Musings on the Rabbinate, Rabbinical Authority and the end of Rabbinic Judaism

Over the past 24 years, I have had the privilege 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 independence, not belonging to any denominational rabbinic organization.

That independence, as well as a personal style that is idiosyncratic (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), especially questions of a nature that they would not want to ask of a “mainstream” rabbi

As time has passed, that third aspect — 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 individualism (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.  And for most, any individual rabbinic responsa, is an option to be considered and weighed, not a hard and fast ruling that must be be followed strictly.

That changes the role of a rabbi dramatically, freeing him or her to be a teacher of Torah and a facilitator, as well as a trainer of Jewish leaders from among his/her followers. 

At the core, what I am suggesting is that we have entered a new phase of Jewish religious history. We have passed through Biblical and Prophetic Judaism, and through Rabbinic Judaism. I propose that we have entered a phase of Democratic / Egalitarian Judaism, in which rabbis will continue to be relevant, bringing the authority of textual knowledge; but devoid of the authoritarian trappings that have so often caused grief for the Jewish community in recent years.

One response

  1. Interesting, and I would have to mostly agree. I'm not ready to say that we've completely exited the era of Rabbinic authority, but we've definitely got one foot out the door; and I think that the organized Rabbinic world might be aware of their diminishing relevance, hence the increase in ridiculous bans (which I think only make them seem less relevant). Judaism is one of the only religions, perhaps the only religion, in which a layperson can be as or more knowledgeable than the clergy, and this is particularly true in Orthodox Judaism (whatever that means now, but that's another post entirely). The fact that so much heterodoxy exists makes any thinking intellectual person hesitant to put all their halachic eggs into one Rabbinic basket.


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