is Good to be a Rabbi - But Not Among the Jews
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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. “..to 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
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
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.”