How are the roles of leadership and authority exercised?
by Howard Greenstein
function of the modern rabbi varies somewhat in various countries
depending on local conditions. Preaching in the vernacular, of course,
occupies a place of prime importance out of all proportion to the
earlier model, who generally limited public discourses to two addresses
per year, usually on Yom Kippur and on the Sabbath preceding Passover.
modern rabbi is expected to devote much of his time to pastoral
work, establishing a personal bond between himself and his congregants.
Those duties include visiting the sick, officiating at Bar Mitzvah
ceremonies, marriages, funerals and houses of mourning as the occasions
The rabbi is expected as well to take part in all social, educational
and philanthropic activities of the synagogue. Above all, he is
seen as the spokesman, the ambassador of the Jewish community to
the non-Jewish world.
recent times, however, rabbis serve not only as spiritual leaders
of their synagogues. Rabbis also find opportunities as directors
of Jewish student organizations on college campuses, as executive
officers of Jewish defense organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation
League or the American Jewish Committee, and as administrative heads
of local Jewish federations and welfare funds. Quite a few rabbis
now work either as military chaplains in the armed services or as
hospital chaplains in various health care facilities. A number of
rabbis even continue their studies beyond ordination to earn advanced
degrees that qualify them to teach on college and university faculties
across the country.
the United States there is no central Jewish authority, either religious
or communal. Every synagogue
is completely autonomous; a congregation affiliated with one branch
of Judaism may, whenever it so decides, join another movement. The
rabbi of each synagogue is chosen by a vote of its membership, and
is not assigned to it by any national body.
American Jewish community does not include any equivalent of a bishop
or adjudicatory head. No rabbi possesses the power to determine
the status of a colleague, or to place him in a pulpit.
there are no regional or state authorities. Even the New York Board
of Rabbis, with a membership in the hundreds, has no adjudicatory
powers. The Board helps develop standards for Jewish religious life,
and uses its moral influence in civic and synagogue affairs, but
it is a purely voluntary body, whose influence stems solely from
the good will and respect of its supporters.
of the three major movements in American Judaism support two national
organizations, one of them an association of its member congregations,
the other its national rabbinic body. In Orthodox Judaism, the lay
leadership is centered in The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations
and its rabbinic counterpart is the Rabbinical Council of America.
The United Synagogue of America serves as the congregational arm
of Conservative Judaism, and the Rabbinical Assembly as its rabbinic
body. In Reform Judaism, the Union of Reform Judaism is the national
voice for lay people and the Central Conference of American Rabbis
is its rabbinic arm.
these organizations are voluntary associations of lay people and
spiritual leaders who have joined together to share experiences,
develop standards of principle and action and engage in collective
projects and activities to advance their goals and aspirations.
discipline American synagogues accept is self-imposed. Their national
bodies do not interfere with the internal affairs of a particular
synagogue in matters of worship, administration, structure or the
selection of a specific rabbi or staff member. The influence of
these parent bodies is purely moral: they may urge standards of
ritual and worship, but they cannot compel conformity. Consequently,
the three major movements exhibit a wide range of diversity in most
matters of religious observance.
rabbinical associations reserve the right to expel members from
their own ranks, but only the theological seminary grants the title
of rabbi and only it alone has the power to withdraw a rabbi’s
ordination. From a practical point of view, such discipline is exercised
rarely if ever, either by the seminary or the professional association.
terms of leadership and authority, American Jewish religious life
possesses several other distinctive features. Religious activities
are not, as in other countries, exclusively under synagogue control.
The religious life of Jewish college students is served largely
by a lay organization called the Hillel Foundations, originally
funded by B’nai B’rith. Another lay body, the National
Jewish Welfare Board, addresses the spiritual needs of Jewish men
and women in the Armed Services. Though rabbis cooperate with and
even serve both these groups, neither is under rabbinic control.
American Jew is also completely free to choose whatever branch of
Judaism he/she prefers.
Unlike British Jewry, whose official national synagogue is Orthodox,
or French Jewry, whose official religious authority is liberal Orthodox,
the three American groups, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, all
enjoy equal status. The Synagogue Council of America, a coordinating
organization of the three groups, selects officials from all three
branches. And the very existence of this range of religious expression
precludes any central authority for American Jews.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation
of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations
in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer
at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville
University. He is the author of Judaism:
An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism
and Reform Judaism (1981).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.