The Rabbi

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


It is Good to be a Rabbi - But Not Among the Jews

      The Hebrew word rav means great. It has also been used to mean “master” so that rabbi literally means “my master.”  In the generation of Hillel, who lived 2000 years ago, the title Rabbi came to mean a wise man or a sage.

      The title Rabbi is used in the Talmud to refer to those who interpreted or expounded the Torah and the oral law. These rabbis earned their livelihood by a variety of occupations. Not until the Middle Ages, as historians like to call the epoch between the fall of Rome (325) and the fall of Constantinople (1453), were rabbis paid for their services as teachers, preachers and decision makers. It was also during the Middle Ages that rabbis first became spiritual heads of their communities and congregations. In eastern Europe, where most Jews lived until the Holocaust, rabbis were also secular heads of the Jewish communities in the Russian Empire, including Poland.

      During the 1,000 year history of Jewish life in Europe, the great scholars and interpreters of the Torah were men of high standing and great social reputation. These rabbis were the founders of what is now called Orthodox (Greek for “straight belief”) Judaism. The rabbis were also judges, basing their decisions on Talmudic interpretations and precedents. By the 11th century rabbis were elected by many Jewish communities.

      Before the 19th century these rabbis never carried a priestly function. This means that marriages, burial ceremonies and blessing of the people were the personal inclinations of some rabbis but were not universally performed. It was only with the recognition of the rabbi by secular authorities that these acts became an integral part of the rabbi’s duties as marriage and divorce took on legal aspects which rabbis were authorized to perform.

       Preaching and scholarship were then the most important function of the rabbinate. All rabbis were and are equal in authority as Judaism knows no hierarchy. (Greek = holy rule). It was only the scholarly charisma (gift) of every rabbi that promoted the reputation of some rabbis over others. Because it was thought that the Torah should be taught free of charge, the title rabbi was for centuries only honorary.

      There were, however, some great scholars whom some communities wished to appoint as rabbis but who needed to earn a livelihood. Therefore, a few of these truly outstanding scholars were paid for their services as a substitute compensation for what they would have earned in their ordinary occupations.

     Beginning with the fourteenth century there were more and more paid rabbis who held   diplomas, signifying proven knowledge and excellence of character. These rabbis were then appointed by the secular, non-Jewish government and paid by the state. That was true in Germany until 1935, two years after the Nazi takeover. Since then, and now, rabbis receive a fixed salary and emoluments for functions performed. This system continues in the United States today as the rabbi is now an employee of the congregation.

     With the exception of the Chasidim and some orthodox congregations, the American rabbi is no longer expected to be a scholar. In fact, a recent survey of the expectations that American Jewish congregations have of their rabbis placed scholarship last among 12 characteristics held important. The most important attributes of a rabbi in contemporary America are youth and programming skills. Community involvement is also considered very important by American congregations when judging the competence of their rabbi, as is “executive leadership”, similar to business acumen.

    As the income of rabbis has increased, the authority of the rabbi has eroded in the U.S. There are now rabbis in this country who earn upward of $100,000 per year. These rabbis, found mostly in Reform and some Conservative congregations, are expected to be “ambassadors to the ‘goyim’” and community organizers.  Their erstwhile function of religious leader is generally fulfilled by a congregational “religious committee” which consists of congregational members inclined to make religious decisions.

     Rabbis are often accorded little honor or respect. Here is an excerpt from a letter written by a practicing rabbi to his congregation. “ criticize the rabbi in the presence of  children is to demean the only model of the Jewish heritage which many of them have. To publicly and frequently carp on his shortcomings real and imagined is to jeopardize  the unity and stability of the community of which he is the prime mover. To treat the rabbi as the meanest of servants rather than as the spiritual leader is to show the Jewish and general communities a lack of regard for the tradition which he symbolizes….”

    When in 1972 Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement to become the first woman rabbi in America, she led a movement now also encompassing  Conservative Judaism. It may well be that this development will lead to greater honor and respect for this central role in Judaism. If so, more of our young people will want to undergo the long and arduous preparation for this calling. Until then we will however have to agree to the sarcasm that “ it is good to be a rabbi - but not among the Jews.”


Shalom u’vracha.


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