The Rabbinate

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Rabbis Now And Then

“Rabonim” are products of their heritage, their belief systems, their schooling, their culture, their personalities, the expectations of their congregations and their survival “instinct”. They can be beloved, hated, maligned and criticized. They are in the public eye and therefore are in the eye of the beholder. They are frequently the target of the wrath of individuals and sometimes, less often, the glorified substitute of the Almighty. They are human beings like all of us with the faults and foibles that beset all of humanity as well as the need to be loved and adulated.

If a Rabbi is a great scholar, has much knowledge, gives meaningful sermons and interpretations from the Torah but does not become too close to the congregants he is considered a “cold fish”, “full of pilpul.” If he is a man who is too friendly and “touchy, feely” he is considered a molester. If he pays attention to only the important members of the congregation, the rich and powerful, he is frowned upon and scorned by those who are left out of the rabbi’s attentions. If he can’t remember the names of each of his congregants he is inconsiderate and uncaring. In short, our modern rabbi has to be all things to all people. He must be there for the sick, the old, the unhappy. He must teach, visit the hospitalized, remember the accomplishments of his members and their children, he must honor those who were appointed to some major or minor task and must forever praise those who exist within his flock. He must be able to heal to be a master on the pulpit, must be able to emote naturally and with feelings, aware of the needs of the modern world, never forget where he came from and who is paying his bills. He must not be arrogant but grateful and humble but not dress in less than a suit because he must represent authority.

Looking back at the rabbinate, we see a Stubel in Poland where the Rabbi, with a long beard, chanted the prayers, studied the Talmud and had a roomful or a few men surrounding him “schockling” back and forth. Or on occasion he had a woman asking him a “Scheinle” (a question) about some food which had a defect and was thus declared “traif”. Or we see the “Grosse Synagoge” in Germany before 1935 where the Rabbi had a high black or white Kipah (Yarmekel) and in a loud stentorian voice led the congregation. He was revered and adulated and was the unquestioned leader of his beautiful Schul and the all knowing of all secular and religious questions that were presented to him. European rabbis were mostly paid by taxes and were not dependent on individuals to support them. This led to less pressure on the leaders of congregations. 

Arthur Hertzberg in his book A Jew In America so aptly describes the training of Rabbis in the education he received from his teachers in the Theological Seminary and the humanness of these brilliant and great Rabbis and scholars. They were human beings who vied for power, had their own opinions, beliefs and personalities. As a young scholar he became discouraged while searching for the thirty six holy men (and women) who are described in the Talmud as being responsible for the survival of the world. He realized that the Jewish Theological Seminar was a place where the professors/rabbis were human beings who like all others were political beings jostling each other for position.  He had hoped that at least one or two were present in disguise at this place of learning. Hertzberg also learned about the cruel unfeeling side of congregants and the unfortunate role and helplessness of the rabbi who was attempting to be just and insightful. During the second world war when Jews were being murdered, Rabbi Hertzberg, Arthur’s father, pleaded with his congregation to travel in a group to Washington to persuade President Roosevelt to help the remaining Jews in Europe. They not only refused the Rabbi but fired him promptly.

The role of today’s Rabbi is a more challenging and difficult one than it has ever been. He not only must balance his convictions with those of the expectations of the modern world, retain the tenets that are so much a part of the Jewish religion, of his conscience of his need to earn a livelihood, be a good husband and father, a giving person and all the sacrifices that go with the many demands of the rabbinate. He must be learned, be able to write, to please the congregants and to be an entertainer all at the same time.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (publ. 2002)

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