What is a Rabbi?

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.

While most can identify a “Rabbi” as a Jewish religious leader, few if any can provide a thorough definition as to what makes a rabbi. Professionally, most ordained Rabbis do not serve congregations from the pulpit. Some are employed as teachers, educating Jews from children to senior citizens. Others in federations work towards organizing or supporting specific Jewish social causes. Then there are the “non-practicing” rabbis, who upon completing their ordination, went to work in the business world.
Even among the practicing rabbis, there exists no universal mechanism for evaluating competency or bestowing additional authority. There is no central body of Judaism to determine the qualifications for ordination. There are countless rabbinical schools worldwide spanning several denominations, each with its own standards. Within smaller religious groups, some rabbis are more respected than others and consequently, are understood to wield a greater degree of religious authority.1 Despite all rabbis possessing the same title, not all rabbis are created equal.

For observant Jews, this ambiguity may carry dire religious consequences. On one hand, Jews should supposedly follow their religious leaders to guide them in proper practice. However, when one hears conflicting opinions from different sources, how does one know what should be done? Were one to follow the “incorrect” rabbi, then s/he could transgress fundamental laws of Judaism.
A common solution offered to this problem is one of following “accepted rabbis.” Simply put, if lots of other Jews find this Rabbi authoritative, then logically you should too. The authority is derived through some tacit social acquiescence. Furthermore, some proponents of this theory continue that you as an individual – be it laity or even a lesser rabbi – lack the autonomy to challenge or disagree with those who are superior to you. Rather, one should “have faith in the sages” that they are correct, or minimally beyond the scope of whatever questions you might have.

However, there are several problems with this mentality. First, the reasoning is circular – the rabbis are accepted because the people respect their authority; and people should therefore only respect the accepted rabbis. Conveniently, people always and only follow “accepted rabbis.” QED

Furthermore, there are no qualifications for which communities are included in this process. An argument along the lines of “the frum community” gets to chose is also circular in that “the frum community” must follow its selected rabbis in order to be called “frum” in the first place.

Finally, this model presents an inconsistent role the masses play in determining Jewish law. Laity and lesser rabbis cannot determine halakha themselves, but somehow, they know enough about Jewish law and its procedures to bestow such an honor to someone else. They aren’t trusted with Jewish law, but they can somehow offer their own ordination of “acceptance.” Consequently, defining the role and authority of the rabbi based primarily on communal mores and tastes leads one to even greater questions as to the nature of Jewish law.

To fully realize what the role of the rabbi ought to be, we must consider why and how it was established from its inception In truth, the Rabbinate was an invented institution. During the second temple period, the Sanhedrin created the title to provide a degree of objective authority and to combat the rise of sectarianism. Initially, it was the Sanhedrin which had the right to ordain the rabbis, but was later transferred to the Nasi, finally settling on a joint approval. While there is no indication of the objective standards used to qualify as a Rabbi, the primary value was placed on knowledge above all other criteria.2
Most of the rabbis recorded in the Talmud lived after the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, and consequently did not have the same formal “ordination” as their predecessors. However, though lacking the title “rabbi,” the Talmudic sages established the rules and limits for the those in what could be called a “rabbinic” position.

Most discussions about Torah sages emphasize the Talmudic statements describing how they should be treated by the laity. One should fear your teacher as one would fear heaven (Avot 4:12) and one who violates the words of the sages is worthy of death (Berachot 4b). However, few discuss the obligations placed on someone in such a position. As a representative of Torah, the rabbi is held to a higher social standard. This includes being careful not to trouble the congregation (Berachot 31a), being courteous with everyone he meets (Yoma 86a), and dressing in a refined manner “a sage who is found with a grease stain is worthy of death.” (Shabbat 114a) Because the Rabbi is in a position of leadership and power, he must also take on its responsibilities. The honor is not intrinsic to the person, but to the Torah which he represents.

Additionally, while the sage is often compared to the Torah itself (Y. Moed Qatan 3:7 83b), the Talmud does acknowledge that some sages do in fact deviate from the torah mistakenly (Ketuvot 64b) or even intentionally (Haggigah 9b). In these cases, the public obviously does not follow the wayward rabbi for the honor of torah supersedes that of the rabbi.
This ethic is expressed explicitly in the dictum, “?? ???? ??? ???? ??? ??? ?????? ???? ???” – wherever there is the desecration of God’s name, we do not defer honor to the Rabbi. The Talmud provides three examples of where this ethic could be applied. First, if a rabbi realizes he is wearing a forbidden garment (shaatnez), he must remove it even in public (Berachot 19b). The other two examples allow for intervention when one sees Jewish law being violated. Ravina taught a law in front of his teach R. Ashi to prevent someone from sinning (Eiruvin 63a) and Pinhas unilaterally executed the deviant leaders of Israel (Sanhedrin 62a) and did not give deference even to Moses.

For the Rabbis, there is an objective Torah and halahka to which even they are held accountable. Even the sages of the Sanhedrin were limited by rules and regulations for their innovations or reinterpretations – all of them had to conform to objective principles (Hullin 2a-b).

With the popular model of communal acceptance, Rabbis could essentially create their own laws willy-nilly. For one extreme example, the Conservative movement permitted driving in a car on Shabbat to go to synagogue. Like most of Conservative halakha, this highly controversial position was not simply mandated, but a formal responsa had to be written, debated, and approved by its committee before it was established as normative. If one is born and raised in the conservative movement, thereby following the halakhic interpretations and rulings of his rabbis, then Orthodox Jews would not be able to claim the person is violating Shabbat, for he is simply following his rabbinic leadership.

While most Orthodox Jews would probably argue with this conclusion, most function similarly. When a rabbi – modern or medieval – contradicts the Talmud, it is written off either as a different interpretation or done based on the “secrets of the sages and those with understanding.” Or as the Yom Kippur service3 continues, ????? ??????? ?? ?? ??? (Psalms 25:11 – paraphrased).4

Ultimately, the goal of the Rabbi is not to maintain his own honor or even the honor of the institution of the rabbinate but to facilitate the teaching of Torah. R. Shimon Ben Azai lacked the ordination of his colleagues, but his wisdom was unquestioned and was consequently treated as a colleague (Sanhedrin 17b, Kedushin 49b). Even the sages who instituted the rabbinate realized that their creation was secondary to the importance and Truth of Torah.

1. While there is an additional semikha of “Yadin Yadin” for civil laws, there is no distinction in title. Furthermore, the lack of this ordination doesn’t always prevent other rabbis from ruling on civil matters.
2. While Brachot 27b, mentions wealth, pedigree, and age as reasons for not appointing different people to head the Sanhedrin. However, this was a case where all candidates were relative equal in wisdom. The other factors would lead to greater respect, but would be meaningless if they lacked the wisdom.
3. Slichot, actually.
4. Yes it’s an attempt at a joke. And no, I’m not going to explain it.


  1. Meredith
  2. Daniel
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