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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
How are the roles of leadership and authority exercised?
by Howard Greenstein

The 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.

The 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 require.
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.

In 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Similarly, 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.

Each 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.

All 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.

Whatever 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Every 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.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard 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).

Excerpts 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.


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