Do we need rabbis?

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.

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