The Role of the Rabbi in a Democratic Jewish State

By Rosenstein, Marc J. | Cross Currents, March 2015 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Rabbi in a Democratic Jewish State


Rosenstein, Marc J., Cross Currents


Rabbi, literally "my master," evolved as a model of communal leadership after the loss of Jewish sovereignty and the destruction of the First Temple. In the Jewish state in biblical times, there were kings, priests, and prophets, but no rabbis. It would have been reasonable to expect the Jewish nation to disappear with the end of sovereignty and the scattering of the people to the Diaspora, and likewise, the termination of the Temple cult might have been expected to represent the end of the Jewish religion. However, starting in the Hasmonean period and coming to full development after the destruction of the Second Temple, a new structure began to arise, to replace the biblical state: the semi-autonomous Jewish community, which actually fit well into the corporate structure of medieval society. The community was not a homeland, but it was a sort of state within a state, with a well-defined (though sometimes unstable) relationship with other communities and with the state authority. This closed, semi-autonomous setting allowed the Jews to preserve both their ethno-cultural heritage and to live significant aspects of their lives according to the Torah (Jewish religious law).

The survival and thriving of this community required a two-part leadership structure, based on two sources of power and authority: political power and Torah. (2) Since the survival of the community depended on the relationship with the non-Jewish government, Jews who were wealthy and therefore had access to the corridors of power in the outside world became key leaders of the Jewish community. They were the intermediaries between the community and the Gentile environment--which made them, in a way, the "secular" rulers of the community. At the same time, the raison d'etre of the community was to fulfill Jewish destiny by living according to the laws of the Torah as interpreted over the ages by scholars. These scholars were therefore also indispensable for the survival of the community. While the criteria for ordination varied over time and place, the title Rabbi refers to one whose knowledge of traditional text is sufficient to enable him to state authoritatively the correct application of the Torah to everyday life.

This division--or sharing--of power between rabbinical and lay (usually oligarchic) leadership began under Roman rule and characterized Jewish life throughout the Diaspora until the present. This pattern was challenged by the modern breakdown of the autonomous community-and then upended by the creation of a Jewish state in 1948. Suddenly, Jewish life was to be lived (again) under a Jewish state government. The role of the lay leader as the intermediary with the Gentile government seemed no longer relevant; indeed, the creation of a state called into question the role of the community, which had originated as a "replacement" for the state when sovereignty was lost. Zionism was a secular national movement that saw Jewish religion and religious law as Diaspora phenomena that would fade away as the state reclaimed its centrality from the community. For this and other reasons outlined below, the ideal role of the rabbi and the nature of rabbinical leadership in a Jewish state are not at all clear. In this paper, I will present an overview of the historical development of the rabbinate, explore how that development intersects with the reality of a Jewish state, and propose a model for the role of rabbinical leadership in this state.

1. The Rabbinate: A Historical Overview

[Until the third quarter of the 20th century, the rabbinate was a purely male profession, hence the use of male pronouns throughout this paper.]

The mainstream ideology of the Jewish tradition until the modern period was based on the belief that God revealed the Torah to Moses and the entire people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, and that this book of law constituted a covenantal obligation: The people's living according to the law was the condition for God's continued protection and favor. …

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