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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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39 Comments »

  • Yaron says:

    This article was originally submitted to the AJN for publication in the Shabbat Shalom section, but was rejected due to it being “too controversial”.

    Over the past few days it has become apparent that this article has been leaked to certain members of the community, and in doing so the leaker has grossly misrepresented me.

    There were a number of people who passed this information to me.
    Each of them questioned me about my hatred of the rabbinate, and
    why I felt rabbis were an unnecessary evil based on the article.
    None of them actually saw the article in question.

    Anyone who would read the article would understand that this was
    definitely not my contention, and definitely not an across the
    board swipe at the rabbinate (a big hint might be the line where I say this is not what I want to do).

    [Eds: The editor of the AJN, Zeddy Lawrence, has contacted Galus Australis, to inform us that he disputes Rabbi Gottlieb’s account. Mr Lawrence claims there was no blanket rejection of Rabbi Gottlieb’s article, and that the article was being considered by the AJN’s religious affairs editor for possible publication in a future edition].

  • gedalia says:

    Using the notion of a Rabbi as a teacher, anyone can become a Rabbi if they stay in yeshivah long enough. It is as if in today’s world Rabbinic ordination is just another form of tertiary academic qualification. On this basis the title has lost its prestige. I know Rabbi’s that are competent learners of Gemara, but not equipped with the life skills to lead a community, or in some cases even strike a rapport with people, let alone deliver an audible or coherent drasha.

    I have no problem with having thousands of Rabbinic graduates, but I do think that a professional community Rabbi is a person that needs to have an extraordinary level of capability. The role of the professional Rabbi is changing. Clearly the best Rabbis are those who function in their Rabbinic role in a part time extra curricular capacity, and have a professional vocation that does not make them dependent on a Shule board for a parnassah. It’s time to change the Rabbinic and community model.

  • My understanding is that generations ago there was a va’ad hakohol – community council – who would lead each local community, make decisions, enact by-laws etc. Halachic matters would be referred to a Rabbi, but decisions were made by the council.

    These days, the roles have merged somewhat, and people look toward Rabbis for community leadership. Unfortunately, many Rabbis out there don’t have the training or the skills to perform that role.

  • Yaron says:

    Gedalia and David,

    Thank you for your thoughts (especially since they mirror mine). It is troubling that there are many rabbis who by virtue of a piece of paper they received from a yeshiva feel that they have the right to demand respect.

    While there are many rabbis who do command respect through their actions there are many that do not. And the wider community are complicit in handing over the power because they are too lazy or not knowledgeable enough for it to be different.

  • MargB says:

    I am fascinated by how an article looking at the historic role of rabbis in the Jewish community, along with a message about the importance of shules being centres of education for all members of the community can be considered too controversial for the Australian Jewish News in 2011. Imagine if you had dared noted that many of the most esteemed rabbis in history undertook this role on a voluntary after-hours basis and like their neighbours spent many of their waking hours working as a shepherd, stone-cutter or tanner!

  • Alex Fein says:

    Marg, I agree completely.

    Ironically, Yaron’s view is not radical at all. If anything, it’s quite conservative.

    There is such a thing as radical re-imagined conservatism.

    This is best exemplified by political Islam. That philosophy is miscategorised as “fundamentalist” – when really, it’s a radical departure from conservative understandings of that religion.

    It’s based on an imagined history – a history that’s been conveniently recast to fit in with a radical political objective.

    These re-imaginings are potentially very harmful to any community – including ours. They’re not only dishonest, but also also presented as incontrovertible.

    If you argue, *you’re* called a heretic.

    As for the AJN, I agree it’s pretty odd. It seems that they can’t quite get their head around the level of controversy their prepared to court.

    Maybe they got a fright from the Feldman incident.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Interesting article Yaron.

    One thing I might add: The advantage of a community having a rabbi is not just about paskening, it’s also about having someone whose job it is to give the drasha on shabbat, officiate at weddings and funerals, give shiurim, inquire about congregants’ wellbeing, etc. Not that an educated layperson can’t do these things, but if no one is employed in this role then these jobs might not get done, or they might be harder to organise (eg having to find a speaker each shabbat, or finding someone available last minute for a funeral) – so I think there is a need for a community to have a spiritual leader, whether or not they have smicha.

  • Yaron says:

    Shira,

    It would seem that the job description for the rabbi you are describing is paying someone a retainer to be on call. A community that will pay someone to be there just in case we need him to talk or read from the Torah or be at a wedding. If that truly is the job description then I would suggest that there are many rabbis around the world being grossly over paid.

    Jewish communities could easily run a full Jewish life without a rabbi. All you need are educated and committed congregants.

  • Yaron,

    Comments like that may indeed starting people wondering if you “hate the Rabbinate” …

    Would someone who completed a PhD and then chose to continue a life of further study be worthy of respect?

    Anyone who completes the study required for Rabbinic ordination (at Yeshiva University, it’s equivalent to a PhD) deserves respect for their achievement and the academic level they have attained. If they then choose a career serving the community in the Rabbinate, they would also be deserving of respect.

    Certainly, once on the job, any further respect must be earned like it would be in any job. Qualifications get you far, but only so far.

  • (I was responding to Yaron’s comment of 9.09am)

  • Ian Grinblat says:

    Dear All,

    I hope that I don’t hate the rabbinate and I certainly hope that I am not seen as being anti-rabbinical, but I do think that Rabbis have moved far from their original teaching role and are highly political. As our communities have emerged from the confines that persisted in Europe until the outbreak of WW2, the majority of Jews have turned outward and neglected communal affairs – basically ceding a great deal of authority to Rabbis who have been only too glad to pick it up – on a trivial level, think mixed dancing. Far more seriously, think of marriage, as opposed to weddings: yes, anyone can, in theory, conduct a chuppah but what documentation will the couple have to prove that they are both Jewish and that their children will be born Jewish? When the community was small and enclosed, this function was unecessary, but today? There is something to be said for the Reform attitude that anyone who casts in his lot with us should be accepted as a Jew, but there is already a considerable legacy of trouble and confusion from this attitude – there have been a number of instances in the USA (where else?) of non-Jewish partners have been accepted as full members of congregations and even risen to the leadership, while not claiming to be Jewish, merely equal. Sort that one out on a k’tubah.
    If you want to limit rabbinical power, than you need both to raise the level of Jewish learning throughout the community and to revive a communal religious structure (not another JCCV).

  • MargB says:

    The reality is that there are too few educated and committed people in the majority of the Australian Jewish community to run a full Jewish life without a rabbi. My late grandfather, an avowed atheist, could have run any Jewish synagogue service had he chosen to because this is how he was educated and brought up. Nowadays the vast majority of us in the Australian Jewish community lack this knowledge and these skills.

    There are two challenges. One, to build up the skills and knowledge amongst those committed to a full Jewish life. Two, to educate the rest so they are not misled by those who do have the skills.

    When I got I married I had heard many stories of friends who had lived together for years but been told by a rabbi that they had to live apart in the weeks leading up to their Jewish marriage. Plus thy had to provide a receipt proving they had attended the mikvah along with being interrogated on the appropriateness of their wedding gown. I side-stepped this nonsense by telling the rabbi that while my husband and I were of course married under common Jewish law having lived together for some time, we wanted a ceremony under a chuppah. Funnily enough he never raised any of the issues which had come up with every other secular Jewish friend.

  • Ian Grinblat says:

    MargB,
    Thank you!
    WE do need to raise the level of Jewish learning and to ensure that it spreads wide.

  • Yaron says:

    David,

    Really?

    Are you seriously telling me that a doctorate from some provincial college in Africa is worthy of respect and to be held to the same standards as a degree from Oxford or Cambridge?

    Or how about people with science degrees from creationist universities in America?

    Not every degree is equal and not every semicha is equal.

    The other part of the equation is that part of being a rabbi is a higher standard of morality is expected. We do not respect a rabbi simply because he is smart (unlike a professor), therefore a rabbi’s respect has to be earned after his ordination.

    If they manage to do that they will have my respect, but I am not impressed with a piece of paper saying you are a rabbi. It is so much more than that.

  • Harry Joachim says:

    Yaron,

    If only shules in Oz didn’t need rabbonim – unfortunately, it is a sad indictment on the level of Yiddishkeit in our community that so few congreagants in all too many shuls have an ability to daven (by themselves, let alone from the amud) or otherwise imbibe knowledge without the direction of a minister. Maybe the “frum” shules don’t need rabbonim, but the Anglo ones do. Also, even the frum ones can benefit immensely from the right rabbi acting as a reference point for sheelos, etc. I emphasise the word “right” for each shul needs to ensure that it obtains the rabbi best suited to its congregants’ needs.

    Not only semichahs differ, but so do the capabilities and caliber of the rabbonim. Some are better speakers, chazanim, mechanchim, etc., than others. Some are also more spiritual, others more grounded in politics.

    Bottom line – yes, there do not need to be so many rabbis, but the practical realities of modern life in Australia dictates otherwise.

  • Yaron,

    I didn’t suggest that all semichas are equal, rather that any semicha is a substantial academic achievement, and any commitment to serve a community is also worthy of recognition.

    Stooping to denigrate the disadvantaged student who slogs their way through a “provincial college in Africa” and attains a PhD was really unnecessary.

  • Yaron says:

    David,

    I am not sure you are appreciating the complexity of the argument. There is a clear line between the concept of the rabbinate and the individuals who make up that institution (some of them are incredibly worthy while others are not).

    As for my main point above, a rabbi is not a university degree. A doctorate is something that can command respect and is the end of the process, semicha on the other hand is only the beginning. You can gain the qualifications, but it is the individual’s actions and attitudes that brings the respect and honour not the intellectual rigor.

  • Kate Mannix says:

    May I be permitted to comment, as a non-Jew?
    It seems to me that Jews have a much better ‘recipe for ministry’ than anyone else has. Judaism recognises that all are sacred, all being made in the image and likeness of G-d. The special learning that is expected of the rabbinate is a highly developed version of the learning expected of all Jews. What might be hoped is that religious education will effect change in the human heart, leading to wisdom. The greater the education, one hopes, the greater the wisdom. Wisdom – the synthesis of knowledge, experience and divine inspiration – is what everyone wants in a religious minister. It is perhaps what G-d hopes for in each of us, too.
    Are there too many rabbis? Maybe, maybe not. Are there enough wise people out there? Definately not!

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Yaron, your historical perspective is interesting but I think you’re confusing 2 different topics here. One is the quality of semicha, the other is the benefit to a community of having a rabbi.

    Regarding the quality of semicha – yes there is a range (just as there is a range of quality in any form of tertiary education) but I’m not quite sure why you don’t think semicha in and of itself commands the same respect as any other level of tertiary achievement commensurate with the standing of the institution. A PhD is also only as good as the person who has attained it – I don’t have to think that every view espoused by (for example) Peter Singer is ethical just because he has a whole lot of academic qualifications.

    But that’s entirely separate from the job of a rabbi. Of course communities should only try to appoint someone who is good at this job (just like in any field). A high quality rabbi is an asset to any community, no matter how learned its members, and the fact that there are poorly qualified rabbis out there doesn’t detract from this.

  • Rachel SD says:

    As I understand it, Yaron is not saying that the rabbinic qualification (smicha) holds no respect whatsoever, but rather that having smicha doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has the kinds of qualities that ought to be expected of a rabbi. If that is the case then the academic analogy that has been proposed is inappropriate. Perhaps a better academic analogy would be that we might expect someone with a PhD to carry out good research but this is not assumed just because someone has a PhD. In academic publishing, the research that someone produces is not published on the basis of qualifications alone and is forever subject to peer-review. (And in academia, publishing in peer-reviewed journals is probably the single most influential factor for employment and funding.) From this perspective, it shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that smicha is not the be all and end all for producing a good spiritual leader/educator/etc.

  • quizzical says:

    Yaron,

    How do you reconcile these 2 statements:

    Anyone who would read the article would understand that this was
    definitely not my contention, and definitely not an across the
    board swipe at the rabbinate (a big hint might be the line where I say this is not what I want to do).

    Yaron Gottlieb is embarrassed to be called a rabbi.

    Why would you be embarrassed to be called a rabbi unless your abhorrence of the rabbinate was wholesale?

  • Yaron says:

    Shira,
    I guess we disagree on the necessity for a rabbi in a community. I prefer to take the optimistic view of humanity.

    Some communities will feel the need for it while others are capable of surviving without. I believe that the second is the better path and what we should be working towards.

    Rachel,
    Thank you for clarifying my point. That is exactly what I meant to say.

    Quizzical,
    Two points. Firstly my semicha was for the purposes of getting a job, and when I compare my learning to the learning of the people in my grandparent’s generation I feel somewhat humbled and even embarrassed to have the title while they did not.

    Secondly – it was an attempt at humour. One that fell flat for at least one reader it would seem.

  • Isaac Balbin says:

    Bemoaning the number of Rabbis and/or the quality of their assessment is a grand old storm in a tea cup when compared with the number of clueless ignoramuses who can’t even claim the mantle of עם הערץ and are comfortable in their Jewish skin.

    To use your example from Osrtrowce, the most uneducated knew more about basic texts and tradition than the silent, very silent, graduates of our Jewish day schools.

    As to Shules without Rabbis, don’t get me started. One I used to attend, where there were 3 resident Geonim on each bench, had zero decorum and quickly became a weekly boxing match where fists, insults, and plain poor manners were de jure.

    The thing we lack today is respect for Rabbis. You aren’t helping by lamenting their numbers. There isn’t respect because there is little respect for knowledge and education. I can tell you that Professors are respected in countries where education is respected and where education is not reduced to a slogan-laden ‘right’ or HECS debt.

    Thank goodness, Rabbis with an informed sense of what was needed, prevailed in the USA, for instance. I speak of Rabbi Soloveitchik, who taught more Rabbis than anyone. There are great and inspirational Rabbis the world over.

    PS If you delve deeper into the history of the Rabbinate you will learn that a community could barely afford ONE Rabbi, and that is why they were constantly on the run to find a community wherein they would not starve.

  • Marky says:

    As one of the great Chassidic leaders of 40 years ago responded to someone complaining that the Rebbes’ of today are not like those of previous generations: “you are satisfied being todays chassidim, but you demand that the Rebbes be on the level of previous generations?? “

  • abc says:

    A shul without a rabbi is of course practical, if enough members have a the considerable halachic knowledge to know the answer whenever a halachic question occurs (which can happen several times during shacharit alone) and if those members can agree amongst themselves and if the others respect and will be guided by their halachic knowledge.

    Given the near-impossibility of such a scenario (and the absence of such a community in my experience in Melbourne), I suggest that shuls continue to hire rabbis.

  • Marky says:

    “if those members can agree amongst themselves”

    Hardly likely. All the more reason why a Rabbi is needed.

  • abc says:

    I referred earlier to the necessity of a rabbi to answer halachic questions whenever they arise (and, I would add, to identify what is a halachic question, of which the shul members may well be unaware).

    Added to that is the community’s lead for inspiration and direction in their spiritual growth. Yaron might not need that himself; I know that I do and I suspect so do most of us.

  • TheSadducee says:

    The ACT Jewish community doesn’t have a rabbi (although it has had one on several occasions) and seems to operate well enough – with both Reform and Orthodox communities operating out of the same facilities.

  • Yaron says:

    Isaac,

    A few points must be made by way of response to your post:

    1) The shule you are talking about (Katanga) is also the shule that I grew up in, and while some of the people there overstepped the mark, there is the other side. Each person there was knowledgeable and had a dynamic relationship with the religion, as opposed to a static relationship where the rabbi is there to take care of all religious issues.

    Katanga as a shule is proud of its legacy without a rabbi and the knowledge of its congregants. While there may have been disputes and arguments the point is that Judaism was understood and lived. It meant something to everyone there.

    2) You say: “The thing we lack today is respect for Rabbis… There isn’t respect because there is little respect for knowledge and education.”

    I have respect for knowledge, but a rabbi is not only about his knowledge, otherwise there are many secular scholars in areas of Jewish education who would have the same respect as the rabbis. But we expect more.

    It would also seem that the ones lacking the respect for education are those who are demanding that the rabbi run the community. When there is no need for an educated congregation we lose our respect for education.

    3) The reason there was only one rabbi in the town may have had something to do with money, but also may have had something to do with the disdain that Judaism had for the professional rabbi. Do you think in the times of the gemara they could not have succeeded in funding in the very least the 70 members of the Sanhedrin? But even the greatest of rabbis worked.

    The professional rabbi was a mistake of history, but one which we are now stuck with, but let us not delude ourselves into thinking it is an ideal solution.

    4)We are capable of tremendous growth, but not if we rely on others. Rabbis are not there to take over our roles for us. At best they are mere guides. Let us have optimism in our own potential to be great without relying on others.

  • Isaac Balbin says:

    Yaron,
    Puleaas. Katanga was a weekly chilul Hashem. It was a complete circus. Fisticuffs, yelling, no horas who shim and complete bravado. They fought to go to the Amud by inventing the yohr tarot of their cat’s mechutan.

    Knowledge is about transmission of Mesorah, not revisionist secularist neo interpretations of a religion closely affiliated with Judaism. The Rav is the vehicle through which the Mesorah is passed on.

    There was one Rabbi because they were destitute in the main. Oh, and the Chafetz Chaim and many others worked. Don’t bring up the Sanhedrin. That’s not at all relevant to the example you quoted from my Uncle. In addition, in my uncle’s town, the Rabbi was also a Rebbe and historically unique.

    I’ll give you the autobiography of Reb Yaacov Emden to read and you will see what he’ll Rabbis lived through, and I speak not about his rift with your controversial relative R Yonasan Eybesheutz.

    Yaron, how about writing about the characteristics needed to be an effective Rabbi and how you would augment the Smicha curriculum? Stop carping and be positive.

    Even your mentor Rav Motti Elon faltered. Rabbis are human. Stop knocking them in this jewishly ignorant or sciolistic age we live in.

    Cousin Isaac.

    PS must have you both over soon. Should be testy.

  • Isaac Balbin says:

    Horas was yiras shomayim … Corrected by the auto spell checker :-)

  • abc says:

    Yaron, I said that most of us need a rabbi to inspire and direct our growth, not to do the growth for us. As I suggested, you might not need such inspiration; I do and I reckon most ba’alei batim do. I think the empirical evidence, sadly, is that a shul with an effective rabbinic leader is far more likely to be one where the congregants are growing, than a shul without a rabbi.

  • anon says:

    Isaac Balbin says: September 7, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Bemoaning the number of Rabbis and/or the quality of their assessment is a grand old storm in a tea cup when compared with the number of clueless ignoramuses who can’t even claim the mantle of עם הערץ and are comfortable in their Jewish skin.

    ==

    And what about ignorami who can’t spell עם הארץ….

  • Yaron says:

    Isaac,
    I do not want this to descend into a circular argument which it has become, but just one point, Katanga is a vastly different place to what it was when you were a regular there several years ago, and now under new leadership with new ideas and have already begun the process of re-inventing the shule on the foundations left by the last generation.

    Let’s not tar the efforts of the current generation with the sins of the past. Rather let us take their many positive elements and build on them

  • anon says:

    Can somneone report on the recent elections and debate about hiring a rabbi in Katanga?

    And what caused Rabbi Kennard to depoart that shul?

  • Isaac Balbin says:

    Yaron
    Of course Katanga has changed. For a start u no longer have 3 talmidei chachomim on each row. That’s to be regretted. As much as many of them were unleashed, they were also charming in theirvown way.

    The issue isn’t circular. I simply indicated support for my belief that we need Rabbis more than ever, and in the main, if they are to relate to our world, they should also be part of it.

  • Sam says:

    Isaac

    We have noticed that each of your postings consists of what appears to be a personal message to Yaron. Have you thought of picking up the phone and calling him and making all your point scoring directly into his ears?

  • Leo Braun says:

    “At times, interacting with certain types of Jews, left me desperately wanting to be anti-Semitic. While there are many nice friendly people within the community, there are also many arrogant Jews who leave a negative perception on the community as a whole”! [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 leader-ship 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”! [Yaron Gottlieb]

    • Tantamount to the orthodox-doctors, bigwig-lawyers, and such others of the gifted characteristics within the pseudo-indispensable class. Who wore no ethnicity on their sleeve, unlike the shtetl Jews, although covered their heads. Hoodwinked, never bothered to delve into obscured physiognomies, often masqueraded by the flamboyant hats, bonnets, turbans or tiaras. Put on deliberately to obscure the almighty chosen to lord over usurped people. Led astray by the popes, cardinals, bishops and clergy … emperors, pharaohs, sultans, sheikhs and emirs … caesars, kasers, tsars and kings … since time immemorial.

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