Rabbinate: The Rabbinate in Modern Judaism

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The modern rabbinate is a product of the Enlightenment and of the political emancipation of the Jews in western and central Europe. Under the influence of such Enlightenment ideas as natural human rights and the concept of the nation-state, Jews in those areas were gradually emancipated from their medieval status in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century and became the political equals of their Christian neighbors.

The emancipation process was slow, however; it varied from place to place in some particulars but was regarded as a two-way effort everywhere in western Europe. For their parts, the governments of these countries recognized Jews as the political equals of their fellow citizens. On the other hand, Jewish communities no longer constituted a "state within a state" as they had in medieval times, and rabbis no longer possessed legal authority and judicial power. In addition European rulers expected the Jews to transform themselves into modern citizens by giving up traditional garb, learning to speak the vernacular, abandoning the Yiddish language, and familiarizing themselves with modern European culture. Under the leadership of such individuals as Moses Mendelssohn (17291786), Naphtali Herz Wessely (17251805), and Israel Jacobson (17681828), Jews began to accept the educational and social standards of Western modernity; as a result, the need for a progressive rabbinate educated in secular universities soon became apparent to all.

To fill this need, rabbinical seminaries were created throughout Europe, first in Padua in 1829 and later in Metz (subsequently transferred to Paris), Amsterdam, London, and other large cities. In Germany, where the movement for religious reform was strongest and was led by such rabbis as Abraham Geiger (18101874), there were ultimately three such seminaries: the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, espousing what would now be called a Conservative theology; the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, which served primarily a Reform or liberal constituency; and the Orthodox Hildesheimer Seminary, also in Berlin. The curricula of these institutions were quite different from those of traditional yeshivot, in which the Talmud and the Jewish legal codes constituted almost the entire object of study. The new seminaries naturally saw the Talmud as paramount but also taught the Hebrew Bible, midrash, history, homiletics, pedagogy, and other subjects relevant to the modern rabbinate. In addition the seminaries usually required their students to enroll in secular universities at the same time that they were in rabbinical school. Most of these seminaries were disbanded or destroyed during the Holocaust (19331945). Contemporary European rabbis are generally are trained in England, France, or Hungary, where seminaries still exist, as well as in the United States and Israel.

The United States

Although the American Jewish community traces its origins to the year 1654, there were no ordained rabbis in the United States until the 1840s. In colonial America, where all the synagogues followed the Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) ritual, religious services were led by a hazzan (cantor), who had generally been trained in London, Amsterdam, or the West Indiesthe exception being the well-known Gershom Mendes Seixas (17451816), who was born and educated in New York City. With the large-scale immigration of Jews from central Europe in the three decades before the Civil War, however, there was a growing need for ordained rabbinic leadership. The first ordained rabbi to come to America was Abraham Rice (18021862), who arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, from Bavaria in 1840. Throughout the nineteenth century the American Jewish community was served by spiritual leaders who often lacked formal rabbinical ordination. The outstanding leaders in this period were Isaac Leeser (18061868), a traditionalist who served at Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia from 1829 to 1850, and Isaac Mayer Wise (18191900), a reformer who came from Europe in 1846 and served congregations in Albany and Cincinnati down to 1900. These men worked tirelessly to promote the practice of Judaism in the United States through their translations of Jewish texts, composition of educational materials for children, and establishment of newspapers with nationwide circulation.

In 1875 Wise and his supporters founded the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, which continues to train Reform rabbis in the early 2000s. In response the traditionalists, led by Sabato Morais of Philadelphia, Isaac Leeser's successor, established the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City in 1886. The seminary still serves the Conservative movement of the twenty-first century. The more traditional Orthodox, whose numbers were soaring as a result of the immigration of Jews from eastern Europe, established the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, also in New York, in 1897. The seminary is the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University as of the early 2000s. To complete the picture the Reconstructionist movement established the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside of Philadelphia in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, in 1968. Together with a number of smaller rabbinical seminaries, some of which are nondenominational, these schools train the great majority of pulpit rabbis in the United States. In addition there are many traditional Orthodox yeshivot, such as the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, that also provide rabbinical training; however, the graduates of these institutions generally do not serve congregations.

With the push for gender equality that began in the 1960s, the more liberal branches of American Judaism began to call for the ordination of women as rabbis. The idea was not a new one, going back at least to the 1880s; indeed Regina Jonas (19021944), who had graduated from the Berlin Hochschule, was privately ordained in Germany in 1935. The first American woman to be ordained was Sally Priesand, who graduated from the Hebrew Union College in 1972. Two years later Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinate College. After a prolonged and often bitter debate, the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary opened its doors to women rabbinical students in 1984. Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained at the seminary in 1985.

Prior to the emancipation era, rabbis generally served entire communities rather than individual synagogues. In the modern world, however, rabbis are hired by individual congregations. Although such European nations as England and France have chief rabbis, attempts to introduce a rabbinical hierarchy in the United States proved unsuccessful. In the nineteenth century rabbis were generally poorly paid and subject to the whims of congregational officers, who often had little respect for the rabbinical office.

Throughout the twentieth century, however, the rabbinate came to be regarded as a learned profession: rabbinical salaries were increased, benefits and vacations became the norm, and national rabbinical organizations were created, which helped to raise the prestige and status of their members. The modern American rabbi is called upon to fulfill many roles that premodern rabbis never envisioned: he or she is often a marriage and family counselor, a provider of adult religious education, an administrator, a school principal, and a participant in ecumenical or interfaith activities. In small communities the rabbi is sometimes the only Jewish religious professional, and rabbis in small synagogues are often called upon to serve as the cantor, Torah reader, and bar and bat mitzvah instructor as well. Many rabbis do not serve in pulpits but rather work as educators, chaplains, directors of Hillel Foundations on college campuses, or in other positions of service in the Jewish community. In general American Jews regard their rabbis as role models of faithfulness to the Torah in the congregation or other constituency.


In Israel the situation of the rabbi is generally different from that of the rabbi in the United States; in many ways it resembles that of the premodern era. In Israel religious affairs are controlled by the office of the chief rabbinate. There are two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazic (for people of central eastern European origin) and one Sephardic. Rabbis in Israel, with the exception of the traditional Orthodox and the rather small number of Reform and Conservative rabbis, are all employees of the state. Most Israeli rabbis are products of the traditional yeshivot ; few have attended rabbinical seminaries. Some serve as judges in the rabbinical courts, which have legal jurisdiction over such matters of personal status as marriage and divorce, whereas others serve as supervisors of kashrut (maintaining the dietary laws), ritual baths, and other public institutions. Israeli synagogues are financed by the government; members do not join by paying dues as they do in North America. Consequently Israeli rabbis tend to have fewer pastoral duties than do rabbis in Europe and North America, and their relationship with the people who worship in their synagogues is often far less personal. On the other hand, non-Orthodox synagogues in Israel are generally patterned after those in North America, with members paying dues and usually having close relationships with the rabbi.

The Hasidim

In the Hasidic world the spiritual leader of the community is known as the rebbe. Hasidism traces its origins back to Rabbi Israel, the Baʿal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), who lived in Podolia in the southwestern Ukraine in the eighteenth century. He was a charismatic leader credited with performing a number of miracles. The modern Hasidic rebbe, always male, also is a charismatic individual, whose influence over his followers comes from the sheer force of his personality and aura of holiness. Although the rebbe is generally a learned rabbi, his position, which is often inherited from his father, does not depend upon his interpretations of Jewish law, for there are traditional rabbis in the Hasidic community who deal with such matters. Rather, the rebbe is often thought to be a person of keen human understanding whose closeness to God enables him to provide leadership, guidance, and advice to his followers. In some cases, his powers of intuition are thought to verge on the supernatural. The most influential Hasidic leader of the twentieth century was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (19021994), known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who initiated a global Jewish outreach program that was especially successful on college campuses.

See Also

Baʿal Shem Tov; Hasidism, overview article; Leeser, Isaac; Mendelssohn, Moses; Schneerson, Menachem M.; Wise, Isaac M.


For a general view of the rabbinate, the reader is referred to Simon Schwarzfuchs, A Concise History of the Rabbinate (Cambridge, Mass., 1993). The emancipation era is thoroughly described by Jacob Katz in Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 17701870 (New York, 1978). On the American rabbinate, see the entire issue of American Jewish Archives 35, no. 2 (November, 1983): 100-341, specifically Jeffrey S. Gurock, pp. 100187; Abraham J. Karp, pp. 187262; David Polish, pp. 263341, for lengthy articles dealing with Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis in the United States. Also see Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven, Conn., 2004). The issue of women's ordination is the subject of Pamela S. Nadell's Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 18891985 (Boston, 1998). The modern Israeli rabbinate is described in Schwarzfuchs, Concise History, and in M. Hacohen and Y. Alfassi, "Rabbinate of Israel," in New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, edited by Geoffrey Wigoder (Madison, N.J., and Cranbury, N.J., 1994), vol. 2, pp. 10811084. On the Hasidic rebbe, see Jerome R. Mintz, Legends of the Hasidim: An Introduction to Hasidic Culture and Oral Tradition in the New World (Chicago, 1974).

Robert E. Fierstien (2005)

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Rabbinate: The Rabbinate in Modern Judaism

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Rabbinate: The Rabbinate in Modern Judaism