Musings on the Rabbinate and Rabbinical Authority

Over the past 24 years, I have had the privelege of being a free agent rabbi. That is to say, while my career has been within the world of Jewish communal service and Jewish education, my religious life per se has been that of a civilian. We have been members of synagogues, but I have accepted no leadership roles in them. And I maintain my independance, not belonging to any denominational rabbinic organization.

That independance, as well as a personal style that is ideosyncratic (OK, a but nuts) and accepting, has made me a “rabbi of choice” in the words of some of my friends. A rather eclectic group of individuals has come to me over the years, asking that I play a rabbinical role, which has included:

officiating at life’s events: weddings, funerals

doing detective work on situations involving men’s refusals to grant Orthodox religious divorces

answering questions of a legal and/or ethical nature (teshuvot or responsa), particularly questions of a nature that they are not comfortable asking a “mainstream” rabbi

As time has passed, that third aspect — that of rabbinical authority — has changed dramatically. Back in the day, particularly in non-democratic societies, rabbis, at least in an idealized view, were viewed as both authoritative and authoritarian. One went to the rabbi of a community for guidance on ritual and ethical matters, and perhaps for other counsel as well. The expressed norm was that once a rabbi had been consulted and had rendered his response, the game was over and his ruling was to be followed, without appeal to other rabbis or to one’s own point of view.

Over the last hundred or so years, the role of the rabbi as authority was impacted by both a growing sense of invidualism (described in the The Jew Within by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen) and with the influx of thinking of American democracy into Judaism (as pointed out early in the career of Mordecai Kaplan).

Today, there are few circles outside of the Haredi community, in which rabbinic authority goes unchallenged. Except for a small minority of the Jewish community, the rabbi is a guide and educator rather than the final authority on ethical matters.

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