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Too many Rabbis

September 4, 2011 – 9:11 pm39 Comments

By Yaron Gottlieb

What is a rabbi?

What is the significance of a rabbi within the Jewish world? Are they even necessary to live a Jewish life?

We are all familiar with the Catholic model of religious leadership where a person cannot lead a full religious life without a priest in their lives. There are many ceremonies that are necessary in the lives of every good Catholic that cannot be performed without a priest. However, in Europe there have been many stories passed down how many devout Orthodox Jews lived completely isolated, without connection to rabbis.

What is a rabbi necessary for? How much should they be a part of our lives?

Historically there was the concept of ‘official’ semicha, a chain linking every rabbi that received this ordination to Moses, the original rabbi who began the chain by ordaining Joshua. These rabbis had a unique religious standing, until the chain was broken at some point after the destruction of the Temple (it is unclear when it was broken).

The terms rabbi and semicha have since been used to describe our approximation of the ‘official’ positions.

Since then the rabbis have essentially lost all of their power. Anything that we would imagine is necessary for a rabbi to perform is possible to be done by a layman with the requisite knowledge. From marriage to funerals and anything else, the ceremony can be performed by a knowledgeable layman, while circumcision and shechita are performed by people who have a particular skill set that is independent of rabbinic learning.

The only thing that the title rabbi signifies is that a person has a particular level of knowledge, and so the rabbis sitting on the religious courts need their particular semicha to signify a particular level of learning, similar to a university degree but there is nothing special that he can do relative to others.

If you would speak to many older people, they will complain of the cheapening of the title rabbi with the proliferation of easier ordination programs, so that the title means less today then it ever did in the past. Everyone ideally needs to be educated, but not everyone needs to be a rabbi.

So why is there a rush for shules to have rabbis?

Many of the shteibls in prewar Europe did not have rabbis. There was often a rabbi of the town or the region, but not one for every shule.

This idea has been confirmed to me by my grandfather who told me about his town in Poland where there was one rabbi for a town of several thousand Jews, but numerous shules.

Each of these places survived through education. Many of the members of the communities would have had a solid and very extensive Jewish education; hence there would be a significant number of people in the shule that would be capable of answering many of the halachic questions raised by the congregation. They would also have the requisite knowledge to perform any of the life-cycle events that we now feel cannot be performed without a rabbi.

I am not suggesting that rabbis are unneeded, or that communities that decide that their future lies with a rabbi are doing something contrary to Jewish tradition. However the same is true if a congregation does not want a rabbi, it is a very Jewish concept. It could almost be called an authentic Jewish position that we do not rely on the education of others, but that we focus on our own education and knowledge. It is incumbent on us to know, not to fall back on the knowledge of others.

The central part of any community has to be the education of its members, and ensuring that they are capable of guiding themselves, therefore any rabbi who is intellectually honest should be working towards making themselves redundant. In any community, the rabbi should be attempting to educate the members to the point where they know enough to live a complete Jewish life without him, even if only in theory.

It is far more important to have a shule that is a place of learning rather than having an learned individual at the head.

Yaron Gottlieb is embarrassed to be called a rabbi.


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