The Ideal Rabbi Today

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January 1, 2003
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by David Golinkin

The rabbinate and even the term rabbi have changed constantly during the last two millennia. Over the course of the generations, the rabbi was referred to as haver (scholar), moreh tzedek (teacher of righteousness), hakham (sage), talmid (student), marbitz Torah (disseminator of Torah), gaon, moreinu (our teacher) and manhig (leader). Thus, for example, in the 13th century, Rabbi Menahem Ha’meiri wrote in his introduction to Pirkei Avot (Pereg edition, Jerusalem, 1964, pp. 52-53) that in the period of the Geonim (ca. 500-1000), one who knew three tractates of the Talmud was called hakham, one who knew four tractates was called rav, while the Geonim “knew the entire Talmud by heart”.

The rabbi’s role also evolved continuously. The rabbi filled various roles at different times and in different countries: dayan (rabbinical judge), posek (decisor of Jewish law), darshan (preacher), teacher, rosh yeshiva (head of an academy), one who performs Jewish religious divorces and halitzot (exemptions from levirate marriages) and conversions to Judaism, leader of prayer services, the person who reads from the Torah and blows the shofar, an enactor of rabbinic decrees, one who declares public fast days, the representative of the community and other functions. In a historical survey of the rabbinate, Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal concluded: “In sum, the rabbi was truly the communal factotum and it would be an error to assume that only the modern rabbi functions on all levels”.(1)

However, in this article, we will not focus on the image of the rabbi in the past, but rather attempt to sketch ten characteristics of today’s ideal rabbi.

1) The ideal rabbi should be a God-fearing and observant person.(2) Sometimes rabbis neglect piety in favor of studying Torah, but our Sages have already warned us “Woe to those scholars who engage in Torah study but lack the fear of Heaven” (Yomah 72b). When it comes to observing the commandments, the mitzvot between one person and another are no less important than the mitzvot between man and God. As Rabbi Israel Salanter said: “Just as the rabbi of the town must check the knife used for shehitah (ritual slaughter of animals) to make sure it has no flaws, so too must he check the weights and measures to ensure that there is no fraud”.(3)

2) The ideal rabbi should be well-versed in the Talmud and halakhah. He need not know everything, as may perhaps be inferred from the above quote from the Meiri, but he must know how to find and to explain the sources that he needs to teach, to preach and to issue halakhic rulings.

3) The ideal rabbi should be well versed in all areas of Jewish Studies, as the saying goes, “nothing Jewish should be foreign to him”. In the Lithuanian yeshivot that existed before the Holocaust and in most modern yeshivot, they studied and still study primarily Talmud.(4) Such a narrow focus of study does not prepare the rabbi to teach and to communicate with today’s public who are interested in Bible, midrash, Jewish history and Jewish philosophy. In the mid-19th century, the European rabbinical seminaries of all streams of Judaism – including the Orthodox seminary in Berlin – began teaching Bible, Mishnah, Halakhic midrashim, Talmud Yerushalmi, Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, the responsa literature, prayer and land of Israel studies.(5)

This broad range of studies was also reflected in the ordination certificates awarded by the rabbinical seminaries. For example, the ordination certificate issued by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1913 stated: “So-and-so learned diligently in our Bet Midrash (house of study) and increased his knowledge in Bible, Gemara, Rashi and Tosefot, codes and all other areas of Jewish Studies…”.(6) Similar wording is found in the ordination certificate issued by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem since its establishment in 1984: “So-and-so has learned diligently all branches of Jewish Studies in our Bet Midrash during the last four years…”.

4) The ideal rabbi should have a broad secular education, as the Vilna Gaon told one of his disciples in 1778: “For according to the measure of what a person lacks in general wisdom, will he lack a hundredfold when it comes to Torah wisdom, because the Torah and general wisdom are closely linked together”.(7)

Most rabbis in Israel today have not studied in a university nor even received a matriculation certificate from high school. This not only affects their ability to understand the Torah – as the Vilna Gaon stated – but also damages their ability to communicate with a large segment of the Israeli public who have received matriculation certificates and studied at a university.

5) The midrash (Bereishit Raba 81:2) relates the story of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi who passed near Simonia in the Lower Galilee and the villagers asked him to provide them with someone to teach them Bible and Mishnah and to judge them. He sent them Levi ben Sisi. “They set up a great dais and seated him there and words of Torah eluded him. They asked him three questions… and he did not answer them…”. And why did he forget all that he had learned? Because “they made a great dais for me and seated me there and I felt proud and words of Torah eluded me. Regarding him Rabbi Yehuda quoted the verse ‘you have acted foolishly by being arrogant’ (Proverbs 30:32)”.

In other words, a rabbi who is condescending to his congregation and to the public, forgets all that he has learned. An ideal rabbi must be involved with the public at large and have contact with rabbis and Jews from all streams in Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, as well as secular Jews. A rabbi who places himself on a tall dais and cuts himself off from various parts of the Jewish people prevents himself from having an influence and creates a buffer between himself and the public at large whom he is supposed to be serving.

6) The ideal rabbi must be an outstanding preacher. Rabbi Meir used to preach in the synagogue at Hammat Tiberias every Friday night and attract a regular following (Yerushalmi Sota 1:4, 16d). Rabbi Yohanan would expound in Rabbi Benaya’s Bet Midrash and all the people would come to hear his words (Yerushalmi Horayot 3:7, 48b).

It is true that in fifteenth century Germany, rabbis only preached on Shabbat Hagadol, immediately before Passover and Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (see the introduction to Minhagei Maharil), but in the early 17th century, we begin to hear of rabbis who preach “each and every Shabbat”.(8) The ideal rabbi must deliver a sermon on every Shabbat and festival as well as at life-cycle events. The sermon gives him an opportunity to “interpret” the weekly Torah portion or the festival or the life-cycle event for the “masses” that are often far-removed from that festival or event.

7) The ideal rabbi should be a Zionist who has served in the Israeli army. Love of the land of Israel has been a supreme value of Judaism from the time of Abraham until today. Settling the land of Israel is one of the 613 commandments according to the Ramban and many other halakhic authorities.(9) Serving in the army is a mitzvah according to the Mishnah (Sotah 8:7) and Maimonides (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:1, 7:4).(10) A rabbi who is not a Zionist and does not serve in the army cuts himself off from these mitzvot and desecrates God’s name in the eyes of the majority of the public who do serve in the army.

8) The ideal rabbi must be an excellent teacher who is able to teach children, teenagers, adults, new immigrants and veteran Israelis alike. Today’s rabbi cannot teach adults only. All age groups need a rabbi who teaches Torah and lovingly brings people closer to God and Judaism.

9) The ideal rabbi must be familiar with psychology and counseling and be informed about welfare institutions. He must also be a capable administrator and fundraiser. In the past, such qualities were not essential, but today a rabbi cannot be successful without being knowledgeable in these areas.

10) The late Rabbi Immanuel Jacobovits once said that the ideal rabbi must know that he is serving God and the Jewish people and not the specific group of people who pay his salary. (11) This realization enables him to express himself and take positions on ritual matters and issues of social justice, even if doing so may not always please his employers. However, the rabbi should not overdo it. He must find the middle road, as Rabbi Israel Salanter said: “A rabbi with whom no one disagrees is not a rabbi; a rabbi with whom everyone disagrees is not a mentsch”.(12) A rabbi must not be afraid to speak, but he must not distance his target audience by his words.

All of the ideal qualities cited above are reflected in the goals and curriculum of the Schechter Institute’s Rabbinical School, which is affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. This is because the Schechter Institute is a spiritual heir of the rabbinical seminaries in Europe and the United States that wholeheartedly embraced part or all of the above ideals. The seminaries in Europe served the neo-Orthodox, Positive Historical (Conservative) and Reform movements (Berlin, Breslau and the Hochschule) and the rabbis they ordained led several generations of Jews in Western Europe. In the United States, Conservative seminaries (the Jewish Theological Seminary and later, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles) were established, as was a Reform seminary (Hebrew Union College). In Israel, the Schechter Institute (Conservative) and Hebrew Union College (Reform) were set up, but unfortunately, there is still no Orthodox rabbinical seminary in the United States or in Israel.

Yeshiva University in New York has an ordination program as well as a Graduate School of Jewish Studies, but the two are totally unconnected! In 1933, there was a serious attempt to transfer the Orthodox Hildesheimer Seminary from Berlin to Jerusalem, but Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzenski, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Vilna, thwarted it and, as a result, that renowned Bet Midrash was destroyed during the Holocaust and no successor to it emerged in Israel.(13) The result is that there is no Orthodox rabbinical institution in Israel that advocates all of the above ideals.

There is no question that the State of Israel needs rabbinical seminaries for Orthodox rabbis, which combine study of the Talmud and codes with all of the other essential things cited above. However, this is “a twisted thing that can be made straight” (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:15). I hope and pray that an Orthodox rabbinical seminary will be established in Israel in the near future, which, like the Schechter Institute and Hebrew Union College, will ordain rabbis with a broad education who are capable of communicating with all sectors of the Jewish people today.

Notes

1. Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 49 (1987), p. 107. For histories of the rabbinate, see that entire article as well as the literature in note 1, ibid.

2. What follows refers to both male and female rabbis regardless of the pronouns used. For my opinion regarding the ordination of women as rabbis, see David Golinkin, The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2001, Chapter 10 (Hebrew with an English summary).

3. Rabbi Dov Katz, Tenuat Hamussar, Volume 1, Tel Aviv, 1952, pp. 304-305.

4. See, for example, Gedalyahu Alon, “The Lithuanian Yeshivas” in: Judah Goldin, ed., The Jewish Expression, New York, 1970, p. 452 and Shaul Stampfer, The Lithuanian Yeshiva, Jerusalem, 1995 (Hebrew), pp. 44, 145ff., 241, 260-261.

5. In general, see Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. Rabbinical Seminaries, Vol. 13, cols. 1463-1465.

6. I am translating from a copy of the ordination certificate of Rabbi Max Hoffman, which was given to me by his son Dr. A. A. J. Hoffman of Fort Worth, Texas in November 2000.

7. Introduction of Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to Euclid, The Hague, 1780. For a good survey of sources on the rabbinic attitudes towards secular education, see the pamphlet Hayahass L’limudei Hol Bayahadut, Hakibbutz Hadati – Ne’emaney Torah Va’avodah, 1983. Regarding the debate over secular studies among the students of the Vilna Gaon, see Raphael Shuchat, The Torah U-madda Journal 8 (1998-1999), pp. 283-294.

8. See Sh. Heksher in: Ish Al Ha’edah, Jerusalem, 1973, pp. 169-174.

9. David Golinkin, Responsa in a Moment, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 79 and notes 5, 7.

10. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 2 (5747) (Hebrew), pp. 61-66.

11. Rabbi Berel Wein, The Jerusalem Post, November 12, 1999, p. B9.

12. See Rabbi Rosenthal (above, note 1), p. 112 and cf. Rabbi Dov Katz (above, note 3), p. 308 for another version of this aphorism.

13. Christhard Hoffman and Daniel Schwartz, Leo Baeck Yearbook 36 (1991), pp. 267-283.

If you are interested in reading past issues of Insight Israel, please visit the Schechter Institute website at www.schechter.edu.

Appeared originally in Hebrew in Eretz Aheret.
Reprinted in The Schechter View Volume 3, No. 3
December 2003
Posted with permission

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Prof. David Golinkin is the President and Rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at golinkin@schechter.org.il. The opinions expressed here are the author's and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

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