What does it all mean?

Dear reader,

I saw this very interesting compilation of explanation (divided by Jewish denomination) in Moment.  The question is asked, ‘what is the rabbi’s role in modern [North] America?’

Please read it, and let me know which of the opinions you like best, or find the most accurate.  I will give my opinion tomorrow.

Ask the Rabbis, a forum that appears in each issue, provides a rare opportunity to read the opinions of rabbis from across the spectrum of Judaism. Its purpose is to illuminate the diversity within Jewish thinking and create a cross-denominational discussion that leads to deeper understanding.

What is the Rabbi’s Role in Modern America?


The rabbi’s role today should be no different than it was yesterday: to teach. Not give sermons about current events and politics but to re-introduce the richness of our tradition to the hordes of thirsty congregants who crawl reluctantly to shul desperate for a smidgen of a chicken peck’s worth of spiritual grain. They’re starving out there, and in too many instances rabbis have become spiffy CEOs instead of disheveled rebbes. The rise of the new gods, Google and Wikipedia, now challenges us further, offering easily accessible information on Judaism that does not require synagogue attendance. We have today more rabbis who in turn have less time, and in many cases have ceased studying, thus possessing less teachings to share. Gird thy loins, O thou who callest thyself Rabbi. Get thee forth, fifth and sixth, and climb back up the Holy Mountain to receive once more and to give twice as much, lest the people murmur and return to Egypt (instead of your Israel tour).

Rabbi Gershon Winkler, Walking Stick Foundation, Thousand Oaks, CA


The classical role of the rabbi as teacher and philosophical guide persists, but more rabbis are taking on additional job duties as community organizer, fundraiser, if not CEO. In some congregations and organizations we can add the job of webmaster. The Internet has taken over all aspects of our lives, no less our Jewish ones, and is a boon, not a threat. If we believe in promoting Jewish literacy for all Jews and not keeping this the private privilege of rabbis who will mediate for the people, then the web is an incredible tool for spreading knowledge, a ready resource for quick answers as well as learned essays. Our job, no different than it was before, is to point people in the right direction, to reliable sources and useful readings. The web has also become the portal that newcomers are likely to visit before even visiting our congregations or organizations. They can “shul-hop” without leaving home. It is critical that our own websites convey the excitement, principles and unique quality of our institutions to fleeting visitors.

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, New York, NY


I am so grateful to be a rabbi today in America, where Judaism is being renewed both with reverence for the past and creative love for the future. I wake up each day and ask God, “How can I be useful? How can I serve?” And then I listen, opening the eyes of my heart. I see the role of rabbi as a spiritual “calling.” I am called to bring healing, inspiration, pleasure and meaning, first to myself and then to this thirsting world. I do this by drawing on the riches of my inheritance. Our ancestors bequeathed treasure upon treasure in the form of story, law, culture, music, the Holy Days, Shabbat, prayer and, most importantly, a language with which to talk about the great mysteries of life. My job is to receive these treasures and pass them on in forms that are compelling and beautiful. I address these challenges as teacher, spiritual leader, social activist, healer, shaman, performer of ritual, facilitator, prayer leader, comforter, scholar, ethicist, historian, community organizer, social worker, prophet, philosopher, theologian, resource-person, fundraiser, administrator, guardian of tradition, Kabbalist, mentor. Jewish information may be readily available on the Internet but living a Jewish life depends on more than information. My role as a rabbi is to glean wisdom, seek the essential and re-interpret Torah in ways that speak to this world that I love.

Rabbi Shefa Gold, C-DEEP: Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice, Jemez Springs, NM


When someone says “I need a rabbi,” what do they mean? Amid personal challenges, they need a spiritual counselor. For a Jewish legal question, they need a scholar. If they feel adrift, an activist or organizer could be useful. Rabbis today perform all these functions and many more but so do other people. The difference between rabbis and lay people, when discernible, is of levels of Jewish learning, of training, of immersion, not of kind. Rabbis may have the title and office, and hopefully the time and the commitment, but knowledge and passion are available to all. Unlike many other religious traditions, Judaism is not sacramental—anyone can lead prayer, officiate life cycle events, interpret texts and lead a community. As rabbi, I hope to be a guide and a goad, steering people toward greater Jewish involvement and empowering them to do what I do: study Torah, visit the sick, facilitate community, support one another, work for justice. These actions are mitzvot, incumbent on all. Still, as Judaism has evolved, so have expectations of the modern rabbinate, summed up in the old adage “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Rabbis are pastors and prophets, managers and muckrackers, continuity and change-agents. We are co-creators of a covenantal community who need our congregants as much as they ever need us.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD


For all the mind-bending cultural, social and technological changes that recent decades have brought, the rabbi’s essential and indispensable role remains constant: to teach, to preach, to counsel and to enrich and deepen the significant moments of people’s lives. Indeed, it is this very combination of roles that makes the rabbi’s opportunity unique: to be able to affect the entire person—the mind, the heart and the will, in moments of strength and triumph and in moments of weakness and pain. The deeper the rabbi’s involvement in the lives of the members of the congregational community as trusted friend, as admired fellow traveler and as source of insight and direction, the greater the opportunity to teach, to preach and to comfort. This means that we have the opportunity to offer our people a conception of life in which the needs of the moment and the call of eternity, the requirements of the individual and those of the community are all given their due in the one institution of Jewish life that combines them all in the promise of a life of wholeness. This is, and always has been, the sacred calling of the rabbi.

Rabbi Roger Klein, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Cleveland, OH


A pulpit rabbi should be a leader with a vision. Her vision sets the direction for the congregation’s future. She should seek out lay leaders to join her in creating a compelling and relevant community. We are blessed to live at a time in history when there is a State of Israel. A rabbi should help those around her learn about Israel, creating connections between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel. A rabbi should study Jewish texts regularly. She cannot effectively teach or lead if she is relying only on what she learned in rabbinical school. A rabbi should be prepared to re-examine issues that are challenging the Jewish community. Over time, the needs of the community will change and a wise rabbi will be prepared to change her views. A rabbi should nurture her own spiritual self. In order for a rabbi to help others experience God’s presence in their lives, she must devote time and attention to her relationship with God.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, Temple Beth El, Springfield, MA

Modern Orthodox

We are living through a historic shift in the role of rabbis. As higher education spreads to the masses, people become more secular. Religion (or faith in God) will not disappear, but God is more hidden in this new world. The religious action will be in “secular” activities. Examples: uncovering God’s presence among the poor and oppressed and bringing them faith-motivated social justice; healing the body—the physical icon of God’s presence—by working with the miraculous genetics and bodily systems to cure illness; establishing just and loving relationships with family, friends and all humans because we “fear God” and honor the image of God in every person; giving over information to enable people to make good judgments in everything they do. In the past, people turned to rabbis for authoritative answers from the tradition. Now people feel competent to apply values to their daily work and to their secular (but actually religious) activities. If the rabbi claims authoritative and definitive knowledge and demands obedience, he/she will have little credibility. Nor will threats be effective—i.e. that God has decreed certain actions/rituals and will punish non-compliance. The wise rabbi will shift from stressing institutional authority to serving as teacher, from decider to enabler and seek to persuade by the power of wisdom and to influence by personal role model. Many will serve in non-synagogue settings. Enabler/teacher, role model, conduit of God’s presence—this is the rabbi’s role in the age of secularism.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, New York, NY


Many a sage has attempted to define the role of a rabbi with reference to a specific facet of rabbinical duty. They have claimed that the essential function of a rabbi is either teaching the Torah, battling the perpetrators of injustice, comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick or inspiring the weary. I believe that, in fact, all of these components of the rabbi’s job description are the expressions of a single, underlying mission with which he has been charged—namely, to sanctify the name of G-d. When a rabbi teaches Torah, the beauty and majesty of the Creator’s wisdom is made manifest. By the same token, when a rabbi refuses to tolerate persecution, oppression or injustice, and when a rabbi lends a hand to the downtrodden, supports the fallen and remembers the forgotten, he brings recognition to G-d whose Torah inspired him to behave in this manner. Ultimately, the successful rabbi is one who, by his words and deeds, demonstrates an understanding of and commitment to the Path of God which is then studied, imitated and emulated by others.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof, Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, MD


In the United States, labels—including that of rabbi—mean less than anywhere else in the world: Jews are, thank G-d, seeking that which is meaningful to them, presented in an authentic and uncontrived way. The advantage of being a Chabad House or pulpit rabbi is the ability to cultivate growth in a person, a growth compounded by understanding and trust, only developed through consistent contact over an extended period of time. The more experience you have in a given community, the more attuned you are to the crucial subtleties of its members’ needs. As a responder on Chabad.org’s Ask-the-Rabbi team, I am able to meaningfully serve a worldwide congregation while connecting them directly with their own communities. At Chabad at Harvard, the web renders us available to our students and alumni wherever in the space-time continuum they may fall. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that every advance in human knowledge is driven by divine providence. Its purpose is to enhance our ability to make our world a place where G-dliness finds a home. The ubiquity of Judaic knowledge on the web is a prime example of this. With the web, Judaic knowledge reaches untold numbers who would never have been connected. People acquire knowledge of Judaic practice on the web and seek out “bricks-and-mortar-rabbis” to participate.

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Scholar-in-Residence, The Chabad House at Harvard, Boston, MA

About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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