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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
What are the important leadership roles in the community?
by Howard Greenstein

There 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.

After 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.

The 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).

It 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.

The 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.

During 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.

Since 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.

In 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.

Although 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.

During 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.

The 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.

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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