “Despite almost complete scholarly consensus that early Jewish ordination included the laying on of hands, the custom cannot be proved either way from all our rabbinical literature.”

The basis for the assumption that semikhah, i.e. the laying on of hands, is part of the ceremony comes from the Torah. Moses appoints Joshua his successor and in Numbers 27:22-23: Moses did as Adonai comanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community. He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him–as Adonai spoke through Moses. Yet rabbinic literature does not indicate the custom of physical contact as part of the transfer of power, and it is because of this Hoffman finds the practice based upon a false premise. From a scholarly perspective, his point is well-taken, and yet we cannot ignore that the gesture is powerful; in short, it works. After all, the ceremony of ordination is called semikhah, means leaning the hands.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 13b) links Joshua’s assumption of leadership to the ordination to the rabbinate. Now Joshua will become head of the Sanhedrin, and the semikhah will take place with a witness, Eleazar, so all would know that Moses had passed the mantle of authority to his successor. When we ordain rabbis today, we recreate this drama to express our own narrative. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein has explained, “Joshua had to lower his head in submission to his master. This was to teach Joshua that even after he became the leader of Israel, he was to realize that he was to remain subservient to Moses, that he must always guide himself by what Moses would have done in a given situation, for a leader of Israel is always a link in the tradition that has come down to us from leader to leader, beginning with Moses and Joshua.” Thus God is revealed through leaders of Israel.

The Reform movement has found the practice to be a key part of its ordination. Neither the Orthodox nor Conservative movement has retained the intimate, physical gesture of bowing the head and laying on hands to express the importance of being guided by the tradition represented by one’s teacher. Whether invented history or modern custom, it is a powerful instrument that confers that which cannot be said or seen, the thread that connects us to the generations of teachers who came before us. To be called rabbi is to say that one has chosen to learn the tradtition and to teach it so that it will remain part of humanity. It is also the way to preserve the eternal community of Israel.

When the authority figure, the person ultimately responsible for the ordainee’s training, touches him or her, what is being said? “I, more knowing and powerful than you, have decided that you are ready to be a Teacher in Israel. My hand on your bowed head, a posture of humility, channels the power given to me when I became ordained. May you remember the Source of all Power and may you feel God’s touch in your work and life. May you experience the satisfaction of making leaders.”

Semikhah also is connected to the animal sacrifices, and so the literalsemikhah also represents the new rabbi’s sacrifice to serve God and the people. One’s time and energy flows to repair the world by living one’s Judaism as a model for others. The work is to touch, to transmit, and to receive. The ordination gesture stands for intimacy, for stepping down from the bima, for dropping the robe, and standing as one is. While the title of rabbi in itself doesn’t make us less doubtful, frightened, or heartbroken, what the gesture can mean is that the master’s hand on my head, warm and imminent, brings the One close to me, and I can lean on God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I cannot see God, but I see my mother’s face.” When we are ordained with the gesture of hands upon us, it is a reminder that we are God’s face, that our work is to be close enough to touch and be touched.

A much longer paper would describe other symbols of ordination–the robe worn for the first time; the inclusion of powerful members of the non-Jewish community; the members of the rabbinic community who witness and approve the crossing of the threshold the ketubah that declares the claim we have on the tradition and its claim upon us; music; and the words spoken by the one who ordains and the response of the ordinand. Whatever the form, the ceremony must reflect the tension between the transcendent and the intimate. It must be both lofty enough to acknowledge the Almighty, the Great, the Mighty, and the Awesome, and still heimish enough to identify with, to feel the warmth of the heart beating under the robe. Such a ritual of ordination will honor the process of transmission of tradition through its leaders, the power of memory to give meaning and expression to our lives, and the miracle of human beings to serve as agents of healing.