What are the important leadership roles in the community?
by Howard Greenstein
is no hierarchy for religious authority in contemporary Judaism.
In ancient times, authority was centered in the high priesthood
established by Biblical law. The priestly class governed the religious
life of the community according to Biblical law as detailed especially
in the Book of Leviticus. They controlled and administered the entire
sacrificial system, and since animal sacrifice was the predominant
form of worship at that time, the priesthood exercised supreme religious
authority. That priesthood, however, ceased to exist after the destruction
of the Temple in 70 CE, as did the sacrificial cult.
the fall of the Second Commonwealth in the first century CE, leadership
in ancient Israel centered in the institution of the rabbinate.
The role and function of the rabbi actually originated long before
the Temple was destroyed, but achieved pre-eminent status in the
aftermath of that catastrophe.
title rabbi is derived from the Hebrew noun rav, which
in Biblical Hebrew means “great,” but which does not
refer to “rabbi” anywhere in the Bible. In its later
sense, in Mishnaic Hebrew, however, the word rav means
“a master” as opposed to a slave (as, for example, “Does
a slave rebel against his rav?” – Ber. 10a).
was only in the Tannaitic period, in the generation after Hillel,
that it was employed as a tile for the sages. The passage in the
New Testament (Matt. 23:7) in which the Scribes and Pharisees are
criticized because they “love…to be called of men, Rabbi,
Rabbi” probably reflects the fact of its recent introduction.
The word “rabbi” therefore means literally “my
master,” and became simply the title accorded to a sage.
rabbi of the Talmud, however, was completely different from the
present-day holder of the title. The Talmudic rabbi was an interpreter
and expounder of the Bible and the Oral Law (Talmud), and almost
invariably had an occupation from which he derived his livelihood.
He never derived his income from his service as a rabbi. It was
only in the Middle Ages that in addition to or instead of his earlier
functions, the rabbi became teacher, preacher and spiritual head
of the Jewish congregation or community.
the Talmudic period (200 BCE – 500 CE), communal leadership
was vested in a body called the Sanhedrin, which consisted of seventy
rabbinic sages who governed as both a legislative and judicial institution,
but which also no longer functioned after the 6th century.
the European emancipation of Jews in the 18th century, the role
of the rabbi has radically changed. In the first place, governments
in various countries insisted that Jews follow the civil laws of
the state like everyone else, which then made the role of rabbi
as judge in civil litigation obsolete. Even matters of ritual and
matrimonial law that the Jewish community could still control fell
under the jurisdiction of a central bet din, a Jewish court
of law composed of specialists in this area.
addition, as Jews became
more acculturated into the general life of the larger world, they
realized clearly the necessity for rabbis to acquire wider knowledge
than they previously possessed. They needed to be
grounded not just in Jewish sources but in purely secular branches
of learning as well. The incentive in that direction only accelerated
when a number of countries required a certain standard of general
education as a condition of recognizing rabbis.
numerous Orthodox seminaries refused to permit any change in their
traditional curricula that consisted entirely of Talmud and the
subsequent codes of law, other rabbinic seminaries emerged which
provided a comprehensive course of study that blended Jewish sources
with a standard university education. The modern rabbi, then, whether
Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, is largely the product of these
more progressive centers of learning.
the Middle Ages, until the Emancipation of the 19th century, central
Jewish authorities arose occasionally in certain European countries.
The United Synagogue of Great Britain, for example, still appoints
a Chief Rabbi of the country and maintains strict control over matters
of conversion, marriage and divorce.
Israel Chief Rabbinate is also granted authority by the government
in all matters relating to personal status of Jewish residents in
that country. Non-Orthodox segments of the Jewish community have
achieved limited recognition but still do not share in the power
apparatus of the Jewish religious establishment.
©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.