The pre-modern rabbi generally could be found either at an academy of learning, often as a rosh yeshivah, or as a participant in the local bet din.
As part of the effort to prove Jewry worthy of modern-day citizenship [“emancipation”], Jews recast the rabbinate into a culturally more suitable clergy role, e.g., the spiritual leader within a specific congregation.
The synagogue rabbi became the conduit for explaining age-old Judaism into a relevant parlance [sermons, bulletin articles, newspaper essays, pamphlets, books, on social media, and in guidance in matters of Jewish law].
The congregational rabbinate was transformed into the vehicle for bringing the Jewish heritage into the awareness of children and teens [Synagogue-based Religious Schools and adolescent groups], and ultimately for Men’s Clubs and Sisterhoods and Adult Education.
The rabbi also evolved into “the personal rabbi” of synagogue member families. The rabbi was to be called upon to personalize Jewish living by officiating at a congregant’s life-cycle rites of passage: bestowing names at birth, bar mitzvah, weddings, and funerals.
The synagogue rabbi gradually assumed additional “pastoral roles,” visiting ailing congregants, comforting the mourners, and providing counseling for folks navigating life’s multi-fold challenges.
The rabbi additionally assumed leadership beyond the walls of the congregation: within his or her religious Movement, in dialogue with clergy of other faiths, and in engagement with civic leaders.
In sum, the congregational rabbi[s] provides a spiritual, educational, communal Vision for shaping the path for achieving the synagogue’s Goals and overall Mission.
The modern rabbinate emerged into a widely respected position. Middle and upper middle-class Jews have sought to recruit and then hire the best qualified and most effective rabbinic leader[s] for their community.
As with the legal and medical professions, professional rabbinic association arose as a means of insuring proper credentials and maintaining standards of practice. The professional goals of the CCAR, the RA, the RCA, and the RRA followed this pattern.
Each “Assembly” has expanded the pool of practical rabbinic knowledge. Each has produced or endorsed its own liturgical publications. Each has offered pedagogic guidance for its rabbis to supervise elementary Jewish education, and to employ as sermonic resources. Each association has come to play a vital role within the Jewish Religious Movement it serves.
An example of this rabbinic professional associational impact has been the track record of the Rabbinical Assembly. The RA provides Conservative/Masorti rabbis with a sense of shared purpose via conventions, workshops and newsletters, Siddurim and Humashim, Jewish Law Responsa, publications offering Theological Reflections, as well as with in-service training and job placement. The RA and its membership continue to connect colleagues to one another in person, in print, electronically and through shared interests and personal needs.
Within the spectrum of Jewish Religious Pluralism-in-general, the RA plays a Centrist role, being both Traditional and Egalitarian. The RA has sought to bring a Both/And alternative to Either/Or thinking: Both Tradition and Change; Both Law [halacha] and Ethics [aggadah]; Both Zionism and strong Diaspora Jewish communities; Both Keruv Jewish Outreach to the Intermarried] and Endogamy [Helping Singles Who seek to Meet Jewish Spouses; Both Faith and Openness to Doubt].
The RA was founded in 1901 initially as the Alumni Association of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1918, the association changed its name to the Rabbinical Assembly, opening itself up to rabbis ordained at institutions other than JTS. This intake has occurred when a rabbi ordained elsewhere served in an affiliated Conservative Movement institution and is recommended for admission by current RA members. Intake also occurs via the Movement’s newest rabbinical schools – e.g., Seminario [Buenos Aires], Schechter Rabbinical School [Jerusalem], Ziegler [LA] and Frankel [Pottsdam, Germany], as it did during certain years of the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary.
During the past 120 years, the RA has grown substantially from barely a dozen JTS alumni into in international professional rabbinic association of 1,700 Conservative/Masorti Rabbis.
The largest concentration [1,358] of RA members currently reside in the USA. Many RA members live and serve elsewhere. Notably hundreds live in Israel. Including many retirees. 66 RA members live within the Latin American Region, 44 are present within Canada, 33 within Europe , 5 inside Australia and several in Asia and Africa.
The RA’s membership encompasses diverse careers, moving beyond the congregational rabbinate alone. The RA includes 600 rabbis serving congregations; 100 serving in diverse educational positions; another 400 rabbis work in realms as diverse as chaplaincy, university positions, Jewish communal agencies; and so much more. Three hundred RA colleagues are retired, although many retirees still serve part-time in rabbinic endeavor. Other RA members remain connected even while doing work outside of the rabbinate.
The RA provides religious cohesion via its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. The CJLS validates opinions [occasionally more than one] as responses to ongoing halachic dilemmas. Acknowledgment of diversity has been evidenced by the formation of RA Regions both inside the USA, as well as outside [e.g., Israel, Canada, Latin, America, and Europe]. Regional Law [Halachah] Committees have emerged when needed, notably in Israel, Latin America and Europe.
The RA also provides essential leadership for the allied institutions of the Conservative/Masorti Movement:
- Congregational bodies – United Synagogue [North America] – Masorti Movement in Israel – Masorti Olami [Latin America, Europe, FSU, Australia, Asia, Africa]
- Youth Movements – USY [North America], NOAM Israel, NOAM Olami, Ramah Camps. Solomon Schechter Day Schools, Hannaton Educational Center
- Young Adults – Marom Olami, NATIV, Conservative Yeshiva, Reshet Ramah, Masorti On Campus
- Academic Centers – JTS, American Jewish University, Seminario, Schechter Institute
- Zionist Activities – Mercaz Chapters in the USA, Canada and 13 other countries
- Auxiliaries – Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs
The RA as well as Conservative/Masorti rabbis take leadership roles in Jewish Communal Life, for example:
- The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations
- The Jewish Agency for Israel
- Keren Kayemet LeYisrael [JNF]
- The World Zionist Organization
- IJCIC – the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations
As noted by a Conservative Movement historian Pamela S. Nadell, “The new rabbinic ideal draws upon the traditional roles of the rabbi as student, scholar, saint and interpreter of Jewish law and tradition… But it also expects the … rabbi to be an educator and administrator, the director and programmer for his or her multi-faceted congregation, and a spokesman for the local and national Jewish community… The result has been the transformation of the … rabbinate … into a distinguished and respected profession.”
Rabbinical associations like the Rabbinical Assembly have played the decisive role in responding to constant alterations in the institution of the synagogue, in global Jewish religious movements and in aspects of Jewish life-in-general. We live in challenging times. Inevitably, the roles of the rabbinate will continue to evolve. Supporting and shaping these necessary changes will be the Mission of professional associations, like the RA.
As affirmed in the RA Strategic Plan, its professional rabbinic association mission is:
- Supporting and Strengthening Rabbis
- Being a Force for Civility, Pluralism and Good in the World
- Creating a Modern 21st Century Organization