Rabbi’s role is to teach and lead community
by Faith Schuster
Apr 18, 2013 | 4658 views | 0 0 comments | 354 354 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Faith Schuster
Words of  Faith
Faith Schuster Words of Faith
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Just a short time ago the whole world waited, watching for smoke coming from a chimney in the Vatican. For the first time in 600 years, a Pope had resigned. The choice of a successor was a matter of great concern not only to Catholics, but to people of all religions (and no religion) throughout the world. This led me to think about how Jewish spiritual leaders are chosen and what their role is in a community.

According to dictionary.com, a rabbi is ‘the chief religious official of a synagogue, trained usually in a theological seminary and duly ordained, who delivers the sermon at a religious service and performs ritualistic, pastoral, educational, and other functions related to his or her capacity as a spiritual leader of Judaism and the Jewish community.”

As so defined, a rabbi serves a community in much the same way as a priest or minister or pastor serves a congregation. The big difference is that a Jewish congregation does not require a rabbi, nor can one be appointed by any central authority. There is no single overall “chief rabbi” in charge of, or speaking for, all Jewish people and practices, although some countries and cities (e.g., France, England; Tel Aviv, Montreal) give the title “Chief Rabbi” to a recognized religious leader who then may speak for that community.

“Rabbi” is a respectful title given to a person distinguished for great learning. It may be interpreted as master or teacher or judge. A rabbi is not a priest, neither in the Jewish nor the Christian sense of the term. In the Christian sense, only a priest has authority to perform certain sacred rituals. A rabbi, on the other hand, has no more authority to perform rituals than any other adult member of the Jewish community. In the Jewish sense, “priest” refers only to a descendant of Aaron, charged with performing various religious rituals and rites in the days of the Temple. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., there have been no priests in Judaism, and rabbis have taken over the spiritual leadership of the Jewish community. In the Talmudic era (the third to sixth centuries CE), a rabbi’s role was to teach the scriptures and the oral and traditional laws to members of a community. It was an honorary unpaid position.

In modern times, a rabbi is a teacher educated in Jewish law and tradition so that he can instruct the community, answer questions, and resolve disputes regarding halakhah--the body of rules and practices that mark the path an observant Jew follows. In this sense, the rabbi’s role is similar to a Protestant minister’s role – leading community religious services and attending to the needs of the community. A person’s status as rabbi allows him to conduct religious services, but any Jew who knows what he is doing can lead a religious service and the service is every bit as valid as a service led by a rabbi. It is not unusual for a Jewish community to be without a rabbi, or for services to be conducted by someone other than a rabbi, or for members of the community to lead all or part of religious services even when a rabbi is available.

You may have noticed the use of masculine terminology herein. Until quite recently, only men have been rabbis and only men could lead services. Women could attend services, seated separately from the men, and not even counted in the minyan (the “quorum” of 10 men required for certain prayers). This is still true in the Orthodox branch of Judaism, but the Reform and Reconstructionist movements and, more recently, the Conservative movement, have introduced gender equality into their practices.

Once women were counted in the minyan, it was not too huge a step to ordaining women as rabbis. The Reform and the Reconstructionist movements have ordained women rabbis since the early 1970s, lately joined by the Conservative movement. These branches of Judaism now also ordain women as cantors--the official who sings or chants the liturgical portions of a service and leads the congregation in songful prayer.

Instead of, or in addition to, a rabbi or cantor, a Jewish congregation may choose to have a lay person lead the congregation in prayer. Theoretically, any Jewish person over the age of 13 can function as a lay leader, called a shaliach tzibbur (masculine) or shlichat tzibbur (feminine), but the role is usually taken on by a mature person with a good knowledge of Jewish prayer and a good voice. Folks who attend synagogue services fairly regularly may be called upon to serve as lay leaders every now and then, or to lead special services such as weddings, baby namings, and funerals, or a community may employ a shaliach tzibbur as its sole spiritual leader.

Over the years, my congregation, the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, also known as Congregation Shir Heharim (Song of the Mountains), has had rabbis (both male and female) and lay leaders (both male and female).

Currently, the congregation is led by shlichat tzibbur Kate Judd, a soon-to-be-ordained cantor. Kate and I and the congregation would be happy to meet and welcome guests to our services and other events. You can visit our website, www.bajcvermont.org, to learn more about us.

Several nearby congregations employ rabbis: Jarah Greenfield at Beth El Congregation in Bennington, Amy Loewenthal at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Keene, Rachel Barenblat at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, David Novak at Israel Congregation in Manchester, Ilene Haigh at the Woodstock Area Jewish Community. All of these leaders would be happy to welcome guests, and all have websites you can visit online.

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