As a profession, the rabbinate as we know it is a creation of the modern era.
The title itself goes back thousands of years, to the times of the Mishnah and Talmud. “Rabbi,” or “Rav,” was commonly used to designate a teacher of Torah, someone who was clearly more learned in the sacred texts than the average person, and whose opinion on matters of Jewish law and practice therefore carried special weight. By and large, across denominational lines, it is still true today that a rabbi’s authority derives from his/her knowledge of Torah and its related sacred texts.
But since the beginning of what is generally considered to be the “modern era” of Jewish history, when the Jews of Europe left the ghettos to live and work among the other populations in their countries, the job of the rabbi has changed. Once the challenge of Jewish living was to be defined as striking a balance between tradition and ever-encroaching modernity, the rabbi became the primary agent for interpreting that balance and how to best achieve it, along with retaining the authority that comes with expertise in the tradition itself.
It is tempting to assume that this might be true only of non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, in which the tradition/change dialectic is most acute. Actually, that is not the case. All modern Jews, with the arguable exception of the Haredi world, struggle with questions of balance. Were that not true, the concept of “modern Orthodoxy” as opposed to “ultra-Orthodoxy” would have no resonance. Modern implies an embrace of modernity. How that affects the aforementioned dialectic is the all-important issue.
I was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1981, which seems like a lifetime ago. Enough time has passed that I don’t remember every fine detail of my years as a rabbinical student. One thing, however, that I do remember well is the conceptual framework of our training. The message that was submitted subliminally, and sometimes explicitly, was that there was “us,” and there was “them.” “Us” were the leaders who were bringing Torah and Jewish life to those whose role it was to follow. “Them” were the “Jews in the pews” who were, according to the script, to incorporate them into their daily lives.
Both in concept and in reality, the framework was almost entirely vertical. Authority flowed from the top down, Torah and ordination were the basis of authority, rabbis were to lead, and Jews were to follow. Even the architecture of synagogues reflected this, as the clergy were often seated on an elevated bimah, with congregants both literally and figuratively lower.
If one fast-forwards from then to now, it is clear that the landscape of the Jewish community has changed dramatically, and with it the role and responsibilities of the rabbi, and also the cantor.
What was once universally accepted as a vertical, authority-based relationship between rabbis and congregants has now, if you will, rotated ninety degrees to become a horizontal one. The relatively new, so-called “independent minyanim” eschew clergy almost entirely, preferring to be self-led than guided by a professional, and even the more traditional models of synagogues, while still led by professional clergy, have seen an increasing democratization of authority within the synagogue. In the Orthodox world, the great democratization of Torah learning for both men and women has led to a laity that increasingly challenges the unique religious authority of the rabbi, a significant reason for the shift to the right within Orthodoxy in the past ten to twenty years.
In my own Conservative movement, the aging-out and, ultimately, death of the generation that bridged the transition from pre-war Europe to this country has given rise to a younger synagogue leadership that is not, by and large, characterized by the same reverence for k’lei kodesh – literally the holy vessels – as rabbis and cantors were regularly referred to in Europe. The rabbi/cantor has, to a significant degree, come to be seen more in a corporate, human resources sense than a uniquely religious one, as laity seeks to assert its own voice in the religious path of the Jewish community.
None of this is, per se, either “good” or “bad” for the Jews, to quote the oft-repeated line. It is, simply, the reality. What it has done, necessarily, is create the need for significant revisions in how rabbis and cantors are to be trained in order to effectively service today’s Jewish community. In the contemporary Jewish world, it is significantly less important to be a great rabbinic preacher – a quality that was much prized among congregations in previous generations – than it is to be a great teacher of Torah. Intimacy reigns in today’s Jewish world, and the art of oratory, while certainly still valued, and useful, is not at all as crucial a rabbinic tool as is the ability to teach Torah off the bimah in a variety of ways, and connect with people more personally.
Similarly, it is certainly true that classical Hazzanut, or cantorial music, has been overwhelmed by the desire of today’s younger Jews to sing and participate in the service, rather than be sung to in the traditional expression of prayer and piety. In many ways, that transformation has impacted the cantorate far more dramatically, and debilitatingly, than the shift in rabbinic roles. With a few notable exceptions in select synagogues, the cantorate and its glorious music is existentially challenged as a career. An incredible treasure trove of Jewish music is threatened along with it.
These changes impact directly on me and on my profession, but I cannot help but feel that they are simply an organic new chapter in the unfolding story of our incredible tradition. When I was coming of age, the Havurah movement challenged established synagogues to adapt to the wider changes going on all around. The culture of the 1960’s came to the synagogue world, and shook it to its foundations. Then as now, a quest for intimacy and spirituality was what propelled that change. In real time, today’s challenges to the synagogue world aren’t all that different. Without a doubt, what emerges from this new kulturkampf will in turn find itself challenged by a new generation of Jews in thirty or forty years. So goes the world.
And through it all, the story of this remarkable, resilient and enduring religion we call Judaism will endure, as it has for thousands of years. Its survival is, without a doubt, one of the great sagas in recorded human history. Through changes and challenges, I am proud to be a part of that saga.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.