Rabbi: Teacher, Preacher, Judge -- But Not Priest

The traditional rabbinate harks back to ancient practice, but is in fact a changing institution, first formalized in the fourteenth century.

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In the traditional pattern, the Rabbi is a scholar-saint, devoting himself entirely to learning (the study of the Torah is a never-ending occupation from which no one ever graduates), to guiding the community in spiritual affairs, and, especially, to acting as judge in civil cases and rendering decisions in matters of religious law. Some rabbis were more powerful and more autocratic than others. There are many recorded instances of rabbis at loggerheads with the lay leaders of the community. Although in modem times the English expression "laymen" is often used, the term is basically inappropriate. The rabbi is also a "layman," occupying no sacerdotal role. It is consequently quite erroneous, as is often done by non-Jews, to describe the rabbi as a Jewish priest.

Town Rabbis and Other Functionaries

There were other religious functionaries in addition to the town rabbi, and these were also usually given the title Ha-Rav. The town rabbi, with a few exceptions, only preached sermons on rare occasions, normally on the Sabbath before Passover and the Sabbath before Yom Kippur. Preaching was the prerogative of the maggid. The maggid was usually a wandering preacher who visited various towns where the congregation would give him a remuneration for his services. But the larger towns, like Vilna, had, in addition to the town rabbi, a permanent town maggid, who received a regular stipend from the community chest. Following the founding of the great yeshivah in Volozhyn [in Lithuania] in the early nineteenth century, yeshivot were established in some Lithuanian and Russian towns and villages. In former times, the yeshivah was under the control of the town rabbi, students would come to the town to study at the feet of a renowned rabbi who would then have the dual function of rabbi and rosh yeshivah ("yeshivah head"). With the proliferation of yeshivot, the office of rosh yeshivah was detached from that of town rabbi. The position of rosh yeshivah was held by a scholar whose particular skills and expertise lay in the field of purely theoretical study rather than practical law. After the Holocaust, an unparalleled number of yeshivot sprang up, and a degree of rivalry emerged between the official rabbis and the yeshivah principals. Increasingly, in the Orthodox world, former students of a yeshivah, while they will turn to the local Orthodox rabbi for practical decisions, tend to look upon their rosh yeshivah as their true spiritual guide. Conflicts erupt sporadically between the practical rabbis, who know the community and which demands they can and cannot make, and the yeshivah heads, secure in their ivory towers.

Rebbes and Rabbis

Hasidism developed a new type of leader, the Hasidic zaddik. To distinguish the zaddik from the rabbi proper, the former is usually called a "rebbe," though a few rebbes also served as town rabbis. The Rebbe of BeIz, for example, served as the rabbi of this Galician town and was thus the Belzer Rav (or Rov in the Ashkenazi pronunciation) so far as his town was concerned, but the Belzer Rebbe so far as his widespread Hasidic fraternity was concerned A Hasid owed his ultimate allegiance to his rebbe, but in matters of practical religious law would usually follow the decisions of the rabbi of his town. Rebbes often had a good deal of influence on the appointment of a town rabbi through the votes of their particular Hasidim It was not unknown for the Hasidim in a town to be so divided on the choice of a rabbi that, in order to avoid contention, they would vote for a rabbi to be appointed who was not a Hasid at all. Belonging to no Hasidic group, the rabbi was acceptable to all the groups in that he did not belong, at least, to a rival group.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.