The term rabbi literally means "my master" and is derived from the Hebrew noun rav, meaning "great." Although the title does not appear in the Bible, its origins may be traced back to the rabbinic period in Jewish history arising, according to some scholars, after the destruction of the Second Temple. It was at this time that several generations of sages created a vast oral tradition that ultimately gave rise to a great literature in Judaism known as the Oral Law (which includes Mishnah, Gemara, Tosefta, Baraitha, and Midrash). The role of the rabbi then was completely different from what it has become. Originally, the title did not denote a full-time occupation but rather was used to distinguish those teachers who were properly authorized to function as interpreters and expounders of the Bible and the Oral Law. It was only during the Middle Ages that rabbis began to assume additional responsibilities, including preaching, teaching, and serving as the spiritual leader of the local congregation or community. As communal expectations and demands on rabbis increased, the custom of providing rabbis with emoluments developed, and in time the office of rabbi emerged.
The importance of local rabbis as communal leaders continued to evolve as communities increasingly relied on their rabbinate for guidance in a wide array of civil matters. Local rabbis assumed responsibility for the supervision of marriage and divorce proceedings, arbitrating moral dilemmas, and adjudicating legal contentions on the basis of their knowledge of Jewish law. In addition to these tasks, rabbis were expected to devote themselves to the study of the sacred texts in order to increase their wealth of knowledge.
In modern times the character and function of the rabbinate was again transformed primarily in response to the era of emancipation. As governments of various countries, particularly in Western Europe, granted Jewish residents the rights of citizenship during the nineteenth century, rabbinic authority in matters of civil jurisprudence waned. The more Jews acculturated within the general society, the more their rabbis were expected to possess a wider scope of knowledge. Although some rabbinical schools (called yeshivot) refused to modify their traditional curriculum, new rabbinical seminaries with a more comprehensive curriculum began to emerge. Relaxing the traditional emphasis on the study of Jewish law codes, these modern seminaries began to expose their students to the study of Jewish history, literature, philosophy, and homiletics. In time rabbis were expected to possess at least some familiarity with secular studies.
The role of the rabbi during modern times varies considerably from country to country in accordance with local conditions and needs. There are, however, a number of key responsibilities that the majority of modern rabbis have in common: teaching, preaching (in the vernacular), pastoral work (visiting the sick and officiating at life-cycle events), broad participation in the social life of the community, representing the Jewish community to the larger community, and serving as a spiritual leader and role model.
From the onset rabbis in the United States have been expected to play a leadership role in a diverse array of cultural, social, and political activities that transcend the strictly religious and educational functions traditionally placed within the rabbi's purview. The modern American rabbi, like other religious leaders in the United States, is also called upon to serve as a personal counselor, a leader in the field of human relations, and an advocate for social justice within general society. American rabbis are expected to interpret Jewish tradition not only within the Jewish community itself but also to the community at large.
The rabbinate in the United States acquired a particularly distinct role, one that derives from the nation's unique cultural, political, and sociological characteristics. Separation between church and state, for example, has prevented one segment of the Jewish community from acquiring sanction or official recognition from the government. This situation contrasts with that of some European countries and the modern State of Israel, in which there developed a system of rabbinical hierarchy recognized by the state. This notion of a head, or chief, rabbi may be traced back to the fourteenth century, when the position of the mara de-atra ("the master of the locality") arose. In modern times this role has been formalized in various rabbinic offices such as that of the Landrabbiner (Germany), the Chief Rabbi (Great Britain and Israel), and the Rosh Yeshivah (Poland and Lithuania). In contrast to these practices, the vast majority of American rabbis do not submit themselves to the religious authority of another scholar.
The influence of congregationalism, the democratic spirit, and voluntarism—all so prominent in the religious life of the American nation—has also contributed to the rabbinate's distinctive features: U.S. Jewry embraced the notion that each congregation has, as a matter of principle, the right to exercise control over its own affairs. In the American synagogue members assume an equal right to direct their institution in accordance with their own convictions. Membership as well as participation in the synagogue is voluntary, not compulsory. In light of these characteristics, American rabbis must rely heavily upon the force of personal persuasion, as opposed to a licensed or imposed authority, in their efforts to exert spiritual leadership.
On the eve of the American Revolution, American Jewry—small in numbers—was already highly acculturated and entirely at home in the life patterns and general outlook of the fledgling nation. During the early national period there were no ordained rabbis in the New World. American Jewry relied largely upon knowledgeable laymen who served as religious officiants. Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745/6–1816), for example, served as the "minister" of Shearith Israel Congregation in New York from 1768 to 1776 and again from 1784 to 1816. Emanuel Nunes Carvalho (1771–1817) served as "minister" of Beth Elohim Congregation in Charleston from 1811 to 1815. In the 1830s Jewish immigration from central Europe increased, and a number of talented "ministers" (sometimes referred to by the title hazzan, which roughly meant "reader") left Europe in order to work in the United States. Among the most significant figures to come to the United States during this period were Isaac Leeser (1806–1868), who served as "minister" of Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia from 1829 to 1850, and Samuel Myer Isaacs (1804–1878), the hazzan of B'nai Jeshurun Congregation in New York from 1839 to 1847.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, American Jewry was large enough to attract ordained rabbis (rabbis with semikhah, a certificate of ordination) to its shores. The first ordained rabbi to settle in the United States was Abraham Rice (1800/2–1862) who arrived in 1840 and, shortly thereafter, was invited to became the rabbi of Congregation Nidche Israel, better known as Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. In 1845 Max Lilienthal (1815–1882) arrived and, after serving as the rabbi of a short-lived union of New York's German congregations and then as a schoolmaster, he became the rabbi of Cincinnati's Bene Israel Congregation in 1855. Undoubtedly the most significant rabbinic figure of the second half of the nineteenth century was Isaac Mayer Wise (1819–1900), who played a pivotal role in the creation of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873 (the oldest association of synagogues in the United States), the Hebrew Union College in 1875 (the oldest rabbinical school in the United States), and in 1889 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the country's oldest rabbinical association).
After 1880 an unprecedented number of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe began to arrive on these shores, and the number of American rabbis increased dramatically. Like the community they served, a significant percentage of these rabbis were themselves immigrants, and over time tensions developed between the rabbis who had trained in eastern Europe and those who had studied in the United States. Eventually, an ever-increasing number of American rabbis received their rabbinic education from an American institution of rabbinic learning such as the Hebrew Union College (which merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1950), the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1886), the Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary (1896/7), the Hebrew Theological College (1922), or the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1968).
Many rabbinical organizations have been established in the United States to support the professional needs of the American rabbinate, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly (originally the Alumni Association of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; 1901), Agudath Ha-Rabbonim (the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States, the oldest Orthodox rabbinical association in the United States; 1902), the Rabbinical Council of America (1935), and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (1974).
In 1972 the Hebrew Union College ordained Sally J. Priesand, thereby making her the first woman in Jewish history to obtain rabbinic ordination from the faculty of a rabbinical seminary. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ordained its first woman rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, in 1974, and in 1985 Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordinee of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are today approximately 4,500 rabbis currently employed in the United States; 1,850 associate themselves with the Reform Movement, 1,300 with the Conservative Movement, 1,000 with Orthodox Judaism, and 250 with the Reconstructionist Movement. A growing number of rabbis have acquired their titles by private ordination, and these individuals frequently serve synagogues or groups that choose not to associate themselves with one of the four primary movements in American Judaism. Of the 3,400 rabbis who align themselves with a movement that ordains women rabbis (Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Judaism), approximately 500, or 15 percent, are women.
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Gary P. Zola