Do we need rabbis?

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More from “Rosner’s Domain”:

Dear Mr. Septimus,
Do you think Jewish Americans know enough about Judaism to make their own judgment without rabbis? Most of the people I know – even the more knowledgeable Jews – don’t have the necessary skills (they know very little Hebrew, for example). What makes you think this can work?

And by the way, do you think knowing Hebrew is important at all?

Thank you for your comments.

David Blumberg, LA

Dear David,

In response to your questions, my initial reaction was to soften my stance and reassert that I’m not calling for a total eschewal of rabbinic leadership.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: we do rely on rabbis too much.

This is true across the Jewish religious spectrum. In many Reform and Conservative synagogues, the rabbis are the only members who engage Judaism on a day-to-day basis, so when it comes to holidays or lifecycle events, they’re called upon to run the show and make all the Jewish decisions.

But think about the situation in certain Orthodox communities, where the idea of daas Torah gives rabbis authority over social and political matters, in addition to ritual. Consider this: In all likelihood, the contemporary Orthodox community has the most educated laity in all of Jewish history; Torah study has never been so ubiquitous and universal.

And yet, a few weeks ago, a group of rabbis, led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, decided to establish a court that will grant kashrut certificates to women’s clothing stores that sell clothing in line with the rabbis’ standards of modesty.

You asked if I think Jewish Americans know enough about Judaism to make their own judgments without rabbis. My answer: When it comes to the interaction between laypeople and rabbis, there are power dynamics at play that have nothing to do with knowledge. Jews in Rabbi Elyashiv’s community may be the most knowledgeable in Jewish history, but for the first time in Jewish history, they will not be entrusted to make their own decisions about clothing.

The bottom line: I’m not saying we should dissolve the rabbinate. Rabbis who serve their communities with love and wisdom and help their congregants live more meaningful lives are doing holy work. But I still believe people want and need to take more responsibility for the direction of their individual Jewish lives and the Jewish community, generally.

Do American Jews know enough about Judaism to make their own judgments without rabbis? The better question is: Do they care enough?

(As for your question about Hebrew: Of course, it’s important. But I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for engaging Judaism.)

Thanks for the questions.

Posted on May 9, 2007

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4 thoughts on “Do we need rabbis?

  1. mbczion

    בס’’ד

    To answer the question of this thread—-YES

    מנחם בן צבי הכהן

  2. The Doctor

    I’m not even sure the question of whether american Jews are educated enough to dispense with rabbis is pertinent.

    Americans are very sophisticated about health care, and know when to take an aspirin; yet we willinglly will go to a trained professional when it counts. We may be very knowledgable about legal issues and know how to fill out a simple will; but we trust a trained professional when it counts.

    There’s a big difference between having a high degree of Jewish knowledge and being trained as a rabbi.

    And my wife and kids can pick out their own clothes, thank you very much…

  3. clara1

    The Jewish people need Rabbis. They do many things besides just using their indepth knowledge of Judism. They keep the Synagogues running; keep in touch with the Jewish and non-Jewish community; help with finding care for those who can’t do for themselves; etc. Every religion needs someone dedicated to the people. For us Jews, it’s the Rabbi.

    clara

  4. rachel

    The piece here that really resonates for me is this:

    I still believe people want and need to take more responsibility for the direction of their individual Jewish lives and the Jewish community, generally.

    Yes, absolutely, and well-said. I say that with the deepest respect for the rabbis in our community — and with the humble intention of someday becoming one of them, G!d willing! :-) But I agree with this wholeheartedly.

    Do American Jews know enough about Judaism to make their own judgments without rabbis? The better question is: Do they care enough?

    One of the things I deeply hope I can do, in time, is help to introduce Jews who are maybe disconnected or feel themselves to be on the fringes of the community to the sweetness and richness of the tradition. If I can help others care enough that they want to take their relationship with tradition into their own hands…

    Of course, I’m coming from a community wherein a rabbi’s job isn’t primarily to posken halakha. Many of the roles I hope to fill as rabbi someday (teacher, liturgical leader, pastoral caregiver) are also filled in other ways by other people within my community. But that doesn’t devalue the rabbinate, for me; on the contrary, the work of cherishing and uplifting our community could always benefit from more hands on deck!

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