This will be the final post in the impossibly named series I called Rabbi Week. Today, I’d like to discuss what I consider to be the major misconception of the Rabbinate, and wrap things up with some thoughts as to what the future might hold.
Category Archives: Rabbi Week
Thoughts on the rabbinate
I’ve recently written about different aspects of the Rabbinate, mostly in the abstract. Aside from describing the challenges of the profession, there hasn’t been much about the personal side to the Rabbinate. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, especially considering my first year as a Rabbi, and spending the past few weeks at home reminded me of the many dimensions of a Rabbi’s life.
That, and I’m currently stuck in an airport.
The past few years haven’t been good for the image of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinate. From the Lanner scandal and subsequent OU cover-up, to the most recent frustrations with YU, it isn’t surprising to find Modern Orthodox Jews who are suspect if not disgusted with the institution of the Rabbinate. I’ve personally heard claims of malicious dishonesty, where if you’re part of the “old-boys club,” you can get away with whatever you want.
Most Modern Orthodox Jews will blame the “system” or Rabbinic intstitutions for perpetuating a corrupt system. The Rabbis are simply looking out for themselves, and so continue the patterns of dishonesty though their schools and organizations. But while there may be some merit to this position, it fails to address why such a system is allowed to exist and to continue. Assuming that the Rabbiniate is as bad as some people say – a presumptuous suggestion in its own right – then what would the factors be that caused this unfortunate situation?
If you’re reading this blog, odds are you’ve read something about Jewish Law. You might have seen one of the many codifications such as the Mishnah Torah or Shulhan Aruch. Perhaps you’ve come across a commentary on one of these codes, common ones being the Ramo or Mishnah Berurah. You may have even read published rabbinic teshuvot – responsa addressing specific questions – like Yehaveh Da’at by R. Ovadia Yosef or the Iggros Moshe by R. Moshe Feinstein. Contemporary publishers such as Feldheim or Artscroll compile popular positions of Jewish Law on selected topics. All these works contain Rabbis’ opinions, rulings, and occasionally reasonings for their halakhic decisions. In all of these works, the Rabbinic writers intend to shape Jewish practice – albeit to different degrees depending on the intended audience and the intended effect of their decisions.
If you’ve seen these types of sources, you’re also probably aware that for any given issue, there are multiple opinions. Considering all the halakhic debates, it’s hard enough deciding whom to follow, let alone making a decision for other people. Each posek has his own methodologies for reaching his conclusions, and to fully understand each one requires a complete and detailed study of their individual works. However, all “poskim” share similar challenges in publishing their works. One such challenge is distinguishing normative Jewish Law with statements of public policy.
Of the positions in the orthodox rabbinate, perhaps the two most noticeable and influential are those of the Rav and the Rosh Yeshiva. The Rav is more commonly known as a “pulpit rabbi” and is employed by a community to oversee and establish religious policy for his congregation.1 The Rosh Yeshiva is not necessarily the “head of the school” as its title translated,2 but rather is a Torah scholar who often teaches those who will eventually become Rabbis.
In contemporary halakhic disputes, it is not uncommon to find these two groups on opposite sides – especially regarding modifications to existing practices or customs. A Rav may wish to innovate, and a Rosh Yeshiva would wish to preserve the status quo. The real question is not the nature of the new or modified practice, but who has the real authority to promote change in normative Judaism.
This is what would have been part one of the comically misnamed Rabbi Week. Yes, I’m back writing, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get everyone out in a week’s time. Many apologies for the delay. I might even write something at a later point about it, but it does get somewhat personal. At any rate, better late than never.
Let the fun begin.
For most of my life, I have been involved in the rabbinate. I grew up with a father who was a pulpit rabbi for almost 20 years. I was in the YU system for 7 years, studying with many rabbis-in-training and eventually becoming ordained myself. Most recently, I served as intern for at the “Bridge Shul” in Washington Heights.
Between my varied experiences with the rabbinate, my studies this year, and the evolving nature of the profession, I have been constantly refining my thoughts on the rabbinate. This week, I?ll be posting a series of essays about the rabbinate based on my studies and experiences from just about every perspective.
I have decided to organize my thoughts into three or four posts. The first will be about the Rabbi as an abstract institution, focusing on the halakhic role and authority of a contemporary Rabbi. Then I will address the realities of the current state of the rabbinate, including the nature of communities and how it effects the future of rabbinical schools. Finally, I?d like to elaborate on the existential side of being a rabbi while maintaining a personal identity (such as it is). If there is time or interest, I might add in a post on why I made the educational decisions that I did. I?ll probably conclude with a post responding to comments.
Disclaimer: Although I will focus on the pulpit, I will not be referring to any specific community or congregation in particular, but to my collective experiences.