Once upon a time, the title "doctor" had a very limited meaning. You were either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a physician.
However, since the word has a deeper original meaning, the use of "doctor" has spread throughout society and become attached to multiple careers that claim to play a role in healing sick individuals. As a result, the title has come to mean less since lots of people with almost no knowledge of medicine or the liberal arts can tack it onto their names.
(Come to think of it, the same thing happened with beepers, but I digress)
A similar phenomenon has occured with the word "rabbi". Once upon a time, the title was very exclusive, and rightfully so. A rabbi was a leading person in the Jewish community, someone who had committed years of his life to learning our sacred texts and who had dedicated himself to understanding our halachah so that he could lead Jews in a proper direction as they observed God's Torah.
However, that's not really true today (heck, they gave me the title so it can't be!). The term "rabbi" today is similar to "doctor" (they gave that one to me too so you know it's in trouble!) in that any approved and licensed school that wants to offer a "rabbinical" program can graduate its students and give them the title. Hence the plethora of rabbis nowadays. Forget knowing Shas. Fluency in Hebrew and belief in God are options for some of them.
But at least until recently, the term still had something behind it. A rabbi could at least point to a developed philosophy of sorts behind the degree. A Reform rabbi had completed whatever curriculum the Hebrew Union College deems necessary to complete its rabbinical program, a curriculum developed around Reform philosophy. Same thing with Conservatives. No, they weren't "the real thing" but they had some attachment to a system.
Now, however, a shul in need can reach out and hire a non-denominational rabbi:
Formed last April after the disintegration of Santiago’s only other egalitarian congregation,
Ruach Ami members wanted to preserve the spiritual and progressive focus of its parent synagogue, says member Victor Grimblatt. They feared a rabbi from the Masorti seminary would take them in a different direction. Then they heard about Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., whose rabbinical school is set to graduate its first class of 11 transdenominational rabbis on June 1.
The first thing I did when I read that paragraph was to read it again. Given the trends of the Jewish Theological Seminary over the last 20 years, exactly what did this congregation think would happen if they went to the Conservatives? I would assume it would be quite easy to find a rabbi whose views matched theirs.
But if they're non-denominational, then what are they?
Green says the program was created five years ago not just to serve a communal need but to provide a home for future rabbis who don’t fit movement categories.“We have people who are Reform theologically and Conservative in practice, or who consider themselves Conservadox,” he says.
I love that word, "Conservadox". I met a nurse once who used it to describe herself. Now, she drove to shul on Shabbos, and she didn't keep kosher outside the home (or in it but she made sure to buy mostly kosher products) and her husband didn't put tefillin on every day but when I asked her what was "dox" about her, she told me that she feels very strongly about Israel and goes to shul ever Shabbos and Yom Tov. Riiiiiiight.
The bottom line is that, in the words of the great Canadian rock band Rush, "if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice." These rabbis can be described as many things but Torah observant is not one of them. It is also interesting to read about the niche they expect to fill in the future:
We think the wave of the future is the transdenominational congregation, or a multiplex congregation that welcomes many kinds of Jews and holds different styles of services,” Green says. “We are preparing people to serve in those flexible, varied kinds of settings.”
People have always resented Orthodoxy because it stands apart from other so-called streams of Judaism. This, however, is due to something unique in Orthodoxy which is the concept of standards that cannot be violated no matter how inconvenient. Whether in kashrus, sexual morality or holiday/Shabbos observance, there are lines that Orthodoxy forbids crossing which means Torah osbervant Jews can only have so much interaction with non-observant institutions. In the end, these new non-denominational rabbis are indeed denominationalists, the harbingers of a new movement which will result with Conservatism finally accepts that it has no fundamental difference with Reform and merges with it.
All those who think that's a great thing for Judaism would do well to note the unintentional advice in the article:
“We’ve been growing exponentially,” Greenstein says. “People are beginning to understand the denominations were not given at Sinai.”
No, they weren't. They were invented by Jews who wished to rebel against God but still consider themselves good members of the faith. Perhaps once the heterdox world unites, there will be more of an acknowledgement of this.